When children have mental health issues

A seven year old shouldn’t need to see a therapist because of a struggle with low-self esteem, or because they feel lonely even when they are fiercely loved by their family, or feel like they hate themselves, or have a constant self-dialogue that says, nobody likes you, you’re a dummy.

childhood mental illness

But mental health issues are as real in children as they are in adults, and they require the help of a trained therapist.

Accepting our child’s fragility and our own helplessness as a parent is devastating. Because aren’t we as parents supposed to be able to wipe the tears away? To make everything better? To brighten up our child’s world? To encourage them? To help them overcome their struggles? To be their rock? Help them know they are loved, and cherished, and wanted, and celebrated?

Mental health illness in our children feels like walking on a tight rope without any training. You stand there shaking, with knees that buckle in, arms stretched to the side trying to stay balanced, and a paralyzing fear to even take a small step. Then you get pushed and you start falling. Fast. And there is no safety net.

What’s wrong with my kid?!?!

What am I doing wrong?!?!

And we are aware that many well intentioned people might start questioning our parenting, because kids are supposed to be carefree and happy. Without worries or unreasonable anxieties. Without struggling to get up in the morning or feeling sad.

So there is a feeling of isolation, because few can understand that mental health issues in children are not a result of poor parenting. Yes, there are instances where mental health is a direct result of the environment: abuse, loss, or neglect. But this is not an issue limited to negative circumstances. Mental health issues affect children raised in the most loving, accepting, and positive homes.

Just do a quick google search and you’ll find that up to 20% of kids have mental health issues. That is 1 in every 5 children. Not much different from adults (1 in every 4). This is serious. This is real.

If you are someone that likes research, here is an article by the CDC, and one by the National Institute of Mental Health (with a great visual to understand mental health in children).

And here is what the American Psychological Association has to say about children and mental health illness,

Mental health — an essential part of children’s overall health — has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society. Both physical and mental health affect how we think, feel and act on the inside and outside.

And let me address this issue from a Christian perspective, because it’s about time we crush the negative stigma that accompanies mental health illness. This is not an issue of a lack of faith, or praying more, or not allowing God to change us. Mental health issues are not a sin, and we need to stop treating it as such. All we do is alienate people and  make them feel like their spiritual journey is a failure. God is the God of the broken, and that includes all of us, each one of us, and our brokenness comes in many different forms.

Why does mental health illness happen? I don’t know, but I do know that we live in a fallen world, and our bodies are imperfect, vulnerable to illness of any kind, whether it be physical, or mental, because if you get down to basics, mental health issues are a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. So instead of judging, let’s love. Instead of quoting scripture, let’s listen. (Scripture has it’s place, but it’s not helpful when you say “I struggle with anxiety” and the immediate response is, “Do not be anxious about anything.” Let’s listen, let’s ask questions, let’s figure out why there is anxiety). Let’s be the body of Christ.

And let’s pray. Let’s pray and ask God to help our kids, and help us know how to parent them and help them.

And let’s recognize the fact that for some of us our children struggle with mental health issues. Actually, let’s talk about how we can support, listen, and understand the challenges that our kids have, or that our friends have with their children.

Mental health issues in our kids are real, and they affect everyone in the family. Every single member.

As I parent a child with mental health issues, I know that getting a trained professional will not only help my daughter, but all of us, because we are in this together, we are a family, and we know that God will hold our hands as we step towards healing.

It’s not easy. But it’s life, and it’s real, and there is beauty in brokenness as God’s love and compassion surrounds our life.

Editors note: This is a hard issue to write about, as I know I open myself to well meaning “advice” about how to build better self-esteem in my daughter and what I can do as her mother. Please understands we are dealing with issues much deeper than that. My daughter spent the first four years of her life in an orphanage and many of her issues stem from those first formative years. Also, her acceptance of her disability is becoming harder as she gets older (she has cerebral palsy).  We are not dealing with low-self esteem, we are dealing with mental health illness. But nobody said parenting was easy. I am thankful for the resources available to her and to us. As I’ve spent time talking to other parents and professionals, I recognize this needs to be talked about as this is a significant “special need” in children.
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18 Comments

  • Reply February 24, 2014

    Tom

    I listened to an NPR story this morning on adopted children and neglect. Supposedly, children who are adopted after the age of two have more problems with bonding because their amigdyla (the brain stem) has been damaged through a lack of bonding with caregivers. Because their brains have not been stimulated, they are actually smaller physically.

    That is not to say that they can’t grow up to be normal adults, but they have to learn different coping skills.

    • Reply February 24, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      Absolutely. That is why RAD is such an important issue to address in adoption (Reactive Attachment Disorder). That said, mental health issues in children are not only affecting adopted kids, they affect all kids. 1 in every 5 is pretty high.

      • Reply February 24, 2014

        LaughingMouse

        I agree, 1 in 5 is WAY higher than can be accounted for by abuse, neglect, adoption etc. I can recall as a child going to bed night after night praying that God would let me fall asleep and not wake up because I didn’t want to go through another day. At like age 8. I remember mom asking me in middle school if I wanted to see a therapist. Sadly I remember saying no based solely on the fact that I was already being bullied in school (before being bullied was even a thing) and didn’t want to take a chance on giving them more ammunition against me. Oh how my world might be so very much different if I’d said yes or if my mom had pushed. All of this to say I had a very stable, reasonably happy childhood. Two parent intact home, living at a middle-class level, with a large extended family too. And looking back I can see depression has been with me for as long as I can remember.

        • Reply February 24, 2014

          Ellen Stumbo

          Yes, I can see looking back that I had anxiety issues as a child as well, I just thought I had a wild and vivid imagination, and worried too much.

    • Reply February 24, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      I have seen the story you mentioned shared quite a bit on Facebook this morning Tom. It is very good! I am now wondering if there is a study that shows what percentage of adopted kids struggle with this? That would be very interesting to know.

  • Reply February 24, 2014

    LaughingMouse

    Brava. kudos to you Ellen. This is definitely a topic “we” are not talking about. There is so much stigma around mental health issues for adults, I can’t even comprehend the responses people get if they confess their child is having issues or already in treatment. I can fight back because I have gotten to the point where I am at peace with my treatment and with God’s perspective on it. But it’s been a hard road to get here, and it was only ever myself to justify or deal with or defend. Having to do all that for myself as the parent as well as on behalf of my child is beyond what I can wrap my brain around.

    Well done you. Kudos for seeking the help your family needs and double kudos for sharing it here so that others will know they are not alone!!

    • Reply February 24, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      “The most personal is the most universal.” That was Henri Nouwen, and I believe it is true. Keeping things quiet doesn’t help anyone, like you said, we need to know we are not alone. And the stigma needs to go so we can honestly and openly address these issues. Thanks so much for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

  • Reply February 24, 2014

    cindy

    I’m a mom of two adopted boys we adopted at birth here in the states. This post has my heart so deeply that tears are streaming down my face.

    My oldest struggles. He has an amazing therapist, and we are moving forward but it is a slow, long, painful journey.

    Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Reply February 24, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      Thank you for taking the time to comment Cindy. Yes, it is a long process, and one that I believe will take a lifetime as my daughter learns new ways to cope and deal with her emotions. Thank goodness she has a family and we stand by her, she will never have to do this alone, and neither will your boys. hugs!

  • Reply February 25, 2014

    Ami

    It makes me so glad to know someone is writing about this. I’ve lived with severe depression since I was a child and no one helped me. It took me late into my twenties to get the proper help and there’s a good chance I won’t ever be able to recover from decades of dealing with a mental illness alone. I have children and I watch them. I hope they don’t have to deal with what I have, but even if they do I’m going to be right there ready to get them what I didn’t get.

    (I’m also grateful for your blog. I’m a pastor’s wife and is it ever difficult to bear the weight of mental illness while being in front of a church).

    • Reply February 28, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      Ami, looking back I see I dealt with anxiety even as a kid, it was not just an overactive imagination. So I totally get it. Are you familiar with Gillian Marchenko? She is also a pastor’s wife and she openly shares about depression (she also dealt with it since she was young). She is working on a book about depression now.

  • […]  Ellen is open and honest in this post about about when children struggle with mental health issues. […]

  • […] her now and kiss her booboos now. I will tell her that she is brave and loved. I will be there as she fights the emotional trauma from her life in the orphanage. I will stand with her and be a steady presence as we tackle PTSD (post-traumatic-stress), anxiety, […]

  • […] miss the post, When Children Have Mental Health Issues for more on this topic, statistics, and […]

  • Reply August 19, 2014

    Michelle M Picard

    My husbands and I are parents to a sibling pair of girls adopted from Romania in 1996
    they are now 18 and 21. They both have been affected by the early years in the orphanage, neglect , abuse, their genes and the love and advocacy we have given them. My eldest talked about wanting to die at age 5.. Both of my daughters are in the autism spectrum, are bipolar,
    have PTSD, ADHD and sensory processing. The eldest has attachment problems and has been in a residential school for 6 years. Change and transitions are very hard. She comes home for a week end once a month. My youngest has mild CP and anxiety .She sees herself very different from typical teen girls which makes her sad. Between the two girls they have had 13 psychiatric admissions. It isn’t the parenting I expected , but it is what God has planned for me. It has been a long journey to acceptance. the girls are my gifts that I will care for with the Lord’s help. A bit part of that role is education and advocating. Remember you know your child the best as their parent. You are an important member of the team .
    I enjoy your blog. You express in your writing so many of the feelings I have had over the years and still do . Blessings to you

    • Reply August 27, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      Thanks so much for sharing Michelle.

  • Reply August 23, 2014

    Andrea

    I have two children with ODD – Oppositional Defiance Disorder – who struggle to function well. Our oldest is 18 and works a job only to spend his money on food and frivolous things, does mediocre in school, lives in a pig-stye he created himself, is entertainment addicted, and he’s generally hard to live with (mean, selfish, and arrogant) – he’s been that way his whole life. Same with our 9 year old. For example, his younger brother and I took a bike ride with him, we’re riding along having a happy time, then all of a sudden he tells his brother he’s going to run him off the road, threatens to ram bikes, makes faces at him then calls him a baby for getting upset. What is this? I know you’re not a therapist, but should I be concerned about mental illness beyond just being a major brat – ALL of the time. We’ve seen a psychologist who kind of helped, but our insurance changed and it became too expensive. Did you do a neuropsych evaluation for your daughter to diagnose her depression on the clinical level? That’s another money issue for us. We’re paying $1,200 out of pocket for a different son’s neuropsych eval. for learning disabilities, so that he can receive accommodations in his new school to help with dyslexia and dysgraphia. We can’t afford neuropsych evals on the other two. The ODD kids concern me, and other than behavior management, I am wondering if they have mental health issues that need more help than what we can give them at home. But the BIG question is, how do we know, and how do we find out? Any wise counsel and advice from your experience is appreciated.

    • Reply August 27, 2014

      Ellen Stumbo

      Andrea the therapy place we attend takes care of any referrals necessary. We did about 5 months of evaluations, and she had all sorts of evaluations done. We did not have to see a neuropsychologist outside of their practice, but we do see someone in there that does neurofeedback. On a different note, why is the school not covering your son’s eval? Is it because they do not think it is necessary? We heard about this place we go to because of the school psychologist, I wonder if there is a regional center that can serve as a resource for you. And yes, your son sounds like he has some defiant behaviors and it is a good idea to address that now, although now that he is 18 I am not sure how that works.

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