Plus the one SIMPLE thing that will help the most.
By Heather Petri.
My 12-year-old son lives with mental illness. His first diagnoses, ADHD, came at the age of 5.
Subsequent diagnoses have since followed, beginning at age 9, when he was treated via outpatient hospitalization for five weeks for depression and mood instability.
I openly discuss and write about our experiences as we’ve traveled this journey. All in the hopes that more people will be educated about mental health, and fewer will continue to stigmatize it.
My experience in sharing this journey is most often met with compassion and love from others. They ask questions, seem interested in learning more, and are mostly very supportive of my son and our family. Most people are well intentioned when discussing, but often, uneducated about mental illness. And that lack of education can lead to statements that can be hurtful or harmful for the loved ones of people living with mental illness.
I believe that most people I talk to about our experience with mental illness are coming from a good place, with a warm and helpful heart. They don’t want to see us in pain and want to say something that will make us feel better and less alone. I understand this and fully recognize this.
And yet, sometimes, the things they say hurt our feelings or leave us feeling frustrated or misunderstood.
Based on this experience, I decided to write a list of things one should NOT say to parent whose child lives with mental illness. This list, while not all inclusive, covers some of the most common things people have said to me about my son and his mental illness, over the last several years.
1. Oh, he’ll be fine. It will all be fine.
First of all, how do you know this? How can you be so sure? Because there’s simply no way for you to know this. You are not all-knowing. Unless, of course, you are God or a teller of fortunes. In which case, can you give me the lottery numbers for this weekend’s Powerball?
But seriously, when you tell me this, I know you mean well. Because you want it to be fine. And I do, too. But truthfully, these are empty words. And in fact, it feels a little dismissive. It feels like you think I’m just whining or something.
What you should say: “I wish I could tell you it would all be fine, that he’ll be fine, but I know we don’t know that. So … how can I help? What do you need? Can I give you a hug?”
2. Boys will be boys.
No. Mental illness does not equal “boys will be boys.”
Are you saying that all boys are mentally ill? Are you saying that boys have moods that fluctuate so massively that one day they are so depressed they state they don’t want to be on this Earth any more and the next, they are standing on the roof of your home because they just love watching thunderstorms and think they can fly?
This statement, “boys will be boys,” just simply isn’t true.
What you should say: “I know he’s growing and changing and it must be hard to understand what is happening and how you can support him. So how can I support you? Can I give you a hug?”
3. He’ll grow out of it.
That’s not how it works. This isn’t like wetting the bed and learning how to go potty in the big boy toilet.
He may learn how to cope and manage the illness, but it is very unlikely he will “grow out of it.” It’s a nice, optimistic thought, of course, but just not reality. And again, are you all knowing? How do you know this to be true?
What you should say: “I know you may be worried about how this could impact him in school and as he grows older. How can I help you through this? Can I give you a hug?”
4. I have this friend who has a friend whose brother’s kid has some kind of mental illness.
Well, that’s nice to know. How does that help me? And my son?
What you should do: Here’s the thing, if you’re offering to connect them to another parent who is struggling with a similar situation, then this is cool. Just know we may or may not want to or be ready to connect. And yes, it is nice to not feel so alone in the battle, because, oh my gosh, do we feel alone so much of the time.
The casual mention of six degrees of separation to someone who may have a similar situation does me no good. If you DO know someone in a similar situation (and by know I mean that you can get in contact with them in one call, email or text), then it may be nice to ask if they’d like to be connected to one another.
5. Don’t we all have mental problems? Aren’t we all a little crazy?
No. Please, do not minimize the trauma, pain, hurt, crisis, frustration, anger, sadness that we’ve been going through by trying to state that we are all “a little crazy.”
First, it perpetuates stigma. Second, it makes me feel small. Third, it hurts. Because it feels like you are dismissing what we are going through. Which is Hell.
What you should say: “I’m hearing more about children being diagnosed with mental illness. This must be so hard. What can I do? How can I support you? Can I give you a hug?”
6. Aren’t you afraid of him?
No. I am not. Please don’t make the assumption that all people living with mental illness are violent and potential criminals. This isn’t true. The majority of people living with mental illness are victims more than perpetrators. So please don’t perpetuate the myth and stigma.
And, it’s hurtful to insinuate that my child is violent. My son is tender-hearted and loving. He’s also kind and generous and many other glorious things. He is not prone to violence or hurting others. His mental health diagnoses do not automatically mean that he will become a violent person.
What you should say: “How is he doing? How can I help? Can I give you a hug?”
7. We all have our bad days.
Again. No. When you have a bad day, do you reach for a scissors on your desk and cut yourself? Do you take off your long sleeved shirt and tie it around your neck so tight that you cut off the air to your brain and almost pass out? When you’re having a bad day, do you fall into a corner and make yourself as small as possible and become completely non-verbal? No. Probably not.
Do we all have bad days? AB-SO-LUTE-LY. But this is NOT the same thing. So please don’t infer that your extra long commute, spilled coffee and missed meeting are the same thing as my child who lives with and fights multiple mental illnesses that can debilitate him to the point of self-harm and a desire to “not be here anymore.” Please. Do not equate those two.
What you should say: “I wish you didn’t have to go through this. It must be hard. How can I support you and your family? Can I give you a hug?”
8. He looks normal to me.
STOP. Right there. STOP IT. Are you a doctor? Are you a psychiatrist? No? Then respectfully, SHUT THE HELL UP. (Yes, I’m yelling. This one gets me a little fired up.)
And even if you were a psychiatrist, you wouldn’t be able to diagnose my child in one glance. So why would you try when you haven’t been trained? Would you look at a cancer patient who hasn’t lost their hair and say, “Well, you still have hair. You can’t possibly have cancer!” No. You wouldn’t. So please, please, please — don’t look at my child and assume you can diagnose their physical and mental condition in one glance. Just don’t even say anything close to this.
What you should say: “I can only imagine how hard this is for your family. How can I support you? Can I give you a hug?”
9. You’re not putting him on meds, are you?
Please. Again. With the judgment and the all-knowing statements. STOP. Because I don’t ask you or tell you what meds or vitamins you should be taking, right? So unless I specifically ASK YOU for your opinion on giving my child medication to treat their mental illness, DO NOT GIVE IT.
What you should say: This must be hard, how can I support you? Can I give you a hug?”
10. You probably just need to be a little tougher on him. You know, get a little more strict.
Right. Because it is all my fault. Is that what you are saying? He’s just a behavior problem?
See, here’s the thing. Much of mental illness is about having too much or not enough of certain chemicals in your brain. As far as I know, me parenting “better” will not stabilize those chemicals. So shut it.
Again, this statement makes me feel judged and inadequate as a parent. And guess what? I DON’T NEED ANY MORE HELP FEELING INADEQUATE AS A PARENT. I can pretty much tell you with some certainty that most parents of children living with mental illness already question what they should or could do differently to help their child. We do NOT need any help feeling guilty or shamed. Period.
What you should say: “I’m thinking of you. How can I support you? Can I give you a hug?”
It is important to note that this post is from my point of view only. I don’t pretend to know what all parents of children living with mental illness may need or want to hear. But I think, if a parent or another loved one of someone living with mental illness opens up to you, it is because they want you to know their story, their pain, their journey. They NEED you. In which case, the best thing you can do is love them and show up with compassion.
Don’t pretend to have all the answers or know what they are going through. Ask questions. Ask how you can help, what you can do. And guess what, that loved one may not know what you can do. They may look up at you with blank eyes and say, “I don’t know,” because some days, it’s all we can do to just get out of bed and put one foot in front of the other.
So if they don’t know how you can help, don’t give up on them. Ask again at a later date. And just let them know they are not alone, that you are there for him.
Sometimes, just knowing that can get us through.
And it’s important to note again, the thoughts and the intentions of others to try and relieve or share my pain through their words and actions is appreciated. My intent of writing this isn’t to criticize, but rather it is to cope and to educate. To express and share. Many have asked how they can help. Becoming educated about mental illness helps. Doing what you can to eliminate stigma, helps. Reading and sharing this with those you know, helps.
And hugs. Hugs help too.