Self blame. “This is our default, as parents,” says Angela Franco, mom of four. Having been diagnosed with clinical depression, with two kids likewise getting treated for depression, she admits, “I didn’t worry much (about my son) because I knew there was help; therapy and meds… With my daughter, I worried kasi nagself-harm siya… There was guilt here kasi… She must’ve seen it from me.”
Many Factors, Many Ways
I sat with Dr. Aurorita Roldan, former dean of U.P. College of Home Economics and faculty member of its Department of Family Life and Child Development, seeking answers to how parents should respond to their child’s mental health issues.
She discourages any self-evaluation: “The world is…big and small at the same time in the sense that children get a lot of input, not only from parents, but also from the environment… I think it’s simplistic and it’s not right for someone to blame oneself, because there are so many factors at play—their peers, media, the internet, Facebook, everything, sobrang marami (there’s so much).”
Based on research by neuroscientist Dr. Lamont Tang, a common myth is that mental illness is caused by bad parenting. But the fact is, most diagnosed individuals come from supportive homes.
Then why does a parent tend to blame self? “There’s this notion that parents are in control; in fact, more and more parents lose control now over their children, and there’s a tendency to overreact to that,” Dr. Roldan responds.
What Can Be Done
- Go to professionals. Her advice includes: We must go to extensively experienced professionals, or counselors, and ask not “What have I done or did not do?“ but “What must I do to help my child?“ Be cognizant about the child’s developmental stage, and that each child is unique. Whatever symptoms she exhibits would differ from another whose behavior can point to clinical depression or anxiety disorder. Sadly, some kids have been misdiagnosed. The availability of information through the net has also contributed to the child concluding on his own that he’s depressed, or bipolar.
- Decongest self. A parent must “decongest herself”, because “the more you think about yourself and your role in it, the more you’re not able to help…you end up attending to your self than attending to the person you’re dealing with. You must become proactive more than reactive,” Dr. Roldan explains. By decongesting yourself, you have to stop analyzing your part in it because first, you are not in the position to do so, and then you end up being preoccupied with yourself. You become defensive, feel guilty, and even compensate for it which aggravates the situation as your reactions may be used by your child to manipulate you.
- Seek help. Lloyd I. Sederer, M.D., Medical Director of the New York State Office of Mental Health emphasized the need to seek help: “Don’t go it alone…There are people and places to turn to.” In the Philippines, options for assistance are found in http://www.silakbo.ph/help/
- Don’t fight. Dr. Sederer also suggests parents should not get into a fight with the child, something that results from exasperation when our child won’t cooperate. Instead, parents must listen and get on the side of your child. He also mentions leverage if listening isn’t enough—“In all families…it’s a two-way street. You give and you get, and you get by giving.” Use the support you are providing (a home, money, phone, etc.) to negotiate with. Say something like, “Here’s what we provide, and in exchange we want you to do something in your interest, to help you get better: go to an appointment, take treatment, do the hard work of recovery, take care of yourself.” Leverage is being engaged in a harder but effective way more than getting into a quarrel.
What Else Can Be Done
To get the perspective of those with mental health challenges, I asked six people what they appreciate about what their parents did, and how they think parents could be more helpful.
Angela, who is in her 40’s, believes that parents must accept the condition of the child as a mental health issue, look at it as a medical condition that is manageable and treatable, and prepare “for the emotional, mental, physical, psychological, spiritual and financial roller-coaster ride.” Avoid self-loathing, for this will hinder the parent from giving the support his child needs.
Angela’s input echoes the results of Dr. Tang’s research, “Mental disorders can affect persons of any age, race, sex, religion or income. Mental illnesses are not a result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. Mental illness is a physical condition just like asthma, diabetes, heart disease. But still society believes that a person who is mentally ill needs to show more willpower—to be able to pull themselves out of it.”
Her 23-year old son Dillan knows his dad was never a believer in mental health but was at the forefront of providing, “From buying medication, checking up on me, reminding that it’s time to drink the meds and giving whatever is needed…He would also ask me if I needed anymore which was comforting…even though we never talked about it…My mom (who) lives across the world and my two sisters would be the ones I would usually talk to when I was ready to talk. They would listen and suggest things that I could do to help me cope.”
Lui, Angela’s 17-year-old daughter, appreciates her dad for reminding her about medication. Even from a distance, a parent can help. “My mom doesn’t sugarcoat how things are going to be for people with depression, which pulls me into reality; she’s always there to guide me through my episodes, in a different country even.”
The parents of 24-year-old Justine thought she was just going through a phase. Her school counselor said her episodes are just a matter of faith, and a lack of discipline, concluding that she was just being an emotional teenager. Justine wishes she was not left undiagnosed for 12 years. “It was painful to be unheard and misunderstood for that long,” Justine recalls. Just being present helps and assures her of their love. “I remember my mom just crying with me…because she couldn’t fully grasp what I was going through, but she never stopped reminding me how much she loved me.” Justine is thankful for how her parents go with her to appointments. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it means so much when you’re away from home, and when your parents just decide to come…have a quick lunch or just visit. It makes you feel unforgotten and less lonely.”
For Philip, parents must value the trust children give them, “(When your children open up,) don’t shut them off…(or) talk them out of it.” He asserts that children need support, not speeches nor opinions, nor past experiences about mental health. “(We don’t need our) emotions flat out dismissed, downplayed or invalidated,” Philip adds. He appreciates that he is not forced to open up, and to draw close to his parents. He believes that, as children grow older, “they develop a sense of identity away from their parents and would naturally want time for themselves… (and) experiences…to keep to themselves. Do not pry nor…get mad if they refuse to share. Generally, avoid helicopter parenting.” He affirms that this makes a child anxious about making mistakes and discourages them from opening up. “Give them the trust that they need, and let them come to you when they…are ready to share or to open up,” says the 20-year-old. Philip still feels the mental health stigma especially in church communities. It does not help that a parent divulges a child’s condition even as a prayer request without his consent.
Twenty-four year old Josiah Bien is grateful that his parents help him through advice, mostly practical every time he feels down. “Aside from listening, it’s love that will really draw you closer together. The love will urge you to listen. They do not judge my mental health but be with it. It is a reminder to myself, that we shouldn’t be judging the emotion. Emotions are to be felt and not to be merged with. You are not the emotion.”
A parent’s pain pushes him to punish himself for his child’s condition. But a parent’s love compels him to go forward. Start moving forward instead of looking back. Instead of asking: “What have I done?” ask: “What can I do?”
1 TEDx Talks. (2013 June 21). Lamont Tang at TEDxHongKongED: Genius, Mental Illness and Everything in Between [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjzFmR5lai0
2 TEDx Talks. (2015 January 6). Lloyd I. Sederer at TedX Albany: When Mental Illness Enters the Family [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NRO0-JXuFMY&feature=youtu.be
4 TEDx Talks. (2013 June 21). Lamont Tang at TEDxHongKongED: Genius, Mental Illness and Everything in Between [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjzFmR5lai0
More into numbers than words, Richelle Joson-Ligot grew up writing merely in her head and in her heart, making up stories and characters, mixing up syllables to mean a new idea, and recording these all on diaries and in cassette. A voice talent, homeschooler, creative consultant, and choreographer, she is gifted in many ways, but considers the best gifts in her life to be the people the Giver has blessed her with – husband Tot, and children Mishka, Nikita, Miro and Yakob.