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“Keep pushing for help” – parenting a child with mental health difficulties

“Keep pushing for help” – parenting a child with mental health difficulties
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Here, a mum of two speaks about her experiences of having a child with mental health difficulties, and shares her advice for anyone going through a similar situation.

Changing behaviour

“My daughter was 12 when her mental health difficulties really appeared, but in hindsight there were a few signs before that. When she was in Year 7 I’d started to notice she had become quite obsessed with her appearance. Any reflective surfaces we passed, I would catch her looking at her body. Then she started to be more picky with eating, only wanting super healthy foods, clean eating and all that, and she started to slim down quite a bit.

“But what really made me worry was when I had some time off between jobs so I was at home more. I started to notice that it was taking her a lot longer to get home from school. I eventually realised she was taking a different route to avoid people, and then it dawned on me that I never heard her chatting on her phone with friends like she used to — she was withdrawing.

“I checked her school account and saw that she wasn’t eating in the day, after not having breakfast before school. And when she got home she wanted a salad and was very tired all of the time.  I expressed my concern about her eating and took her to the GP, but he said her weight’s in the normal range and that there’s not a problem.”

Fears realised

“A couple of days before the end of term, I found a letter from her when I went to bed. She wrote that she felt worthless and she wanted to die. It was such a shock. I found out she’d been cutting herself with scissors. She had been very private and at that age you don’t see your children’s bodies so much, so I’d had no idea.

“I took her to the GP who referred her to CAMHS. Her behaviour around food was pretty much dismissed, and she was referred for therapy, but the waiting list was months. In the meantime, her lack of eating was getting a lot worse — she was pretending to eat but then I found chewed up food hidden around the house.

“I searched for other sources of help, none of which worked out, and I was getting very frightened for her. She just seemed to be switching off; she was asleep a lot and she looked almost blank behind the eyes.

“A colleague informally introduced me to a doctor who had experience in the area, and they completely validated my concerns. It gave me the confidence to push for it to be taken seriously, and I fought to get a GP referral to an eating disorder unit.

“I felt so relieved — I had known intuitively from the very beginning that something was quite badly wrong, or brewing, and I was fobbed off so many times by my GP that it almost felt like I was the one with the problem. Now I would tell any parent to keep pushing for help if you feel that something is wrong.”

A recovery journey

“To get the diagnosis of anorexia, and a plan of action, was a huge relief with experts on hand to help. It was an incredibly important day for me. For my daughter it was more distressing because it meant she was no longer in control. She cut herself quite badly that evening.

“She was under the care of the unit for nine months, as an outpatient, during which we had meal plans and had to oversee her eating. Mealtimes were very tense — my husband took on the role of enforcer, while I was the one who provided her with emotional support.

“Once we’d been discharged from the unit, we were referred to CAMHS for cognitive behaviour therapy — CBT. At that point her condition seemed to change, from an eating disorder to severe social anxiety. She was obsessed with her face. She would get up really early to start fixing her eyebrows, and if she couldn’t perfect them she couldn’t leave the house. Anxiety was making her sick every day and school was a terrible place for her at that time.

“The CBT was really helpful — it helped her to understand the thought processes she was having. It’s provided her with coping strategies like breathing exercises. I was in the sessions with her initially, and she would hide behind me, but when I stopped attending with her she made much more progress. I think she was worried about upsetting me and her dad by saying how she really felt.

“She was discharged in January 2021, having made really good progress. She was back at school and able to interact with people normally.

“Then, one day in July 2021, she came home from school and took an overdose. It came as a complete shock to me, and it made us realise that her mental health difficulties hadn’t gone away, they’d evolved. My daughter continues to have to live with anxiety and low mood and she’s now on a low dose of anti-depressants.

“For us as her family, it’s been very difficult. I worry about the effect on her younger brother, who knows that she hurts herself and witnessed the aftermath of the overdose. He worries a lot and is hypersensitive to her emotions. And I’m constantly paranoid about her hurting herself. I wake up everyday thinking ‘is she still alive?’.”

Seeking support

“One of the most useful things for us was a parent support group provided by the eating disorder unit. We had weekly sessions where we could support each other and share experiences and practical strategies to overcome the challenges. I came to realise that when it was difficult interacting with her, it was because we were interacting with the disorder — which is devious and manipulative — but that that’s not our child.

“It can be so emotionally draining and exhausting that I’ve found you do need to make sure you’re in a good place in order to be able to support your child. It’s like the analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on first in an aeroplane. I got some help — counselling — and found it incredibly helpful to talk to someone that wasn’t emotionally invested in the situation.”

Asking and listening

“It’s hard to ask anyone, let alone your own child ‘do you feel like you want to take your own life?’. But becoming a mental health first-aider at work made me realise we mustn’t be afraid to have the conversation.

“As a parent you want to reassure and make it better all the time, but sometimes that’s not the right thing to do. What I’ve learnt is that if I use active listening techniques – listening and acknowledging her feelings – I get a very different response from my daughter. Of course, in the heat of moment it’s not always easy to do that — and she will try to shut difficult conversations down. But if I just listen and acknowledge her feelings and not try and solve them she will sometimes open up. Even if it’s not immediate, she might come back later to tell me more.

The future

“We’re on a journey. For my daughter it’s really important to think long term and feel hopeful about all the wonderful things she’s going to do in her life. But for me as a parent, I’ve found it’s best not to think too far ahead, as I worry about the different life events/stages she will go through and the impact this could have on her mental health.

“I am trying to take every day as it comes, but having the right support in place I am positive about the future.

Our parent’s toolkit on child and adolescent mental health is an essential resource for any parent or carer who may be worried about these issues in their own family. It contains bite-sized information on what to look out for and what to do if you think your son or daughter is having mental health difficulties, as well as insights from people who’ve been through it.


Parents' Toolkit

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