I remember when my kids were babies. Parenting was overwhelming, especially when the first was a newborn. There were so many things to learn, from which direction the tape on the diaper was supposed to go, to how to cope with the total responsibility for a helpless little human. But I did learn, slowly and imperfectly. When I felt lost in the uncharted seas of my son’s mental illness in the teenage years, it was empowering to know I had already learned so much. Some of the lessons from his infancy were timeless. I pulled out the old mental files and used them again.
Nine Lessons From the Newborn Days:
1) Sleep when they sleep.
Just as it was exhausting to give birth and then nurse a newborn every few hours, it really drains us to care for a kid with extra needs. We need to rest! Also in this category: drink more water, get some sunshine, try to eat the foods your body needs to thrive.
2) Recognize different cries.
One of the most confusing things about parenting a kid with MI is discerning between typical behavior/response and the illness. Teenagers are going through a volatile time of their lives. Through close observation and experience,we can learn when our kids are experiencing extra distress that needs special attention.
3) Encourage them to self-soothe.
When our babies’ needs are taken care of, we can help them learn to settle themselves. When they wake in the night, we can pat them to let them know they are safe and loved. Then, instead of nursing or rocking them all the way to sleep, we can let them try to drift off in their cribs. When our teenagers are in distress, we can ensure they are not in crisis, then give them the chance to use healthy coping skills.
4) Swaddling is calming.
Sometimes. One of my babies would calm right down when a blanket was wrapped tight around him. My friend’s baby liked to be wrapped as long as his hands were free. My other baby would cry until he was unwrapped and could kick his legs freely. With our kids with MI, we can try different levels of closeness when they are in distress, then watch to see what works best.
5) Symptoms should be taken more seriously.
When my newborn had a temperature over 100 and was uninterested in eating, the doctor sent us to the emergency room. When my seven-year-old had the same symptoms, she advised fever reducers, rest, and watchfulness. Likewise, certain behaviors or moods are indications of more danger for a kid with MI than a typical kid. It’s appropriate to be extra cautious.
6) Don’t tiptoe around.
It can be tempting to adjust the noise and activity level when new babies are in the house. However, if they become used to only hushed voices and lullabies, then any unexpected noise will wake or startle them. It’s better to carry on the rhythms of normal life. Our kids with MI need to live in this world and among people. They need to learn resiliency and how to function in situations that are not crafted to accommodate them. This is not to say we should not be considerate and sensitive to their needs. But we should not act as if they are the only important souls in the family.
7) Cheer for smiles and first steps.
What is easy for big kids is hard for babies. We celebrate their milestones and don’t expect first attempts to be perfect. When a kid with depression takes steps toward wellness, whether it’s a homework assignment, sitting and watching a movie with the family, changing his sheets, or going for a walk, let’s not dwell on how much more or better he could be doing. Enjoy a quiet moment of celebration and respond positively to his efforts.
8) Expect messiness and don’t take it personally.
Babies are messy. For every adorable moment in ruffled ankle socks or a fuzzy bear hat, there is a blown out diaper or sweet-potato-spit-up on the sweater Grandma knit. We may sigh, but we don’t take it personally. Life with mental illness can be messy too. Steps forward and back. Progress and relapse. Meds that work, then inexplicably stop working. Ensuing relationship conflicts. Our weariness and grief can make it all feel personal. It can help to keep repeating, “It’s the illness. It’s the illness.”
9) Ask for advice, but trust your instinct too.
As a new mom, I read soooo many parenting books. It was helpful to have that wealth of information and I used a lot of what I learned. But it didn’t take long to realize that some of the advice was contradictory. Sometimes, none of it pertained to my unique child. There’s also a lot of advice, some great, some pretty awful, about parenting a kid with mental illness. We need to sift through, use what’s helpful, and then recognize that we know our kids best. Teachable, but discerning.
Dedicate them to God.
In our church, we practice child dedication, where we acknowledge our children are gifts from God, and we are just stewards of their lives. We offer our parenting to Him, to seek His way and His wisdom. We express gratitude that God has shared the gift of these souls with us, and recognize that they belong to their Creator. We pledge to faithfully do our part and entrust the rest to Him. This mindset has been the most important road to peace for me when the parenting journey got tough because of my son’s mental illness. I pray it helps you too.