6 Tips for Parenting a Troubled Child

Medically reviewed in January 2021

Just when I think I’m coming to terms with the Sandy Hook news, another blog or report comes out and I start tearing up all over again. Here at Sharecare, two questions weigh on us heavily: If Adam Lanza’s parents had gotten help early on for their son, could this tragedy have been prevented? And what can we do NOW to help parents whose children are mentally ill? For help, we turned to Sharecare expert Julie Hanks, LCSW, who’s worked with seriously troubled kids and their families. Read on for her tips.

  • Trust your gut. If you suspect your child has a mental or emotional problem, seek help right away. “Many parents wait too long,” Hanks says. “They’ll say, oh, it’s just hormones, or maybe it’s a stage. But it never hurts to get things checked out, and it’s better to err on the side of caution.
  • Monitor tech stuff. Use passwords for cable TV and computers, and limit Internet access, Hanks says. Find ways to spot-check what your kids are doing, including who they’re talking to and texting. Hanks recommends Web Watcher, a parental monitoring software that can provide screenshots of computer activity.
  • Watch for changes in behavior. Has your child stopped playing sports or dropped out of other activities? Does he or she seem indifferent or withdrawn? Has he tried to hurt pets or siblings? Have you noticed a preoccupation with death or excessive worrying? You need to take action right away.
  • Educate siblings. Explain in an age-appropriate way your child’s condition and let your other children ask questions. If you feel your son or daughter could be dangerous, prepare a safety plan: Make sure every child knows how to call 911 and can get to a neighbor’s or friend’s if needed.
  • Know what’s normal—and what’s not. Dealing with a mentally ill child is exhausting, and that can lead to poor judgment, says Hanks. “Fatigue, coupled with intense love and empathy, can cause parents to tolerate unacceptable behavior,” she explains. Because the problems tend to worsen slowly, the family’s idea of what’s “normal” changes. “But it’s not normal to be afraid of your child,” Hanks says. “And it’s not okay for a child to hurt others. Ever.”
  • Be relentless. It’s the parent’s job to be an advocate for their child. If you feel your child’s diagnosis isn’t accurate, or if the medication or treatment isn’t working, you need to dig deeper. Don’t give up. And be aware that your child may need to leave home for a time to get better, Hanks says. “If you’re dealing with a level of fear that your child may hurt you or someone else, that’s a real problem, and your child may need to be in a more supervised setting,” she says.

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