Is My Child Normal or Having Symptoms?


Question: How do I know when my child is their “normal” self versus when the behaviors are symptoms of their illness?




Answer: Parents have often shared that when their child is struggling with a mental health problem they don’t know who their “real child” is anymore. The symptoms their child is living with impact their moods, their behaviors, and their ability to interact with everyone around them. Parents can sometimes feel as though they are the only ones who ever see the “real child” (and that they don’t see that child enough). They can also feel as though they are grieving the loss of the child they used to know before the onset of the mental illness. One parent, in an online support group for parents of children living with bipolar, poignantly asked, “How do you grieve a child who is still living?” 


Whether a parent’s reaching out online, through social media, to a friend, or sitting across from a therapist in a session the answer is always the same:


Your child is still there. 


It may be difficult to truly “see” them because of their symptoms,

but it is important to remember:


A child is not their illness. 


For starters, problematic behaviors are not what defines the child’s character. Most often, those behaviors are the observable symptoms of their illness. This can be hard to remember in the moment when those symptoms drive behaviors that produce chaos in your home, at their school, and within your family. 


It’s true that these symptoms may overshadow traces of the child’s true self, but that doesn’t mean that those things that made them who they were are gone. Those core characteristics are usually still there, like a light hidden under a bushel. But when the weight of the active symptoms lifts that light is still there, ready to shine. 


There’s no hard and fast rule to follow to be able to tell when your child is symptomatic versus when they are just misbehaving or being difficult. Although, you can watch our video entitled, “Is it “misbehavior” or a symptom?” which is located on our members only learning videos page


Unfortunately, the only way to remove that “bushel” and get your child’s light to shine through is by getting them accurately diagnosed and access to effective treatment. But, once the targeted treatment plan is in place, parents will begin to see whether or not their at home interventions and treatment efforts are reducing the observable symptoms. Over time, the “real” child will emerge. 


Remember, it takes time to heal, for you as well as for your child. Many children living with a mental illness have been misdiagnosed and treated for other mental health disorders that they don’t have. Which means there is a good chance a child diagnosed with bipolar disorder or Fear of Harm, for example, will have likely been taking stimulants for ADHD, an antidepressant for depression or anxiety, antipsychotics for suspected DMDD, medication to assist with sleep, or all of the above and more. All of these things wouldn’t have correctly addressed the symptoms of bipolar. Given these false starts and the trauma they may have caused, there’s still recovery that needs to happen before you can fully reap the benefits of being on the right treatment path. 


Parents who ask questions, search for information, and talk with other parents of children who live with mental illness are more likely to make more informed decisions regarding treatment plans. When children are receiving the appropriate care they begin the process of healing, symptoms decrease, the disorder becomes more manageable, and the child who was always there is finally able to emerge and shine.

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