Parenting a Child with Mental Illness

October 26, 2014 Christina Halli

I am a working mom with two challenging jobs. I'm parenting a teenage boy with mental illness and I'm an airline pilot. The parenting job is much harder. I often say I would rather land my plane in the Hudson River with no engines, than undergo the tailspin of raising a child with bipolar disorder and social anxiety.

There are many reasons. I've been flying over 30 years and am well trained. In the air I have the assistance of a knowledgeable copilot, professional crew and a checklist. If I have a problem, I call maintenance, dispatch or the duty pilot. Once a year I practice every foreseeable emergency in a simulator and receive a check ride to assure my proficiency. When I am in command I know what to do.

No Manuals for Parents of Mentally Ill Kids

This working mom says parenting her mentally ill son is tougher than being a pilot and parenting a son with a mental illness can lead to unfair criticism.

That is not the case when parenting a child with mental illness. There is no training. There is no checklist. There is little support. In aviation terms, I am flying by the seat of my pants.

In the cockpit, pilots are alerted to abnormal situations that need their attention by lights and sounds. We call these master cautions and warnings. When we see or hear one of these, we pull out a checklist to fix the problem.

In extreme situations, we may need to divert. Pilots divert to an alternate landing field when we are running out of gas or are on fire.

Parents of children with mental illness often miss critical master cautions and warnings. As a toddler, my son Bob was very active but extremely shy. In kindergarten, Bob was easily frustrated with change and challenge, often resulting in emergency situations. In first grade, Bob cried in the shower, "I hate myself; I want to die." By second grade, Bob was putting holes in walls.

Through much of Bob's childhood, I complacently stayed on course.

When multiple master cautions finally got my attention, Bob saw a flight of therapists. He made his first trip to the Crisis Center at age 11. Only when Bob spun out of control in middle school and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, did I finally divert.

Flight Plan for Raising a Child with Mental Illness

This working mom says parenting her mentally ill son is tougher than being a pilot and parenting a son with a mental illness can lead to unfair criticism.

Now I try to parent my son in a way that promotes stability and wellness. Straight and level does not work. Aerobatics do not work. But there are many things that do work when disciplining a child with mental illness. They are mostly counterintuitive to normal parenting. I crashed and burned many times before I learned these new procedures.

I get a lot of backlash from parents who do not have kids with mental illness. I call this perfect-parent-backlash. I receive backlash because I am not raising my child with mental illness the way the perfect parents with perfect kids are raising theirs.

This brings to mind the passenger who complains about a "horrible" bumpy ride and my "terrible" landing. This is the passenger who has no stick and rudder time. Nor have they dodged thunderstorms or landed in a 30-knot crosswind.

Parents with mentally ill children must write the manuals and checklists for this turbulent and frequently dangerous job.

My goal is to use my experience with Bob to instruct other parents. No more flying by the seat of our pants. I want to help parents find a safe place to land.

You can find Christina on Google+, Twitter and Facebook.

APA Reference
Halli, C. (2014, October 26). Parenting a Child with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 23 from

Author: Christina Halli

November, 22 2015 at 4:13 pm

I find it encouraging that there are other parents who go through what I am and are handling it well. I am at the point where I don't know what to do. I was essentially forced to quit my job or be let go, despite being on fmla already, due to absences to care for my daughter. She is 13 and has had multiple hospitalizations already. She attends regular appointments, which have been hard to keep up with and take time off work for, and the medicine helps, but not enough. Noone understands and they say "you just aren't disciplining her enough". I don't have any family and any friends I begin to get close to quickly make excuses as to why they are "busy"...I am very isolated and unable to keep a job! I don't know what to do...

Ralph Neumann
December, 25 2014 at 3:15 pm

I am happy to find this post. It is Christmas and we have been dealing with my young teenage boy all day. Holidays are extremely stressful as his siblings experience typical excitement and joy while my middle boy experiences high stress and anxiety. This causes him to fixate on a specific task or goal and this takes presidance over all other events. I am wanting to find resource and help for our family as this has been a long road up - age 3 when he first started exhibiting problems to now at age 13. He has been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety disorder, compulsivness, and more than likely manic.

November, 9 2014 at 10:03 pm

Hi Christina, you have given and excellent description here in your message. Thank you for sharing. You put it all plain and simply. Every day sometimes every hour is a new flight.

November, 9 2014 at 2:29 pm

Great analogy. My son is 19 and has BP. He was diagnosed in 8th grade. He's the youngest of my 4 boys. Parenting him has challenged me beyond words. But I can't imagine life without him! I'll admit that I truly appreciate my job for the same reasons: it's manageable, expected, and a bit of a break from the management of my son some days. Thank you for sharing.

Rebecca Oliphant
November, 8 2014 at 2:52 pm

Raising my own young man with bipolar, anxiety and Asperger's. We have to stick together and know we are all doing the best we can and making up a new game of parenting as we go. NO JUDGEMENT ONLY ACCPETANCE. Thanks for sharing. We are not alone when we are together in this.

November, 8 2014 at 1:02 pm

Thank you for sharing. Sometimes it is so difficult because of the stigma to share with friends and sometimes when you do share, suddenly those friends slowly disassociate themselves. I have 2 children both with social anxiety and depression. Although they are both doing well and resilient right now, I fear for their futures and constantly worry. Although they always knew they were different and I raised them to view their disease as something that is treatable and "normal" as they enter the world, they are faced with a very different viewpoint. My one child is at university and doing well, my other is in high school and wants to joint he military upon graduation. I don't have the heart to tell him that they probably won't accept him due to his disease.

Joe3 Stolfi
November, 8 2014 at 11:22 am

I'd LOVE to read any follow up articles if there are any ....

barbie chaney
November, 8 2014 at 9:01 am

Flying by seat of my pants here in Virginia. 15 yr old son bipolar, ADHD,ocd,w brain injury and chronic kidney disease and agoraphobia. He is my main job my only reason and what I get talked about the most for.

November, 8 2014 at 8:19 am

Thanks so much for sharing your story, Christina. I'm raising a tween girl with bipolar, anxiety and ADHD, so I very much relate. I also write about our experience. Check out some of my essays and articles about our journey on my website if you get a chance. Keep up the great work!

Christine Durst
November, 8 2014 at 7:23 am

I understand. You are not alone in this - we are not. xo

Laurie Tryck
November, 8 2014 at 7:23 am

Thank you Christina for sharing your story. I admire very much your candor and wisdom in dealing with your mentally ill Son. We all must be more aware of parenting children effected MI spectrums. Education is an important step & sharing our stories is a step in the right direction. Thanks

November, 5 2014 at 2:22 am

Thank You so much for coming forward. I too have a teenage boy with bipolar and anxiety. I look forward to following your blog.

Paul Inglis
October, 31 2014 at 8:50 pm

Yes, it would be hard enough with one, but with 2 even so much harder. Obviously this mum/mom has a lot of love and dedication for her kids and also has resilience. She should be admired.

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