What I Wish I Could Have Said: Reflections from a Mental Health Mama

Serena Ward
December 27, 2020 | 3 min read

As my child’s screams echo throughout the store I’m feeling rather embarrassed. No. Make that mortified. People are looking; staring even. My child is not a toddler. She’s “big enough to know better”.

I’m a very quiet person and this is not how I wanted to spend my afternoon. A quick trip to the store to spend a little birthday money has turned into a nightmare and I can’t find a way out.

I can feel the judgement all around me and all I can do is put my head down, focus on my daughter and make a hasty exit. Later that evening in a calm moment at home, I reflected on what I really wanted to say to the people we encountered.

I want to tell them that she’s doing the best she can.

That we work really hard to make a plan and stick to it.

That she is a sensitive soul and easily loses it.

That this is not a temper tantrum, but rather an inability to cope.

That there was nothing I could have done to stop this in its tracks; it just had to run its course.

That there is no specific diagnosis that will explain her behaviors (although she’s carried several: generalized anxiety disorder, sensory processing disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit disorder).

That years of occupational therapy and counseling have not solved this for us, although things have gotten easier.

That I’m not a bad parent although I often feel like I am.

Aside from all of the things that I wish I could have said in that moment and countless other moments, here are 8 things to know about parenting a child who experiences mental health challenges:

  1. Parenting challenging kids can be lonely work. While we work hard to find our supports, it can feel very isolating to be in this situation. Very few people can understand the challenges of raising kids who struggle with their emotional health unless they’ve been there.
  2. We pretend like everything is ok. Even when it’s not.
  3. Please don’t make assumptions. No one can truly know anyone else’s story. A little empathy can go a long way toward helping us feel more supported.
  4. We’re exhausted. Sleepless nights, endless appointments and meetings, and trying to stay one step ahead leave us physically and emotionally depleted.
  5. We never know what’s coming when the phone rings. Is it the school calling again? The doctor? We don’t always want to answer, but we know we have to.
  6. We’re all doing the best we know how to do. That includes you!
  7. We feel judged. Even if others around us aren’t actually judging us, we tend to be judging ourselves.
  8. Stigma is real. Mental health struggles continue to be surrounded by stigma. No one wants to talk about it, especially when it comes to our kids. Yet, we know that 17% or about one in every six youth ages 6–17 experiences a mental health disorder. In the adult population, one in four suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder in any given year. That’s a lot of families affected by this dark secret.

So, let’s talk about it! We owe it to our children, our loved ones and ourselves to get the help and support we all need. The more we normalize the conversation around mental health (which we all have, just like physical health!), the healthier we will all be. It’s time to bring mental health into the light of day and give it the attention it deserves.