On raising a child with mental health issues: “I went through hell when he was a teenager.”

A mother whose son suffered with an eating disorder, gaming addiction and depression during his teenage years is now helping other parents of children with mental health issues. We spoke to her about blaming herself and keeping it all secret… 

(This was originally published in May 2016)

A new website has launched, offering support for parents of children with mental health issues. Funded by the Department for Education, MindEd combines science-based information with families’ real life experiences to help parents identify and deal with mental health conditions.

As part of the government’s £1.4 billion investment in children’s mental health services, MindEd will provide information on topics ranging from ‘the aggressive and difficult child,’ ‘self-harm and risky behaviour,’ and ‘eating problems’ to ‘keeping ourselves strong’ and ‘child sexual abuse and exploitation.’

[Former] Education and Childcare Minister, Sam Gyimah, says: “Growing up in today’s world presents all sorts of challenges for our young people – one in ten will experience mental health issues. To stop these issues blighting their life chances it is vital that children get the help they need as soon as possible.”

When your child has mental health issues

This issue is one that Julia Lofts, a counsellor from East Sussex, is only too familiar with. She has co-written some of the material for MindEd, using her experience of the six-year mental health struggle her son Thomas went through between the ages of 14 and 20.

Lofts had previously worked with teenagers suffering from stress, anxiety, depression and eating disorders, using the original MindEd website – launched in 2014, as a resource for professionals – after finding so much of the other information on the internet inaccurate and not evidence-based.

But when her son started showing signs of depression, she felt helpless. “I went through hell myself when Thomas was a teenager, I didn’t know where to look; where to turn. It’s difficult to find a resource for parents that treats them with respect. We automatically start feeling guilty and panicking. But when we’re anxious, we can’t help our children.”

Mental health issues arrived with puberty

It was when Thomas turned 14 and hit puberty that she started to notice changes in his behaviour. He became angry; shouting at both Lofts and her husband – his father – and feeling it was a sign of disrespect; as she was raised to not treat her parents like this, she attempted to discipline Thomas.

“I used to go into his bedroom and say: how are you doing today? And he’d snap at me. I’d shout back, because I was worried, and my husband would be in the middle, not knowing what to do. We were in this space where none of us had a clue what was going on anymore.”

Thomas grew frustrated and withdrew – developing an addiction to gaming, an eating disorder and personal hygiene issues. “He stopped looking after himself,” says Lofts, “he wasn’t cleaning his teeth, having a shower, brushing his hair. You can call it lazy for a couple of days but not for two or three weeks.”

She then discovered that he was spending all his pocket money on chocolate and fizzy drinks. He went from size 32 to 40 in clothes. “You could walk into his room and find chocolate wrappers everywhere,” she says, “hidden under the duvet, in his wardrobe. It was quite disturbing. As many mothers would, I stormed into the bedroom, confronted him and he said: I just like chocolate.

“I’d go to speak to my friends and they’d say: don’t worry, he’s a teenager, it’s not a big deal. And then I’d google the symptoms and if one of them is that your child isn’t talking to you, for instance, you read some horror stories. It’s then quite natural to be in denial: it isn’t happening to me, to my son.”

She believes the trigger was puberty hormones kicking in. This made him angry and when her and her husband tried to suppress him; to “teach him manners”, it made him confused so he’d shout and scream. He then began to isolate himself, thinking that other people probably wouldn’t understand him either.

“It’s horrible thinking that your child has anxiety. But so many teenagers do. His friends were probably going through the same thing but young people isolate themselves. He broke up with a girlfriend then fell into a deep depression. And he didn’t know how to talk about his feelings because I didn’t teach him how to.”

It got to a point when he was truanting from school and all communication lines had disappeared. So after trying everything she could think of, Lofts “took a step back, sorted myself out.” She practises and teaches mindfulness so used that to “calm herself down” and then felt she was in a better place to help her son.

The issue, she says, is that feeling anxious about your child can make your own behaviour erratic. “Once my anxiety improved,” she says, “we communicated in a more strategic way.”

She blames herself for a lot of what her son was going through. “It’s my responsibility, as his mum. I should have read the right books, spent more time with him, found out how to talk to him. But the guiltier you feel, the less able you are to help your children. Also, I was busy with myself – my own grief.

“Being a parent is tough. And that’s not promoted in society. We all struggle in different ways but because you don’t talk about it with friends and neighbours – everyone puts on a brave face and pretends everything’s fine – we all think we’re the only ones struggling.”

Lofts and her husband supported each other and consulted the internet but kept it secret from friends and family. “I didn’t tell anyone,” she says. “It was awful, because I was in tears at night, then I’d put on a smile when I left the house and say: he’s fine. I didn’t know who to turn to. The stigma of all mental health issues is huge.”

Mental health issues affect one in four adults

One in four adults will suffer with mental health issues at some point in their life – “every other neighbour in our neighbourhood” – says Lofts. And she believes that compassion and kindness are required, rather than judgement and blame.

Thomas recently turned 20 and is now in a good place. “He’s doing really well,” says Lofts, “he lost all the extra weight. He’s got a job. And we are now able to talk more openly. He tells me that he wants different things to me from life, which is hard to hear, as a parent, but it’s something you have to accept.”

When MindEd contacted Lofts asking her to get involved, using her experience as both a counsellor and a parent, she was keen. Thomas helped her to write some of the content for ‘Parents in the Digital World’. “This was our topic,” she says, “as Thomas had a gaming addiction”.

“He was so sympathetic and said he didn’t know I’d gone through hell with him,” she says, and explains that the reason she loves MindEd is because it’s written by professionals initially, and then parents who’ve been through mental illness with their kids add their experiences. There are suggestions and things to try, “but no judgment. You really feel you’re not alone.”

Lofts says her advice to other parents is: “talk to your children. This is the most important thing. It can be tough but it’s our job, and our responsibility. Find a way to look after yourself, find the information you need, never give up and never get angry. Also, don’t blame yourself – it’s not helpful.”

Dr Raphael Kelvin, child psychiatrist and clinical lead for the MindEd programme, says: “To quote Albert Einstein, if we keep on doing what we have always done, we will keep on getting the results we have always got. MindEd for families is a simple tool to help parents – it’s like having a mental health and wellbeing sat nav in your hand, always on and freely available.”

*Some names have been changed

If your child suffers with mental health issues, where have you turned for support? Do you think the MindEd website could be a useful resource? Let us know in the comments below…

Picture credit: black dog font by langustefonts.com / Bad Day by Amarelle 07