As part of Mental Health Awareness Month, I’m sharing stories of the connection between mental health and self-care. Back when our daughters were young, no one ever told us, ‘You child needs a therapist!’ I wish they would have, because when our family has good mental self-care habits, we discover that our mental health improves, too.
That Was Then
“Un Henry! Un Henry!” Laura’s mixing of English and Spanish signaled our daughter’s terror.
“It’s just a harmless little Henry,” I assured her in Spanish as I rushed to the kitchen, scooped the box elder bug onto a piece of paper, and transported it back outside. “It can’t sting like a bee or suck blood like a mosquito.”
Laura’s sobs diminished as I comforted her. I shook my head as I gave her a hug. Why did she have this horrible aversion to a little black and red bug?
The first time she freaked out over a box elder bug, my husband had playfully named it ‘Henry,’ hoping that giving it a human name would make it less threatening. It hadn’t worked. Each time Laura saw one, she would scream.
Sometimes, tears would accompany her screams. Her little sister had learned to step on the ‘Henrys’ to help out. Sometimes, her little sister would use the imagined presence of box elder bugs to torment Laura.
We tried everything to help Laura overcome her fear of box elder bugs. We prayed about it with her, shared Bible verses, and tried to use logic. Nothing seemed to work. When she grows older, we thought, surely, she’ll outgrow this fear.
The summer that she turned eight, we moved to a more northern city, and for the first time, Laura played outside without fear. Mostly because box elder bugs didn’t live in our new neighborhood.
After Pedro’s nearly catastrophic bout with cancer, Laura developed a new fear. This time, throwing up terrified her. She read somewhere that raw garlic prevents cancer, so for three years she ate raw garlic on a regular basis.
Just a Childish Obsession?
Laura ate so much raw garlic at times that adults would comment on it. Once, she even offered a raw garlic sandwich to a friend after school.
When Laura finished elementary school (and discovered the love of her life), she gradually cut back on the need for raw garlic. We all breathed a sigh of relief. As her freshman year morphed into her sophomore year, she started to exhibit extreme anger.
Pedro and I felt perplexed by this change in her character, and helpless to know exactly what to do. After all, none of our peers had children who punched holes in walls (or so we thought).
Shortly after she punched a hole in the wall at school, I picked up a book titled Inside the Cutter’s Mind. A few weeks later, Laura showed me a section in the book and said, “That’s me.” I had no idea that she had been cutting herself.
Once again, we felt flummoxed. I had picked up the book because I knew one of my students cut herself, and I figured I needed some education. After all, none of our peers had children who cut themselves (or so we thought).
We finally found a counselor for her. After about six months, our daughter seemed to have worked through her issues and her counselor assured us that she didn’t need help any longer.
This is Now
A few weeks ago, I sat in a hairdresser’s chair with a cape wrapped around my shoulders. The hair genius, Carlie Gordon, fingered my fluff and we talked about how to tame the riot of curls. Our conversation eventually meandered down the path of mental health, and Carlie shared with me that her two young children saw a therapist.
Her revelation surprised and pleased me. Finally, a parent talking about mental health issues with the same frankness that parents chat about well-baby checkups. If only I could have had open conversations like this during our daughters’ formative years. Maybe their lives would have turned out differently.
I wanted to dig deeper into Carlie’s story, and she graciously agreed to speak with me about her experience and how it shaped her and her husband’s decision to seek counseling for their children.
In order to understand why Carlie sent her kids to a therapist, it’s important to know a little about the struggles she has had in her own life. When she got married, Carlie didn’t know she had anxiety. After a few months of marriage her husband, Erik, told you, “You have anxiety.”
She replied, “I arrange my life so that I don’t have anxiety. I don’t know why you think I have anxiety. I’m fine.” He politely dropped the subject until later.
Around this time, Carlie had a million stresses hit at the same time—marriage, new job, new house, an ill father—and Erik felt helpless. He found an article on anxiety and asked Carlie to read it.
“When I read it,” she said, “it was like they were writing about me. I found a really good counselor, got put on a medicine, and joined a Bible study.”
A Journey to Health
In reality, Carlie struggled with depression for years before her first visit to a counselor. “I was high-functioning and I hid it very well,” she said, “but there were years when I was suicidal because I felt like a failure and knew that I could never live up to my expectations.”
She marks her husband’s intervention as the beginning of her health journey, a journey that continues to this day. After having kids, she realized that she had to go from being a people pleaser to someone who made choices that truly mattered and didn’t just make other people happy.
The true turning point for Carlie and her emotional health took place when she attended a rapid transformation therapy weekend. Rapid Transformation Therapy (RTT), often used for PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), helps people process trauma (both big and small) in a short of amount of time.
“I processed five different things over the weekend,” Carlie relates. “I had no idea I was carrying so much weight around with me.”
RTT uses unconventional techniques that many Christians may shy away from because they don’t understand them. But for Carlie, RTT was a true miracle. “It’s scary, but it’s also transformative, as far as learning how to process things that have happened and old traumas. I let those incidents go and stopped holding them in my body—which affected my health.”
When asked how counseling has helped her, Carlie stated, “It’s made me a better wife and mother, and a better hairdresser. It’s made me a happier one, too.”
Find Help Early On
Because of the hard work that Carlie put in on her own mental health, and because Erik had journeyed with her, they both understood the importance of mental health to our overall quality of life. When their firstborn, Finnegan, began to exhibit sensitivity to textures (especially foods), an adverse reaction to change, and the need to have things done a certain way, they knew they might need to find a therapist for as he matured.
At first, they wondered if he might be on the autism spectrum, because many of his behaviors fit what they knew about autism. When he started separating himself from his feelings because they felt too extreme, Carlie and Erik knew they should find a counselor for him. At the age of seven, Erik and Carlie took Finnegan in for an evaluation. The results showed that he suffered from strong anxiety and a pessimistic nature, but not autism.
After searching, they found a wonderful counselor, and Finnegan started seeing her on a regular basis. Within a year, he had made such phenomenal progress that the counselor recommended that he only come in once every three months.
“Usually, counselors don’t see kids like that until they’re teenagers,” Carlie said, “and it takes much longer to work through things. Now Finn feels like he’s so much more of his world—thanks to him getting help at an early age.”
The counselor warned Carlie and Erik that Finnegan will probably need to come in on a regular basis when he hits puberty and perhaps in high school. Handling hormones and teenage challenges will require a different set of tools.
Therapists Don’t Just Help with Anxiety
When Finnegan no longer needed weekly sessions, Erik and Carlie decided to have Genevieve, their daughter, fill the slot. It seemed like an easy decision, because they had already suspected that she had impulse control and self-worth issues.
“From the time she was four she’s compared herself to others and found herself lacking,” Carlie shared. “She’s hardwired to think that she’s less, maybe because she doesn’t do life like her brother, who always sees things 100 steps ahead.”
The natural bent towards comparison at four led to negative self-talk at five, and Carlie and Erik didn’t want her to grow up hating herself and her accomplishments. Genevieve started therapy at six, and eventually they’ll take her to a psychiatrist to see if she has ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).
“We don’t want to know if she has ADD so we can medicate her,” Carlie said. “We just want to know how to parent her better. We don’t want to hinder her, we just want to help her on her journey.”
Erik and Carlie chose to find a therapist for their children because they already had roles in their children’s lives—parents. Some kids just seem wired to learn better from outsiders. “I’m a good swimming teacher,” Carlie said, “but my kids wouldn’t listen to a word I said. But they’ll listen to a 16-year-old swim teacher.”
Both Carlie and Erik have attended some of the sessions with Finnegan and Genevieve. “The therapist has helped hugely with showing us how not to get dragged into the drama cycle, and to avoid roles such as victim, perpetrator, and savior. She’s also helped us keep Genevieve from putting herself in the victim role.”
For Some Things, You Need a Professional
“People are scared of mental health, but at the same time we want good mental health,” Carlie said. Not everyone in the extended family understands Carlie and Erik’s decision. Growing up and living in a tight-knit Christian community, where people believe strongly in the power of prayer and miracles, taking one’s children to a therapist may seem to go against basic Christian beliefs.
“Almost everyone seems taken aback by the statement that our kids need to see a therapist,” Carlie shared. “But we want them to thrive rather than just survive.”
In her hair salon Carlie has ample opportunity to help break down the stigma about mental illness and spread the good news that counselors and therapists can help.
“When people are in my chair, they share really hard things that they’re going through, and I ask them, ‘Oh! Are you seeing a counselor?’ and they look at me like I’m crazy.” I can almost feel the head shake over the phone, “For some things, you need a professional.”
“We take our kids to the dentist every six months for teeth cleaning. We take them to the eye doctor every year.” Carlie’s voice pulses with passion for her topic and a bit of incredulity.
“Everybody says stress kills, but there’s this terrible stigma about mental health upkeep. Right now, when they’re children, they’re forming their skills and toolbox for coping with stress later on in life. What better time and place, when they’re young and in a safe home environment, for them to learn how to form healthy chains of emotional response?”
Carlie and Erik care more about their children’s emotional and mental health than they care about their kids’ grades. “If you’re emotionally healthy, you’re educated for life,” Carlie declares. “As a society, we value emotional health too little”
Praying for a Miracle
For those who cling to the belief that God will step in and take away anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or any other mental illness, Carlie has this reminder. “Finding a great counselor is a miracle.” She laughed, “You can pray all you want to get into shape, but you still have to do the work.”
Dr. Michelle Bengtson, a speaker, writer, and neuropsychologist, agrees, “Sometimes we need the help of medication to help us get stable enough to be able to do the work.” Dr. Bengtson would know. In her book Hope Prevails, she shares her journey through depression.
Now that scientists know more about how the body works, they realize that the negative effects of trauma can cause a change in the expression in our DNA—and that gets passed down to our children. Epigeneticists have also discovered that if the trauma ‘receives medical attention,’ than the modification goes away (and thus does not pass to the offspring).
“If we don’t get help with our trauma, then we have to unravel it later on in life,” Carlie says. One day, when I tell a client that my kids need counseling, I want their reaction to be, ‘Oh! That’s so cool!’”
Carlie reminded me that when we’re not healthy mentally, we can’t carry out Jesus’ mandate to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Depressed, anxious, and stressed-out people generally don’t have a lot of love for themselves, and very little to spare for others.
Mental Self-care means…
Self-care means taking care of our mental health needs so that we protect future generations and have the capacity to love well. It also means that when we recognize a potential problem in our children’s lives, we take steps to help them and educate ourselves as soon as possible.It’s our Christian duty to ensure that we get the help we need, when we need it. #4Mind4Body #mentalhealthmonth #Christianity Click To Tweet
Seven Signs Your Child Needs a Therapist
1. If your child has experienced sexual abuse.
2. If you and your spouse divorce (you might want to seek counseling for yourself, too).
3. When someone in the family has a catastrophic illness or accident.
4. Your child seems unable to cope with change (even small changes) on a regular basis.
5. You hear a lot of negative self-talk from your child, and nothing you say makes a difference.
6. You see that your child seems fixated on routines (hand-washing, keeping things in order) in order to cope.
7. Seemingly irrational fears that you can’t help your child alleviate with comfort and prayer.Seven signs your child needs to see a therapist. #4Mind4Body #mentalhealthmonth #mentalhealth Click To Tweet