Your child has a mental health diagnosis, now what?

Getting a mental health diagnosis can be scary for anyone, especially if the person on the receiving end is your child. With the changes brought on by COVID-19, many kids and families are experiencing an increase in fear and worry. Maybe you’ve considered talking to a pediatrician because you’ve noticed changes in your son or daughter’s behavior since the stay-at-home orders began. If you have, you’re not alone.

Many kids and teens have been having trouble concentrating during online school, having temper tantrums or “talking back” after being home all day. Some are showing worry and panic in ways their parents have never seen before.

What does a “mental health diagnosis” mean?

Don’t let a mental health diagnosis frighten you. If anything – realize that getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step toward being able help your child get the support and services they need.

Children who are diagnosed with anxiety generally feel some or all of the following symptoms: lots of worry and “what if” thoughts, stomach aches, trouble sleeping, grouchiness and increased fidgeting. Sound familiar? You might even be feeling some of these same symptoms as a parent. It’s normal, especially in the face of so much uncertainty.

Keep these things in mind when getting a diagnosis for your child:

  • A diagnosis can point the way to helpful interventions – tools to help your child feel better.
  • In order to have an official diagnosis, it must come from a specially trained mental health practitioner, usually a psychiatrist, psychologist or a medical doctor.
  • It’s important to tell other family members about the diagnosis so they can be supportive.

How to share a mental health diagnosis with the rest of the family

Telling the rest of your family about the diagnosis may be difficult. Maybe your family doesn’t understand mental illness and believes that problems should “stay within the family.” Ultimately, you’re the best judge of when and how to tell others. Consider that many family members are more on edge than usual due to the stress caused by COVID-19.

Creating a safe space to talk about feelings with your family may be particularly helpful at this time. In addition, you can help your child by doing the following:

  • Encourage your child to express themselves by using “I” statements when they’re trying to tell you how they feel. Get them to open up. For example, let them know that they can say things to you such as, “I feel nervous when we go to the grocery store because of all the people there.”
  • Listen carefully to what your child has to say and then repeat it back to them to make sure you understood them. For example, “So, I’m hearing that you’re nervous about going to the grocery store because of all the people, is that right?”
  • Work with your child to create a game plan that makes you and your child feel safe. For example, you could ask, “What would make you feel calmer when we’re at the grocery store?”

Living with a mental health diagnosis

It’s natural to wonder if your child will ever “get better” or be able to live “normally” without the aid of  anxiety or mood stabilizing medication. There can be a negative bias when it comes to this type of diagnosis and no parent wants their child to be seen or treated differently. Worry, sadness, anger, and fear will always be present to some extent in all of our lives, but the support and open-mindedness that you give your child can make a big difference in their ability to cope with a mental health disorder. Keep this in mind:

  • Some mental illnesses last a lifetime. Each case is individual and unique. Some children need medication and some don’t. When necessary, medication can be a helpful tool as an effective treatment.
  • A mental health diagnosis doesn’t define your child or their future. They’re counting on you to help them get the support they need to feel mentally healthy.
  • For more helpful information, please check out NAMI, The National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Our teen health clinic provides education and medical services in a safe and supportive environment with staff specially trained to help pre-teens, teens and young adults aged 10-24.

The Bexar County Behavioral Health Department also provides a number of local telehealth resources to support your family. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It is a free, 24-hour hotline available at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Additional Resources:

National Institute of Mental Health
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention