Navigating the Waves of Your Child’s Mental Health Journey

On our pink couches, parents have expressed feelings of isolation, sadness, frustration, shame, and guilt when it comes to navigating their child’s mental health journey as a parent and as a human. Sarah Joyner, LCSW, embarked on an informal study to explore how parents have learned to manage their child’s mental illness. This blog presents responses from parents themselves and offers Sarah’s guidance on navigating the path to recovery. This blog post delves deeply into the experiences, insights, and strategies that parents on this journey have shared. Sarah creates a supportive and empathetic environment at Austin Therapy for Girls. Our goal is to accompany parents and support their daughters every step of the way.

Finding Hope in Therapy

Many parents find a silver lining despite the challenges: “She has benefited so much from being in therapy!” Therapy can provide invaluable support for the child and the entire family, offering strategies and hope for better days. It is important to remember that although your child may be in therapy, you, as the family, must also commit to doing some of the work. 90% of the growth we as therapists see happens because of the work the child and family do outside the sessions. Also, note that children are products of their environment, and if they are working to change their mental health but their environment (family, school, etc.) is not changing and growing, this impacts and can hinder their emotional and cognitive development and growth.

Building a Supportive Team

“The right therapist and psychiatrist make a huge difference. It feels like you have a team working with you.” This sentiment underscores the importance of a robust and professional support system. Navigating mental health challenges can be daunting, but having a dedicated team makes the journey more manageable and less lonely. 

Depending on your child’s age and developmental stage, they may choose to seek support from friends and community members. One parent reported “His smile was so big – he felt so included in his community.” These moments of inclusion are crucial in building your child’s sense of belonging and self-worth. It can be the support systems you have gained along the way, yours, and your child’s chosen family.
The strength of community support is truly remarkable.

Understanding and Communication Challenges

Communication is one of the parents’ most significant hurdles: “I often feel like I’m tiptoeing around…her reaction will be very defensive and argumentative.” This highlights the delicate nature of communication and the importance of understanding triggers to maintain a supportive dialogue. When supporting a family member, especially a child struggling with mental health, it can be confusing and scary to approach conversations or to provide advice. It can also be daunting to hold firm boundaries while providing care for them as they are navigating their mental health challenges. Below are a few recommendations for approaching these delicate conversations with your child. 

  • Ask, “Would you like me to listen or problem-solve?” This allows your child  to have a say in how the conversation will go but also shows that you are willing to listen rather than jump in and fix it. 
  • Validate, Provide Emotional Support, and Provide Practical Support. EFFT (emotion-focused family therapy) teaches caregivers to validate their loved ones and meet them where they are before approaching the logical part of the conversation. No rational information passes through when our brains are at an emotional 10. 
  • Don’t hide from the uncomfortable. Our children learn from us first, and if we avoid addressing the issues arising and are resistant to confronting our own issues, then how can we expect them to not be avoidant and speak up when something feels off?

Coping with Comparison and Social Pressure

Social media can exacerbate feelings of inadequacy or jealousy. A parent shared, “My jealousy would get the best of me… I’ve taken a few breaks from social media.” Stepping back from these platforms and focusing on your unique family journey can be a healthier approach. Social media does not only impact children; it can affect parents as well. Social media is a highlight reel, and when we see other parents post the highlights of their family life while our child is struggling, it can be difficult and uncomfortable. You may at times be comparing yourself as a parent and your child to what you see on social media. Taking a step back from social media and seeking professional support can help halt the cycle of comparison and help you build compassion for yourself and accept that your family is not like someone else’s, which is okay. 

Redefining Family Dreams

“I thought I had lost my dream of a happy little family…it turned out even better than we ever expected.” This reflects the idea that while mental health challenges may change the dynamics of family life, they can also lead to unexpected forms of joy and connection. We can be sold an idea of what a family “should” look like based on the media we consume and our society’s messaging. However, we can’t live up to these idealized versions of family, and if we do not meet these standards, stress, anxiety, depression, and fear can arise. When a loved one or child is struggling with a mental illness, there is an added layer of grief that we, as parents and caregivers, must acknowledge. We grieve the loss of the idea of what we thought our family could or should be, but if we allow ourselves the ability to grieve and release ourselves of shame and guilt, we can rejoice and celebrate the family that we do have. 

Breaking the Stigma

An essential message for society is understanding the commonality of mental health issues: “It is common, nothing to be ashamed of, and it does not mean you are a bad parent.” Raising awareness and empathy is crucial in supporting families dealing with these challenges. When raising a child with mental health challenges, you can feel alone on an island, but reaching out and having conversations with other parents and caregivers can allow for growth, healing, and connection. We are not built to face challenges alone. 


Parenting a child with mental health challenges is a multifaceted journey. It requires patience, empathy, and a willingness to adapt and learn. While there are undoubtedly hardships, this path also offers opportunities for growth, understanding, and a deeper family bond. Remember, you’re not alone; a community of parents shares your experiences and triumphs. Always remember the importance of self-care, open communication, and seeking support when needed. Together, we can navigate these challenges and support our children on their mental health journey.

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