Please don’t judge: Supporting a friend whose child has a mental health condition

Larson family holding hands and jumping
Shannon Larson and her family (photo courtesy of Jennifer Shore Photography)

When my children were younger, I was always able to help them maneuver the difficulties of growing up. If it was their fear of going to school, attending playdates or being hesitant of trying a new activity, I was there to cheer them on, nudge when needed and assure them that everything would be okay.

But as both of my children entered their teenage years, their anxiety and fears became more pronounced and debilitating, manifesting in panic attacks and depression. As a parent, I understood that my children would need more than just my reassuring words, which eventually led me to Boston Children’s Hospital Department of Psychiatry for their care. Over time, my children began to thrive once again. And in the meantime, our family learned a few lessons along the way that I would like to share.

Mental health conditions can last a lifetime. 

Those of us with children who struggle with a mental health condition know there isn’t a quick fix.

A mental health condition affects thinking, behavior, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect an individual’s ability to function and their ability to relate to others. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.

My child does not have a cold or a broken arm. We’re in this for the long run. When people who are aware of our family situation ask me if my child is better, I hesitate to answer. Is my child good today? Yes. Will they be okay tomorrow? I’m not so sure.

Sensitivity is key.

Just as you wouldn’t speak openly about someone else’s medical issues, please don’t share details of my child’s struggles with anyone else. Being discreet is important to me because confidentiality and privacy are key to gaining my child’s and our family’s trust.

Words can hurt.

Watching the news can be difficult for my family, as those with mental health conditions are sometimes disparaged in the media. If my children are watching too, I always add, “Do you think this person received the mental health services that they needed?” You can help by avoiding words like crazy, unstable, unfit or psycho. It makes it harder for my child to reach out for services when there is stigma attached.

You are important to me.

I seek connections with others who care and who may have also endured similar situations with their own children. And I’m looking for others who I can confide in. Checking in with me occasionally by text, phone or email goes a very long way. Don’t worry about saying the “right” thing; Just say, “I’m available if you ever need to talk,” and I will guide you.

Also, please reach out to my child (after checking with me first). Our children need mentors, especially those who have endured similar experiences and are, nevertheless, living productive lives. It is inspiring to see and gives us all hope. It also enables our children to know that others beside their primary caregiver are there to help.

Forgive me while I brag.

As a parent of child with a mental health condition, I am proud of my child achieving a goal that others may take for granted. Be it a first job, driving, graduating high school or attending college — these milestones are not always a given in our child’s life. Thank you for listening.

Don’t judge.

Please know that if my child happens to be on medication, it’s after we as parents have agonized over this decision. We probably tried everything for our child such as exercise, alternative therapies and diet changes, and yet our child still needed additional help. Do not judge us. Our children deserve to be treated equally, regardless if they have a physical condition or a mental health condition.

Learn more about the Department of Psychiatry.

About the blogger: Shannon Larson is a member of Boston Children’s Psychiatry Family Advisory Council, a volunteer group of family representatives as well as members of Psychiatry leadership, who work together to improve patient care and families’ experiences in the Department of Psychiatry