Mental Health And Children: A Family Affair

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By Adelle Cadieux, PsyD

friendWhen talking about mental health, focus is often given to how the disease or condition affects the individual living with it. However, what about that individual’s loved ones? Mental illness affects the whole family.

Mental illness, mild or severe, disturbs people’s ability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines. Changes in mood, personality, and social behavior can put stress on the family. When the family member with a mental illness is a child, the dynamics within a family can shift; increasing the amount of attention and family resources devoted to that child. It is important to be cognizant of how a family is balancing the amount of focus given to a child with a mental illness, as at times that attention could be at the expense of other children or even a spouse.

By being mindful about the impact of mental illness to the entire family, parents can make pointed efforts to preserve or regain healthy balances within their home. Below are realistic strategies for parents to consider implementing.

Families Dealing with Mental Illness – Tips to bring about balance:

• Get organized – Structure time so that each child gets dedicated, special time with parents, and so that parents get dedicated time with each other. Make note of the dedicated time on your family calendar. It is crucial each family member feel important and connected.

• Focus on the positive – Try to minimize how “different” the child with the mental health issue is from the other siblings. Instead, focus on each family member’s positive qualities and strengths. Each family member brings something unique and positive to the family unit.

• Think ahead – Know the situations that tend to trigger the most problems and prepare ahead of time. For example, grocery shopping can be boring, over stimulating and/or triggering for some children, particularly children working through mental illness. Plan ways to incorporate children’s help or keep them busy with games.

• Keep being a parent – Parents can get fatigued, but being overly lenient will add more work to a parent’s day in the end. Establish structure and expectations of all the children within a family. Provide consequences to reinforce behavior (praise, privileges, etc.) and negative consequences for inappropriate behaviors (removal of privileges, etc).

• Be perceptive – Watch for changes in behavior (increased arguments, withdrawal or spending more time alone, aggression, changes in sleep/appetite, changes in academic performance, mood swings).

• Seek help – If a sibling has had changed in behavior, consider getting additional support to help the child deal with the stress of having a sibling with a mental health illness. Support groups, counselors and other health professionals can help a parent give greater attention to the needs of both the child with mental illness and their siblings.

Working together and being mindful of the experience of each person within a family unit can help families dealing with mental illness gain balance, strength and common ground.

– Adelle Cadieux, PsyD, is a pediatric psychologist at Spectrum Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. Cadieux provides evaluation, treatment and psychological testing for children and adolescents at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital. She has a special interest in treating children with eating disorders and obesity. Cadieux earned a master’s degree and doctorate in psychology from Central Michigan University. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Grand Valley State University. Cadieux is a member of The American Psychological Association (APA), APA’s Division 54: Society of Pediatric Psychology, and Division 54 Pediatric Obesity Special Interest Group.

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system, based in West Michigan, offering a full continuum of care through the Spectrum Health Hospital Group, which is comprised of nine hospitals including Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital; 130 ambulatory and service sites; 975 advanced practice providers and employed physicians including members of the Spectrum Health Medical Group and West Michigan Heart physician groups; and Priority Health, a health plan. Spectrum Health is West Michigan’s largest employer with 19,200 employees. The organization provided $204 million in community benefit during its 2012 fiscal year.