Why is my child struggling?

What parent or guardian, at some point, hasn’t doubted his or her ability to parent well? Add a family crisis or a child’s behavioral health challenges, and that doubt can morph into debilitating shame. Worse yet, is fear of seeking help.   

As a licensed professional clinic counselor who works with children and teens, I often encounter family members who avoid talk therapy. 

Parents tell me they blame themselves for their child’s behavioral health struggles. Kids blame their parents — or themselves. Some parents and teens are too terrified to even set foot in my office. Here’s how to move forward.

Compassion is crucial.

Parenting is challenging, and fluctuating social expectations regarding nutrition, safety and managing technology don’t necessarily help. I want parents to remember they’re not alone in their struggle. 

I tell them, “Welcome to the club of imperfect parenting and imperfect families. There’s universal membership.” 

What matters most is being aware of this human imperfection. Treat yourself, your children and your spouse/partner with honesty and compassion. 

The fact is, most of the parents and kids I encounter are doing the best they can. When emotional or behavioral health issues cause upheaval, I invite families to shift their focus. 

Shaming, avoidance and assigning blame get you nowhere. What a child or teen needs most during a mental health crisis is a supportive, cooperative and compassionate family.

How did we get here?

During my first meeting with a family, I’m often asked to explain why a child or adolescent is struggling so much. Sometimes there are obvious triggers, such as the death of a loved one or bullying at school. More times than not, however, it’s hard to give a definitive answer as to why an emotional health crisis emerges when it does and at the age it does.

Parents understand that mental health is multifaceted. Many ingredients go into the pot — including factors both biological and environmental; major life events (death or illness in the family, divorce, bullying, breakups); and even everyday challenges, including near-constant exposure to social media and media in general. 

For the majority of kids and families, there isn’t any one factor that initiates a mental health crisis. Rather, there’s a chorus of influences.

What can parents do?

Going through a behavioral health crisis with a child or teen can be gut-wrenching for parents. Often, they think their family is unique in its struggle. 

Not so. Data from the National Institute of Mental Health suggests that nearly 50 percent of adolescents will experience a diagnosable mental illness.  

While we sometimes aren’t quite sure exactly why a child might be struggling, we do know there are fairly reliable paths to help kids and families achieve greater health and well-being. Here are my recommendations for what parents can do, beyond practicing compassion:

  • Ask for help. You’re human and hardly alone in this struggle, so reach out. Seek professional guidance from a licensed mental health practitioner who specializes in children, adolescents and families. Treatment may involve a combination of several modalities, including family, individual and group psychotherapy. 
  • Rule out medical problems. This is an important first step in treatment. A multidisciplinary approach to mental health treatment that incorporates psychiatry and therapy can help identify any medical or other biological variables that could be influencing a child’s mental health. Getting a good read on our medical health can be just as important as talk therapy. 
  • Stay a team. Healthy families are like a rowing team; everyone must grab an oar to row the boat. No one’s role — adults or kids — can be underestimated. 
  • Forgive yourself. All parents have regrettable moments with their kids. Most mistakes can be repaired, so move forward. Parenting has a cumulative effect. What you do today is just as important as anything that happened yesterday.
  • Get curious. Take a deep breath and own whatever your less-desirable tendencies are as a parent. Lead 
  • the way for your children to develop their self-curiosity by being curious about yourself.
  • Be a role model. Let your kids see you as a fallible human. Recognize, communicate and work on your weaknesses. It won’t hurt your authority with your kids.

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health or could use some support as a parent, contact your primary care provider for referrals or search your local listings for family therapy services. While the uncertainty of entering family therapy for the first time may be scary, the pay-off can be tremendous. 

Chad Cartier is a licensed professional clinical counselor at Aris Clinic, a pediatric behavioral health center that treats kids and teens throughout the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.