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When Parents Reach Their Limits: Recruiting Parent Supporters to Help Manage Children’s Mental Health Issues in the Home

mom and teen fight

?????????????????????????As the holidays approach and cold weather sets in, my mind drifts back to an amazing gift my wife and I received from a friend in the middle of last summer.  I’ll call it the gift of parenting support.

That may not sound like much, but to my wife and me, struggling to raise a child with multiple mental health challenges, it was a lifeline across the family field of battle.

Come July and August, many parents are much occupied getting their children ready for camp.  Most parents look forward to this time of year even more than the kids – their one chance a year to take back their lives and feel like human beings again.

For our daughter, the therapeutic camp she was scheduled to attend would provide an opportunity to mix with other kids, explore new things and, most importantly, gain independence from her family.

For us the parents, camp would provide a much-needed break from the nearly constant strife of recent months.  Our daughter wanted to go, despite her considerably anxiety.  The problem was getting her there.  We had reached a point where it was practically impossible for us to have any kind of sustained interaction with our child without it deteriorating into shouting, threats, tears and potential calls to emergency responders in the middle of the night.  Yes, it gets that bad.

Raising and supporting a child with mental illness can be a draining experience.  It doesn’t leave you with the resources to battle over what to pack, while scrambling to get prescriptions filled and the proper med authorization forms submitted to the camp on time.  When my wife called a good friend in a panic to tell her that our daughter was not going to camp because we could not get her ready, that friend replied, ‘It’s OK.  Let me do it.’

????????????????????????My wife and I left the house and for the rest of the morning our dear friend helped our daughter pack.  I happened to sneak back in the house an hour later to see how it was going and was astounded and relieved to hear our daughter actually having fun packing with our friend.  No tears, no threats, no calls to 211.

This phenomenon is actually very common in families that struggle with teen anxiety.  Dr. Eli Lebowitz of the Yale Child Study Center points out that human beings are born biologically “programmed” to respond to threat (i.e., anxiety), by seeking the protection of their parents.  And parents are equally hardwired to make great personal sacrifice to keep their children safe from harm.

In childhood and teen anxiety “Children often act less capable in their parents’ presence because they are accustomed to using their parents as a proxy for their own underdeveloped coping mechanisms.”

This is why it was so helpful, and ultimately effective, to insert another person in the mix – a “parent supporter” so to speak.

Dr. Lebowitz devotes a section of his and Dr. Haim Omer’s book Treating Childhood and Adolescent Anxiety to the subject of recruiting and engaging parent Supporters, much like the friend who came to our rescue.

Five Roles Supporters Can Fulfill:

  • reinforce parental messaging
  • express concern and care for children and confidence in their abilities
  • help children confront their fears
  • mediate between parents and children and promote children’s collaboration with the process
  • minimize disruptive behavior and act in ways that do not escalate the situation

When our friend graciously offered to help with packing, she performed all five of these supportive roles.  By stepping in when she did, she took the heat off us and helped defuse an explosive situation.  Her timely intervention greatly increased our daughter’s confidence in her ability to cope, and gave us hope that we are not alone.


My wife and I are blessed to have a friend who would step forward in a moment of need without being asked.  Dr. Lebowitz notes that many parents in this situation are reluctant to ask for help and are usually surprised at how readily it is given once they do ask.  That is because the offer of help which seems huge to us, is not actually the tremendous burden we imagine it to be.  Lebowitz’s and Omer’s Supportive Parenting for Anxious Childhood Emotions (SPACE) program recommends that parents seek to recruit and engage parent Supporters prior to their help being needed.  The Session Module in the book, “Recruiting and Engaging Supporters” explores this topic more in greater depth.

Jay Boll, Editor in Chief

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Jay Boll, Editor in Chief www.rtor.org