Our Shared Experience Of Watching Our Kids Struggle with Mental Health and Addiction, and then Finding Recovery.

Those of us who have watched our kids struggle with mental health and addiction issues know just how awful this can be.  Helplessly watching our kids in pain as they spiral downward can be life’s ultimate challenge and in some cases life’s ultimate tragedy.  At first, we think they are just making bad decisions. We justify this by believing that as adolescents, we expect some of this. We naively assume they will grow out of “it” and one day mature.  Signs that things might be worse than we hope include a few semesters of unusually poor grades, unexplainable and suspicious behavior, a substantial change in their friend group or months of them suddenly telling us how much they hate us.   After months of watching them go downhill, arguing with them and spending hours with close family and friends fruitlessly trying to come up with a solution for our newly diagnosed “difficult child”, we call their school counselor or a local therapist and ask for guidance.  If we are fortunate enough to get our kids to actually go see the school counselor or the local therapist (many are not!), once diagnosed with a mental health or addiction diagnosis, we are then faced with questions and thoughts ranging from, “give them more time, things will be fine..”, or  “How did this happen to MY CHILD when they had a fairy tale childhood”, or, “Now what do we do?”, or “What did I do wrong and how can I fix this since I am the parent, and nobody knows my child like I do?”

Our brains want to rationalize the situation and solve the problem and our hearts are broken with fear and sadness as we watch our beloved child in pain.  We want to find a pill that will make them all better immediately, yet we learn it is not that simple.  Some professionals might tell us the best thing we can do for our child is to take care of ourselves yet as a parent the last thing we want to do is even think about ourselves when our child is suffering!  We learn that their disease can be a “family disease” (because it effects the entire family) yet it takes a lot of time and compassion to learn how to avoid the denial reflex of seeing our child as the sick one and the rest of the family as “just fine”.  We want so badly to retain some sense of normalcy both for our child and the entire family, yet we know that normalcy disappeared a long time ago for all.  The innocent child who once could not get enough time with us is now the kid who hides from us, avoids us, lies to us and does not act or look well.  We are heartbroken, scared and confused. Sometimes we are even ashamed and embarrassed to admit to others that our child might have a “mental health” problem.  Once past the denial and anger phase we begin the process of trying to find professional help.  This is certainly the right thing to do, just as we do for any other medical condition.  We eventually see these problems as medical conditions at which point we remain vigilant but significantly less anxious.

Helping our adolescent get through times like this can be one of the most grueling challenges we will ever have to face.  It can feel like we are dealing with our aged or demented parent when our child- who won’t or can’t get out of bed or can’t stop smoking marijuana or has lost so much weight that they look like they are 10 years old- tells us we are crazy for thinking anything is wrong and to “leave them alone!”  Unless they are homicidal or suicidal, we quickly learn that we can’t force them to get help and when we try, they drift further and further away.

Once we begin to look for help, we find there are many options and different approaches to recovery.  There are doctors, therapists, family therapists and treatment programs which build entire care teams around their patient’s conditions.  We learn there are different levels of care depending on one’s acuity as we become aware of acronyms such as, “IOP”, “PHP” and “RTC”.  We learn the difference between an in-network provider and an out of network provider and if we live in a metropolitan area such as Chicago, New York or Los Angeles we learn there are plenty of highly qualified in network providers and therefore no reason to spend more money with out of network folks.  We also quickly realize there are no standardized outcome measurements to compare one facility or one provider to the next.  Thus, anyone can say they specialize in pretty much anything and there is no way to determine what is true or not. We turn to the list provided by our insurance company, websites, online reviews, providers reputation in the community and if we are lucky, referrals from the school and other families who have been through something similar. 

As we get our child the help they need, and most of us eventually do, we learn first and foremost that none of the behaviors they were or are experiencing are a “choice”.  Rather, we learn our child has a brain disease that requires professional attention which typically includes a combination of medication and (individual, group, and family) talk therapy.  If our child is struggling with addiction, we learn the catchy “drug of choice” phrase is wrong and that rather it is their “drug of NO choice”.  We learn our child can heal but the process will take time and true lasting recovery might mean some things will need to change forever.  We learn the importance of maintaining proper boundaries with our children to walk the fine line between parenting them and holding them accountable for their behaviors.  We learn that some form of trauma (broadly defined as pain or loss) is often at the root of the self-destructive behavior and that both must be treated in order to our child to fully heal.  We learn that the diseases were not caused by any one event but rather are generally the result of a combination of biological, psychological, social and spiritual factors.  We might learn that our own behaviors certainly contributed to the situation but that we are not to blame, at least not entirely!  We learn that it is ok to feel guilty, yet it is even more important to make the necessary changes ourselves so as to reestablish healthy modeling as parents.  We learn that there are supports groups out there just for US designed to both support us as we support our child and also to help us see our role in their disease so that we can change what we need to change.  We learn to trust the professionals we find to help them get better and eventually we learn that it’s ok to listen to someone else provide advice about “our” kids!  Many of us learn that our kids are in fact very angry with us, but we also learn that they love us and still very much need us to stand by them as they work through the hardest time in their lives.

Treating adolescents who struggle with substance use, eating disorders, mood disorders and related trauma is incredibly challenging and yet it can also be extremely rewarding.  It takes professionals who are properly and specifically trained to treat adolescents, which in many ways is very different than treating adults.  For example, psychiatrists can be board certified in adults, adolescents, or both.  Working with a psychiatrist who is board certified in treating adolescents is optimal.  There is a specific passion that comes with treating children, fueled by a deep understanding and appreciation for the vulnerability of children struggling with mental health and addiction and the opportunity we have in treatment to turn a life around before it can be too late (or significantly more difficult). Healthy family involvement is critical and early intervention we know from the data improves outcomes dramatically.  

Watching a child reunite with their loved ones, go back to school, learn new ways to cope with life’s curve balls or simply regain some of their lost innocence before adult-hood hits can be incredibly powerful.  Our children are the light of our lives.  They make our world go around.  They deserve the best possible care they can get.  Once we find that for them it is our job to get them there and trust that the professionals, we have hired to save our kids will guide the entire family from crisis mode back to health. 

Read More about our program leader:

Dr. Alexander Chevalier, MD

Dr Alexander Chevalier
Psychiatrist for children, adolescents and adults
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