Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis
If you have a teenager, you have seen them go through significant changes in friends, interests, and personality. Whether it’s stonewalling or throwing tantrums, there are going to be emotional extremes. Here are some principles to help families in mental health crisis.
Recognize the Pattern
First things first, realize your child most likely has some triggers. Whether that is certain situations or people, it will pay off to take note of these details. Here are a few examples of questions to ask yourself:
- Do they struggle on weekends or weekdays? What time of day?
- How are they sleeping?
- What is their personal hygiene usually like, and has that changed?
- What makes them “come down” after an outburst: exercise, animals, physical touch, time alone?
There are dozens of questions you could ask yourself regarding your child’s behavior; however, only you know the specifics that would apply and be helpful to your situation. The more you take note of the patterns, the more you are aware of their triggers. The point is not to avoid triggers, the point is to be prepared when they occur.
Set Boundaries in Advance
Make sure your child is aware that if they behave inappropriately, there will be consequences. Be specific! For example:
“Jessica, if you stay out past curfew again, you will be grounded for the weekend. If you scream at me for grounding you, the grounding will last an entire week. Do you understand?”
That is a pretty typical scenario for teens. Here is an example for a crisis scenario:
“Jessica, if you hurt yourself again we will take you to the hospital. If you don’t go willingly we will call the police. Do you understand?”
By giving specific direction, you are holding boundaries. Your child will know what to expect from you. When parents set guidelines and follow through with consequences, they are creating emotional safety for their children.
Part of effectively holding boundaries is communicating. Although their opinions may not change the boundaries you hold, make it clear you respect their opinion and decision making.
- Tell them what you need. For example, “I’m holding this boundary because I need to keep you safe.”
- Talk about it. Offer to have a discussion, and validate their point of view.
- Let them know you love them, and these boundaries are your way of showing that love. It’s not about being bossy and in charge, it’s about caring for them.
- Don’t forget to communicate before AND after a crisis!
Give As Much Space As Possible
Now that you have held firm boundaries and recognized patterns, your instinct may be to become “reactive,” monitor their every move, and wonder: Are they headed toward crisis? What if they act out? Are they breaking the rules? Remember, they need to make their own choices. You can’t control the decisions they make, but you can be consistent with your boundaries. Communicate clearly and firmly, then let it go.
The exception to the rule: If they are being physically unsafe and need constant supervision, consider investing in a higher level of care. No parent can realistically spend 24 hours a day watching their child, and there are facilities that can help.
What Can I Do Today?
- Work on your relationship with your child. The more you connect now, the easier it will be to engage with them during a crisis.
- Ask them about their triggers. How can you be helpful to them during those times? Again, we don’t want to avoid the crisis, but there are most likely things you can do to help de-escalate the situation. Ask them when they are calm how to help when they are emotional.
Last of all, acknowledge that crisis can be traumatic not only for your child but for you and your spouse. Consider seeking out a mental health professional for support and guidance. When parents set limits before a crisis, support during the crisis, and communicate throughout, they are facilitating mutual understanding and connection with their child. Be consistent when following these steps, and positive changes will occur in your family.
By Kris Kilpatrick, Executive Director at New Haven Residential Treatment Center