Mental Illness affects people from all walks of life at the same rate (interesting side note: The African-American community is less likely seek help to address these concerns). Through this posting I will attempt to highlight the idea that mental illness does not only affect the individual, it affects the entire family. When a child or an adult has a mental illness, often times the family organizes around this illness and adapts in ways that may not always promote wellness. The purpose of this article is to give some general tips on how to promote wellness in a family whether you are a family with mental illness or not. This list by no means in all-encompassing but I trust that you will find some of these tips useful.
1. Understanding the “mutual influence.”
The mutual influence in a family looks at how the actions of one member influences the reaction of another member or members and vice versa. The tendency is to look at the outcome and assign an individually focused rational to this behavior, for example: “Johnny picks with his siblings because he’s bad.” In the case of Johnny if you are able to look at the mutual influence we may be able to identify the when Johnny picks with his siblings they go and tells a parent and that parent focuses on Johnny which can be fulfilling Johnny’s need for more attention from that parent/guardian, even if it is not always positive. So through this example you look at the behavior of Johnny somewhat differently (from Johnny being bad to Johnny attempting to activate his parents to focus on him more)which can influence you to find others ways to fulfill this need in a more peaceful, proactive way everyone in the house. By understanding this you are able to see the role that the family plays in problems and you can begin to implement ways in which the family can be the solution. When the focus is only on getting one person to do something differently the changes typically don’t last.
2. Be an example.
As parents you are charged with setting the rules and standards of the family. For the most part I think parents do a good job at this part. Where parents tend to fall short is the modeling of these rules. Parents often times correct their children for doing things that they do regularly. And I get it, “you are an adult.” All I am suggesting is that don’t forget that you are also a parent and as a parent you should be the example of what you want your child/children to be. If you don’t want your child to cuss don’t cuss in the presence of your children or play music that uses that type of language. You want your child to be responsible and respectful then do things that promote these actions such as doing what you say you will do and speaking positively and respectfully to and about others. You don’t want your child to hit others, consider not using physical discipline. Teach them alternative methods of resolving conflict by responding differently to them when they anger you. As a parent you are your child’s first teacher. You have the privilege of instilling in them the foundation of the morals and values you want them to have long before the “world”. By doing this you are decreasing the chances that your children will have behavioral problems and be labeled later on in life. Modeling begins from the beginning.
3. Invest in outside events and activities
With all of the demands that you have as a parent it is easy to overlook the importance of quality time. However quality time is not just about the activity that you engage in with your family. It is about letting them know that they are as important to you as everything else. The time that you spend as a family or with your child one-on-one can be used for a variety of things. If you have concerns about you may want to use this time to slip in some questions that could help you to understand what is going on in their world while they are in a more relaxed, laid back and willing to answer. This can also be an opportunity to bond with your child on a different level outside of mundane tasks or simply just to show your child that you see them, that you like to have fun with them and that they are important to you. I often hear people say things like I can’t afford to do fun things with my kids. My response to that is you can’t afford not to. With all that is going on around your children you have to make opportunities to connect with them. There are several free and low-cost events/activities that you can enjoy with your child/children. It may take a little research to find them but they are out there. Again having a secure and solid foundation within your family of origin is going to promote wellness in your family and have fun while doing it.
4. Invest in an effective support network.
Having a positive and effective support network is paramount to promoting wellness in your family. Isolation is a breeding ground for unhealthy habits. As a parent it is important to have other people who can be a support for you and for your family as a whole. Support can come in different forms from a listening ear, to financial support, to someone who helps you to regulate your emotions when life becomes overwhelming and helps to get you back on track. Individuals and families seek support through various avenues. Some families attend church and can identify people within the church that can provide support. Some people are involved in groups in their community. Some families rely on extended family and close friends to provide support. I believe that we all need other people in some form or another. The key is to identify people you can trust and that you believe has the best interest of your family at heart.
5. Trust your instinct.
You are the expert on your family! If you feel that someone in your family (or you yourself) is struggling with mental health or behavioral concerns consider seeking professional help. As a parent you have to take care of your family and one way to do this is to take care of yourself. If you are not well it is that much harder to ensure that your family is well. I understand that there is a lot of resistance to taking this step but as a parent this is the best way to advocate for your family. Whatever your hesitation may be speak these concerns to the professional that you or your family is working with. If you are uncomfortable you have the right to terminate the relationship and find someone who better fits your needs. All therapists are not the same just as families differ. This advice is also true for getting help for your children. If you suspect there is a problem with a child getting help sooner can indicate greater chances of success. Dealing with mental illness can take a toll on a family and a professional may be able to work with you and your family to manage some of these stressors and help you to see that there is hope.