Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Pediatric Health
Trusting Your Instincts
Even as an infant, Nicki wasn't easy. Her mother, Terri, describes her as a demanding, outspoken and whip-smart child.
"By the time she was five," says Terri, "I can remember talking to the pediatrician and feeling like she was beyond my being able to deal with her. I love her to death, but I was having a tough time figuring out how to deal with her."
By age twelve, Nicki was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder, a disease that sometimes left her so depressed she was unable to get out of bed for school. "We were just not prepared!" says Terri. Though her parents did everything they could for Nicki, things weren't easy. Friends didn't understand; the school system was uncooperative and Nicki's bipolar medications didn't always work.
In the worst part of her adolescence, Nicki began to self-medicate with marijuana, and once, she landed in intensive care after overdosing on her medications.
Signs of a problem
When it comes to looking out for potential mental health issues in your child, Susan Oxfurth, Clinical Social Worker with North Meridian Psychiatric Associates, says, "As parents, you know in your heart and your gut. You know [when] something's off."
So if you think your child is struggling, trust that instinct. It also helps to know some specific behaviors that might signal an underlying issue. Clinical Child Psychologist with Woodview Psychology Group, Dr. Nancy Henein, says parents should look out for these signs:
-Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
-Lack of interest in usually-loved activities and relationships
While some changes like these are normal, Dr. Henein says, "It's important to look at the degree of interference. Is it happening more days than not? And is it interfering with the child's ability to do things that are developmentally typical of that age?"
Where to turn
Both therapists recommend starting with your child's pediatrician, since some of these signs may actually be rooted in physical issues. But what if your pediatrician, who isn't a mental health specialist, doesn't recommend counseling? If your instincts still tell you something is wrong, it's a good idea to call a counselor or therapist says Oxfurth.
One good place to begin is Mental Health America of Greater Indianapolis. Director of Education and Public Affairs, NaKaisha Tolbert-Banks, notes that the non-profit's 24-hour crisis and suicide intervention hotline is helpful even if you're just looking for a local therapist or other resources for your child.
An initial evaluation from an experienced therapist will help you pinpoint the problem, and will give you direction for future treatment.
Strong bonds keep parents in the know
By being attentive to your child you can catch issues early on, when they may be easier to deal with. "It's important to keep tabs on your child and how they're doing emotionally," says Dr. Henein, "particularly around any type of change."
Dr. Henein says that giving a child words and an outlet (like physical exercise) for emotions helps. Most importantly, focus on developing a strong, trusting relationship with your child. "One key thing that sometimes we forget about in the hustle and bustle is looking to spend regular, one-on-one time with our kids," says Dr. Henein.
Aim to spend consistent, focused time together. This, says Dr. Henein, creates a "forum for communication" and helps you pick up on subtle changes in attitude or behavior that may signal a developing problem.
One happy ending
After a long, difficult journey, Nicki's family has finally found balance. Nicki eventually graduated from a charter school, which gave her more support and flexibility than the public school system was able to. A talented photographer, she is now taking photography classes at the Indianapolis Art Center. She still has her good days and her bad days, but life is looking up.
As for Nicki's parents, they lead a regular bipolar and depression support group that encourages both individuals with mental health issues and the family members who support them.
Having a child struggle with a mental health problem is very difficult for the whole family, but as Nicki's father says in regard to his own daughter, "She didn't ask for this. . . [All] you can do is love her!"