Confronting A Crisis: When You Don’t Know How To Help Your Child

We worry about so many things as moms that we later realize we shouldn’t have worried about, but sometimes we’re hit in the face with something even scarier than we imagined. It’s not easy to accept and share the realities of this, but I believe that clarity is crucial for moms to thrive. Learning about someone else’s situation may provide the kind of clarity that is often lacking during a crisis because we don’t know what to expect.

How can we think straight when our children are in danger? That’s what I’m going through in my life, and I’m ready to share my pain. This may be very disturbing for others, so please don’t continue if it will cause you fear or nightmares. I just want others to recognize some signs that I didn’t recognize myself.

Two years ago my daughter was diagnosed with mental illness when I finally realized something was seriously wrong and took her to the ER. If you are ever facing a situation with a child who seems like they won’t or can’t get out of bed, but they are not physically sick, it might be something more than rebellion. And if you think your child desperately needs therapy, but you are having a hard time getting them in to see someone because there are long waiting lists or you don’t have insurance, it is okay to go to the ER. I never knew this was a place to turn when your instinct tells you something is very wrong with your child but there are no medical symptoms.

After ER doctors determine your child is suffering from a mental illness like depression or anxiety, it is likely you will get bumped up to the top of the lists and will then be able to see a therapist and a psychiatrist right away and find out if there are medications that could help.

And even if you go down this road and the therapy and medications don’t seem to be helping, keep trying. I had no idea that many people with mental illness try 5 or 10 or more different medications over the course of years before they find one that works well for them, and the same with therapists and psychiatrists. It is common to switch to different doctors to find one that really clicks with your child. 

Despite all your best efforts, if your child is still struggling, it is important to keep an open mind about options that doctors may discuss, including programs that offer four hours of treatment per day, eight hours of treatment per day, and even hospitals that require patients remain at their facility 24/7 for a few days or a few weeks, depending on progress. 

Kids with mental illness often need professional help that we as parents can’t provide, as much as we want to try to solve their problems and heal their wounds. You wouldn’t operate on your child if they needed an appendectomy, so you’re likely not the best one to guide them through the landmine of mental illness.

It’s not unusual for kids with mental illness to seem like they are being disruptive, disobedient, impulsive, moody, detached, and lazy — sometimes all in one day. You may want them to “snap out of it,” so they can continue down the path you always envisioned for them — to get good grades, stay involved in activities, maintain friendships, attend family events, apply to college. But these same things that used to be important in your child’s life could suddenly cause them anxiety, and they may not be showing that on the outside. But if they are feeling it on the inside and not coping with those feelings, it can be dangerous.

This year has been tough on everyone because of COVID, but it is so hard on our children. They are not able to socialize in the usual way, and humans have a biological need to interact with other humans. Being a teenager used to mean lots of parties and events, but for some students this year it means spending a lot of time alone in a room.

If your child tells you everything is okay, but doesn’t want you to see their grades or talk to their teachers, that is a sign. Don’t miss signs like that because you don’t want to believe there is a bigger problem. I know. I’ve missed some signs myself. And if you have a perfectionist or overachiever type child, you may not realize how something that seems so little and minor to you can seem so earth shattering to them.

Instead of trying to continually figure out how to get them to do what you want them to do or what you think is best for them, it’s important to take a step back and find out if you are listening to what they really want. You may think you know what they should be doing to confront their issues, but you are not in their head. And the conversations they could be having with themselves could be tormenting them if they are conflicted between what they want and what they know you want.

Recognize when things seem out of the norm for your child, even something as simple as waking up early if they never do that. If you have a teen who is not responding to your texts and calls after an extended period of time like hours, that is a warning sign. Ask their friends to reach out to them. If no one can get a hold of them, and they are missing an important event or appointment, it is appropriate to get others involved, maybe even contact police. Don’t worry about what others will think. Focus on the safety of your own child.

The day my daughter left to get coffee at 9 am and didn’t return for an appointment at 10 am, I was annoyed at first. When an hour or two passed and no one could reach her, we reported her missing. I immediately started trying to track down every person she’s ever interacted with, and my mind raced in so many different directions. When something like that happens, take time to slow down and think logically. You can get caught up in the scariness of things you hear on the Internet, like kidnapping and online predators. You may be missing signs that are right in front of you.

If your child is on medication, ask yourself if they have missed any doses. Ask all her friends and anyone she knows if they have an idea where she might be. It seems obvious that if you contact them, they would share this. But not necessarily. You have to ask the right questions, and let them know no one will be in trouble if they share a secret — not them and not your child. If your child has ever talked about suicide, take those comments seriously. Even if it was only once, or if they mention it all the time. Even if it was something they said in a casual way and didn’t seem to mean it. Sometimes the most dangerous person in your child’s life is themselves. It’s hard to realize this when you are facing a crisis.

Whether you are before, during or after a crisis, it’s important to try to understand your child’s perspective, even if what they say doesn’t make sense to you. I’m sharing this in order to help other moms who may question a comment or situation that seems unusual. I hope no mom reading this ever, ever faces a similar circumstance that I did when my daughter went missing.

And if you have a child who is a perfectionist or overachiever, recognize that is a risk factor for disorders like anorexia, social anxiety, self harm and depression. Maybe you can take some steps now to help her prioritize happiness and friendship over grades and activities. Maybe you can catch signs that she is getting overloaded before she hits burnout. Maybe you can give yourself some grace if you didn’t see it coming and you’re now facing a nightmare. I know you’re trying you’re best, and that’s going to have to be good enough. Stop trying to be perfect for your sake and your kids’ sake. They are watching.

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