Parenting is hard, magical, and everything in between. It can be especially challenging when our children are struggling, particularly with mental health issues. Struggle is a part of life, and as parents, it's our responsibility to help our kids through those difficulties. Our active participation in our kids’ lives looks different throughout their developmental stages and in various settings. While we are experts in our children, we are not experts in everything, so we can’t parent alone. As the saying goes, it takes a village! Part of parenting is being able to ask for help when our kids need it. Seeking out expert help is an important part of the parenting journey. And our journey doesn’t end there; we take the expert advice and intervention tools and then continue to advocate for our children. If you’ve landed on this page, you’re probably interested in learning more ways to support your child or teen on their mental health journey. Keep reading to discover six ways parents and caregivers can advocate for a child experiencing mental health challenges. 


How Parents Can Partner with Schools 

Let’s dive in! How many of us worry about our kids in school? How many kids struggle with peer interactions, bullying, social media, and academics? There are numerous opportunities for joy and fun at school, but it is also fraught with challenges. How do we navigate this as parents, and how do we help our kids navigate it as well? Partnering with the school is key. Educators spend a significant amount of time with our kids, often more than we do. When we are concerned about our children’s mental health, reaching out to the school is an important step in completing the puzzle. Obtaining observational data from our kids’ schools can help inform our decisions about what to do next. There are plenty of interventions and supports that schools can put into place. What if your child is anxious, worried, or depressed? Schools have experience supporting kids struggling with mental health issues. While some educators may be more engaged than others, it makes sense to increase communication with the school when needed. It may be helpful to speak to more than one person at the school. Teachers are a great place to start, but don’t forget that school social workers, counselors, and administrators can also be good resources. 


How to Navigate Mental Health Systems for Your Child and Your Family 

Separate from school, how do we navigate complex systems to help our children, ourselves, and our families with mental health? We can engage outpatient individual and family therapists, outpatient groups, and more comprehensive and intensive levels of care, such as partial hospitalization (PHP) and intensive outpatient (IOP) programs. Often, we need more information to help us determine the next steps. Comprehensive evaluations can provide clear diagnoses and appropriate interventions. As parents, we are constantly seeking information, which can be overwhelming to synthesize. An expert can take that information and provide us with a roadmap to help guide our families on our journey to wellness. Roadmaps should include resources and treatment interventions, and a plan to monitor progress. And it may take more than one professional to address the many aspects of mental health. Pediatricians, PCPs, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, educators, and many more can all be part of a team to help us navigate turbulent waters. When in doubt, you can always call a place like Compass Health Center to ask what next steps might be best for your child based on their specific symptoms, challenges, and treatment goals. 

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Effective Communication Strategies to Support Mental Health Treatment 

Communication and collaboration are critical components of parenting—and mental health care. If we are fortunate enough to have a mental health care team, creating a plan for structured communication ensures the best care for our child. The communication plan can include email, phone calls, and in-person consultations, with whatever frequency feels reasonable, necessary, and realistic for all stakeholders. Creating an effective communication plan amongst the family, school, and mental health treatment team often requires flexibility. The best communication plans are ones that can be implemented with fidelity. For example, if the parents and professionals on the team can agree to a six-week check-in, great! If every three weeks during a crisis is doable, wonderful. If all parties prefer email, make it happen! When we make plans that are difficult to adhere to, they fall apart. The modality of communication is important, as is the way we communicate. Be clear, concise, and use bullet points if helpful. Ask for what you need. Some of the professionals may know what you’re looking for, while others may not. 


Advocating for Your Child at School and Beyond  

Advocating for our kids is an incredibly important part of parenting and can often feel daunting or overwhelming. Even more important is empowering our children to advocate for themselves. Developmentally, there are appropriate expectations. For our youngest children, it makes sense to do most, if not all, of the advocacy work. Our advocacy for our children can be modeled. As kids show readiness, depending on developmental appropriateness and insight, they can start to advocate for themselves. Kids can be encouraged to ask for help, clarification of directions, or even provide input in a more formalized school plan like a 504 or IEP. Kids with formalized special education support receive various accommodations, including completing assessments in small groups or individually, preferential seating, and extended time to complete schoolwork. It’s also important for our children to share their preferences. What is helpful? What isn’t? We can help children discover who they are as learners to advocate for themselves. It’s our job as parents to encourage those conversations, ask questions, and synthesize information. The more a child is able to contribute to a plan, the more motivated and engaged they will be in following through. 


At Compass Health Center, we have meetings with schools when our students are ready to return to full-time classes after completing a partial hospitalization program (this name may sound intimidating, but we promise it’s not!). Children and teens are always included in discussions about their school re-entry plan, but their participation varies based on their age and insight. Most, as young as 5, can share which adult they think they can go to at school, pick a preferred emotion regulation strategy, and highlight concerns. As kids mature and meet other developmental milestones, they may participate in the meeting themselves. Most often, kids 14 and older should be participating in their IEP or 504 meetings. As our children grow, they need to start to own who they are as learners and what is helpful. They also need to be aware of accommodations available to them and start to advocate for themselves. Once our children are in their adolescence, we may think they should have an accommodation at school that they don’t want. Giving our kids agency over their individual supports and choices is an integral part of them developing their own voice. We may need to step in on their behalf, but they should be encouraged to do so themselves initially. Getting to this step may involve practicing with our kids, role-playing with them, and checking in to see how they would problem-solve different potential challenges and scenarios. 

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The Importance of Self-Care for Parents and Caregivers  

We’ve established that parenting is hard. How about self-care? Also hard! When our kids are struggling, it can be especially difficult to think about our own needs. At Compass Health Center, we use the airline analogy of putting your own oxygen mask on before putting on the masks of others. The same rule applies to parenting. We cannot properly care for our children if our own needs are not being met. Be generous and gentle with yourself. Try to get enough sleep and engage in fun activities. Take a walk. Read a book. Spend time with a friend. Go on a date night. When we take care of ourselves, we are taking care of our families. Compass Health Center also offers Parent Support Groups for specific programs. Inquire with your treatment team to find out if one is available to you! 


Embracing Imperfection & Making Informed Decisions   

Even after following all of this advice, guess what? We will still make mistakes. Some big, some little. As we’ve established, parenting can be tough. You can read all the things, have the best of intentions, have a resilient kid, and still struggle. And not because you’re not trying or not good enough, but because parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is. The best we can do is make informed decisions, advocate for our kids, and trust our instincts. 

We are experts in our children; we are not experts in everything. Getting support for our kids, ourselves, and our families is imperative when we need help. Some of the scariest struggles our kids experience are mental health struggles. A comprehensive team may be exactly what your child needs. At the PHP and IOP level of care, Compass Health Center provides this team for all families, allowing us to impact change in real ways for our patients. 

Learn more about our specialized child and teen age-based programs on our website. For mental health support or to schedule an assessment, reach out to speak with a caring Admission Specialist 7 days a week, Monday to Friday from 7:30am to 9pm CT / 8:30am to 10pm ET, Saturday and Sunday from 8:30am to 8pm CT / 9:30am to 9pm ET. 


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