Many moms and dads face the challenge of parenting a child with a mental health diagnosis. Due to the history of mental health stigma, especially in the church, it may be hard for pastors and church staff to vocalize when mental health issues are occurring in their own homes. Self-blame or embarrassment may keep church leaders from seeking appropriate help for their children and family.
Where are these parents to start? How do they help their child? And what resources are available to them?
The challenging journey begins with perspective.
Perspective is Key
Christian parents strive to view children and parenting through the lens of correct theology. Children are often new believers or have yet to put faith in Christ. Their brain and language skills are also not fully developed. Having this understanding can help set right expectations of your child. Given these standards, childhood disobedience and your child’s lack of understanding should not be surprising. Disobedience, temper tantrums, forgetfulness, etc. do not necessarily constitute a mental health diagnosis.
When issues can’t be explained by normal development, poor choices, or lack of spiritual engagement, a mental health condition can then be considered. For some parents, the potential of having a child with a mental health diagnosis may feel overwhelming or embarrassing. Let’s talk briefly about how a parent can view mental health through the lens of theology.
An intricate and creative God designed the human body in great complexity. We are not simply spiritual beings, but relational and developing humans comprised of biology, emotion, and spirituality. The result of Original Sin (Genesis 3) is corruption in every good area of our beings. The Fall negatively affects development, biology, society, emotion, spirituality, and relationships. These areas intertwine and impact overall functioning. Disruption in these areas can result in mental health issues. While some mental health issues lean more towards biological underpinnings (i.e. Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disability), other mental health issues are more directly influenced by relationships and emotion. Mental health issues are complex.
How To Help
If your child is struggling, I want to give you some resources. Knowing warning signs, the right questions to ask, and where to seek help, are important tools in helping your child. Let’s begin with warning signs.
1. What are some warning signs?
- Insufficient or delayed development
- Significant change in appetite or weight
- Extreme irritability, outbursts, or meltdowns
- Inattentiveness or hyperactivity
- Loss of interest in activities or friends
- Poor academic performance
- Sudden changes in sleep habits
- Persistent sadness or frequent crying
- Reckless or harmful behaviors
- Excessive fears or worries
- Behavioral problems across settings
- Persistent nightmares
- Withdrawn from family and friends
- Enuresis or encopresis
- School refusal
- Developmentally inappropriate sexualized behaviors or advanced sexual knowledge
If you find your child exhibits some of these signs, it may be time to look for a professional. If you are not sure, try gathering information from other key adults who are involved in your child’s life. For example, you may want to ask your child’s teacher, “Compared to other same-age and same-gender peers, is my child more or less attentive at school?”
2. Questions to Ask
When considering your child’s behaviors and struggles, here are some key questions to help gauge the severity of the issues.
- How long has the behavior occurred?
- Is it a significant change from your child’s formal disposition?
- Does the behavior occur across settings?
- Does it impact your child’s functioning?
- How often is the behavior occurring?
- What are the current stressors in your child’s life?
- Does the behavior occur in relation to a stressor or stimuli?
- Any known history of trauma?
- Why are you seeking help for the problem now?
Negative behaviors that are persistent, occur across settings, impact a child’s functioning, and are not related to a specific stimuli or current stressor, are more likely to indicate the presence of a mental health issue. If there are current stressors in your child’s life that seem to exacerbate their functioning, talk with your child, try to alleviate unnecessary stressors (i.e. making all A’s in school), and develop tools to help your child cope. Take your child through Scripture, helping them grasp God’s love for them and His sovereignty, even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Pray for them and pray with them.
3. Build Community
One risk factor for developing or maintaining a mental health condition is a lack of social support. Another way to state that is, having social support is a resiliency factor for a good prognosis. Research and Scripture show that community with others is vital. As a parent, seek to provide ample opportunities for your child to make and keep friendships. Sports, school, extracurricular activities, youth groups, church, and neighborhoods, are all potential avenues for social involvement. Additionally, seek out other Christian families to regularly live life together. Children and other believing adults can be invaluable support for your child.
4. Quality and Quantity Time With Your Child
God has placed a wonderful and enormous task on parents. He has called parents to steward the children He provided them. Part of stewardship is being present in the lives of those children. Research has repeatedly shown that a lack of parents’ physical or emotional presence has devastating effects on children. Parents, don’t underestimate the influence you have on your child. Spend time with your child. Listen to your child. Be present.
5. Resources to Read
I encourage parents to read about parenting, mental health issues, and normal childhood development. It’s hard to understand abnormal behavior if you don’t have a good grasp of normal behavior. Here are some resources for recommended reading:
- How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
- Full Circle Parenting by Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins
- Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family by Paul David Trip
- Yardsticks: Child and Adolescent Development Ages 4-14 by Chip Wood
- Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James
- National Eating Disorders Association: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: www.adaa.org
One of the best places to start when seeking counseling or treatment for your child is your child’s pediatrician. Neurological and medical issues can sometimes mimic mental health issues. Rule out medical issues first. To find counselors, evaluators, or therapists, you may want to check with your insurance plan. Other resources for finding a counselor or therapist:
Saying, “I need help for my child,” may feel humbling. Remember, as God works in the life of your child, He is also working on you. May you lean into Him, and steward well His child.
Posted on May 21, 2021
Sarah Rainer earned her Masters and Doctorate degrees in Clinical Psychology. Sarah serves as a leader in women's discipleship at her church, while consulting with families struggling with their children.
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