Mental Illness and Your Child: Learning to Loosen and Receive

April 15, 2015
1 Comment

Not so long ago, my family took a trip to the ocean. This was a first visit by our three year old son. He was filled with excitement and awe upon approach to the beach. He was in sensory heaven. The sand was warm between his toes. The wind was a mixture of warmth and cooling breeze with the scent of salt that even lingered on our lips. And this little boy…he ran full on up to the water’s edge without hesitation. And I held my breath. As his mom, I was faced with what I often experience with my boys. I want them to explore the wonder of creation but I am often so afraid. In that moment, I was afraid that he would lose his footing. Afraid that the current would be too strong and knock him down…pull him under…away from my reach.

I realize more and more each day that life is ripe with paradox, especially when it comes to parenting. As parents, God entrusts us with our children. He places these incredibly resilient and yet incredibly fragile little beings to our care. He trusts us with his precious ones. And then…God asks us to trust who God is. To trust that these little ones will bring us to the end of ourselves and draw us closer unto him. God asks us to love them, nurture them, teach them, and then to always release them back into his plan, his purposes, his heart. That is really hard.

When life is ripe with smiles, warmth, and connection, it is easy to take step after step as if joining God in some beautiful partnership. It feels much like I imagine that it did as Adam walked in the Garden with God, gazing and caretaking over all that God had made. Peace. Tranquility. Connection. Trust. And then…we remember the outcome from the Garden. First parents grasping, taking, making things happen. No longer trusting. Sprinting. Gasping. Disconnected as they hide behind shrubs.

As we walk this journey with our kids, it is true that sometimes they will get banged up. We can teach them everything we are supposed to about such things as stranger danger, looking both ways, the differences between good touches/bad touches/and secret touches. We can hold their hands. We can watch them continuously. And yet…sometimes they still get hurt. Sometimes the hurt is a bruised arm, a broken bone…and sometimes the hurt is much more profound with a wound that cuts so deeply that we have no band-aid…no kiss that will heal its sting. Sometimes the waves will crash against them and pull them under. They will be chosen last. They will be picked on. They will get sick. Physically sick. Heart sick. There will be times when we as parents will do our very best to help, to heal, to fix…and we will run into the very end of ourselves.

Just the other day I ran across an image on Facebook that moved me. Perhaps others saw it as well. There was a photo of a large Indian elephant mother with her baby. The baby was stuck in a mud-filled well. The mother was observed by onlookers for hours trying desperately to save her baby. She was digging with all of her might. She was using all of her strength…using all of her everything. And as a result…her digging was ultimately burying and smothering her baby deeper and deeper into the muck. Those who meant to help surrounding her, were frightened to step in because they were afraid that the mother would become defensive and trample them. As a child and family therapist and mother, I see this in my families. I see this in myself. When our children are sinking, we want to be the ones to do the digging out. To do the saving. And sometimes we find ourselves like this mother and her calf, as all of our best efforts work against us and our children. This is most true when our children are sinking in an ocean of emotional pain. When they have a fever…complain of tummy aches….their lungs are raspy….we take them to the doctor for help. We do not question this. To do otherwise, would be negligent.

But what about the times when our children are continuously irritable, tearful, constantly unsettled in their bodies? What about when they are plagued with fears that nearly incapacitate them? Fears of the dark…when everything seems dark. Where they fear getting sick, fear that they will be left alone, fear not being good enough and so they shrink and shrink inside to the point that they refuse any and all things outside of their perceived control? This is when our next steps are less defined. I have read and written previous articles on the necessity of onlookers (family, church community, teachers, and doctors) to become educated on the struggles of families who have special needs in their families. This is a continued need. Those on the perimeter need to put down their uncertainty and discomfort and be willing to join families in the mess of despair, brokenness and uncertainty involving emotional and mental illness. However, this is a different article. This article is written to and for parents.

There is a season for digging. For trying all that you can to release your child from their pain. Sometimes that will be enough. Many times, it will not. Sometimes, we are called to lift our eyes from the muck. We are asked to release our grasp and ask for help. We are called to let others in…to let God in. We are called to let go of all thoughts that tell us that we have failed, that we are not enough, that we are weak. We are called to weep. We are led to make a call to a professional (therapist, physician, trained minister) and receive their partnership in helping our children. We are asked to loosen up our expectations on ourselves and on our children on what “should be”…and embrace the “what is.” In the loosening we remember that God places these incredibly resilient and yet incredibly fragile little beings to our care. God trusts us with his precious ones. And then…God asks us to TRUST who God is. To trust that these little ones will bring us to the end of ourselves and draw us closer unto God. God asks us to love them, nurture them, teach them, and then to always release them back into his plan, his purposes, his heart. This is really hard. God has equipped us for doing the hardest of all things. We are never alone.

Here is a list of signs in our children that it is time to seek out professionals for help:

• Changes in appetite or sleep or other behaviors
• Social withdrawal
• Fearfulness, sadness or tearfulness
• Ongoing regression to earlier achieved developmental milestones (i.e. bedwetting)
• Frequent rule breaking or behavior problems at school or home
• Aggression towards others
• Threats to harm self
• Rejecting or avoiding being touched or held
• Unusual difficulty in soothing or consoling
• Inability to comfort or calm self
• Not turning to familiar adults for comfort

Dig Deeper

Join others for a free, one-hour webinar on “Youth, Depression and Suicide” on Wednesday, April 22, 2015 at 11:00 am CT. Presenters will discuss the issues of depression and suicide particular to youth and how we as church can be equipped to be effectively helpful and supportive. Learn more and register for this important discussion here.

About the Author
  • Rachel Valentine completed her in Master's degree in Counseling Psychology in 2003 from Trinity International University's graduate/divinity school. She has professionally been serving hurting children and their families since that time. Rachel is passionate about the preservation and equipping of families to be a primary healing force in the lives of children and for generations to come. Rachel has served as board member of The Bridge (transitional housing for women and children), has provided multiple trainings for area school districts on trauma-informed educational methods for use with hurting children, and currently serves as primary Child and Family Therapist and Supervisor for Safe Families for Children (short-term Church-led respite care for families in crisis) at Bethany Christian Services of NW Iowa. Rachel enjoys spending time each summer as acting professional counselor at NW Iowa's Royal Family Kids Camp (camp for children in active foster care). She is married to her very best friend and has her most treasured role in life as mom to their two young boys.

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  1. Wonderful post! Thank you for sharing. Also, I noticed you received your MA/CP from Trinity! My husband received his MDiv from TEDS and I worked in the admission office during our 3 years there! Small world!