What I Want Parents to Know About Letting Their Children See a Therapist
Hearing the words “mental illness” in everyday language may not inflict any profound response, but use those words in reference to your child and now that’s a whole different ballgame.
Have you ever played a sport and had a coach, or know someone who was on a sports team? All teams have a coach, right? Coaches are socially accepted in our society. Even the most talented athletes turn to a coach for guidance in sports. However, when one turns to a psychologist or therapist for “coaching” or providing guidance with life situations, instead of sport situations, our society tends to regard it quite differently and often has negative feelings toward it. In the same aspect as a coach, therapists and psychiatrists help guide others with life situations and what they struggle with.
Although I am not a parent of a child living with mental illness, I am a daughter — daughter who lived in constant pain with an undiagnosed condition for years. Over those years, I saw firsthand the fear our society frequently has of being “labeled” with a diagnosis of a mental illness. When it comes to one’s own child, this fear holds a much more profound effect. I understand; it’s certainly not easy. I witnessed this fear in others, and I saw it in my mother.
I watched parents bring their teenagers into a counseling office, with their head down, silent, not making eye contact with anyone else in the room and not saying a word to their child. I wish I could say to these parents, “it is OK that you are here, you have nothing to be ashamed of.”
Please do not hold back from getting your child help. Please do not place blame on yourself. Please do not feel ashamed; you are not responsible.
After several years of living with chronic gastrointestinal pain, with no diagnosis, no relief and no treatment, I began looking for a therapist. The initial phone call always involved the questions: “Why are you seeking help? For what? What is your diagnosis?” Well, there was no diagnosis. I was drastically underweight, my body was not digesting solid
food, and I was living with constant gastrointestinal pain. Doctors had no answers. Most doctors saw me and immediately said, “it’s an eating disorder,” because of how I looked physically. I spent countless hours and appointments trying to convince doctors to listen to me and that it wasn’t an eating disorder. I sought someone who would listen and understand my story and offer support, since doctors were not listening or helping me. I was seeking help with any and every aspect I could get help with: the chronic pain, living in this condition with no diagnosis or treatment, being faced with brash decisions to have my intestines removed, the daily struggles to do simple everyday tasks… the list goes on and on. I just wanted someone I could turn to for support, a different kind of support than what my family could give. I felt at this point that I had exhausted what my family could say to me. They saw me miserable and in pain every day and it was far out of their control. There wasn’t anything they said or did that helped improve my condition or how I felt on a daily basis.
My family couldn’t offer cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or other approaches to help me cope with what I was going through. My mom wanted me to get the help I needed; however, when I mentioned seeing a therapist, her response was “be careful what you tell them, you don’t want a diagnosis of depression or some other mental illness in your medical records.” I felt like saying: “Why? Do you think other doctors will judge me if they see this in my medical records? Or are you afraid that other people will judge me if they find out I’m seeing a therapist? Either way, this is the help I need and I am going to be honest with them.”
I know a lot of these feelings stem from fear. I know parents are afraid and don’t understand why their child is affected by this. They can’t stand the idea that something they did or how they raised their child could be causing this. I recognized the fear my mom had of me being diagnosed with depression; she told me “you don’t want to carry that label for your life.” I recognized she was ashamed of me being “labeled” with any diagnosis of mental illness: depression, anxiety or an eating disorder. What she didn’t understand was that I was in need of help — help she couldn’t give me.
If you are a parent of a child or an adult struggling with mental illness, please do not feel embarrassed that your child is seeking counseling and guidance from a professional. Please don’t feel ashamed. Please do not feel like you failed as a parent because your child is seeking help for something out of their control. I will tell you firsthand, you have nothing to be ashamed of.
The best thing you can do for your child is get them the help they need. Stop worrying about what carrying a diagnosis of depression will mean when someone sees it in their medical history. Stop being afraid that others will judge you if they find out your child is seeing a therapist.
As a parent, I understand you feel a natural obligation to take care of your child and give them everything they need to grow up and become successful, but there comes a time, especially when mental illness is a factor, when you can’t “fix” what’s wrong or give your child the guidance they need. There are professionals trained to handle these issues — issues parents aren’t trained on in parenting classes and issues parents may have no experience with because they have never faced mental illness in their lives. This is what therapists are for. So please don’t feel ashamed; help them find a therapist or be supportive of them seeing a therapist. Let them do their job. No therapist or psychiatrist will judge you for bringing your child to them. They will not shun you and think badly of you as a parent; if anything, they will be glad to see you providing what is best for your child.
If you want to do what is best for your child, please set your feelings aside and remember that if the situation were reversed, if your child were caring for you and you needed care, I assure you they would help you find the care you needed.
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Getty Images photo via Solovyova