You’re reading Between Us, a place for parents to offload and share their tricky parenting dilemmas. Share your parenting dilemma here and we’ll seek advice from experts.
As our children grow up and enter their teenage years, life can throw all kinds of obstacles at them – whether that’s health or mental health issues, bullying, problems at school, relationship and friendship break-ups or something else entirely.
And when your child is clearly going through a challenging time, you desperately want to ease their burden. But it can be hard to know how to help them, especially when they won’t seem to help themselves.
Such is the case for one parent, Angie, who shared her heartbreaking dilemma with HuffPost UK this week:
My son is 15 years old and has been struggling with severe anxiety. He hasn’t been to school for seven months and he has isolated himself from all his friends. He barely leaves the house and I am worried about his future.
Before this he struggled at school, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, and had constant negative comments [from the school] due to his behaviour to the point they considered expulsion. I know this contributed to his eventual school refusal. It didn’t happen overnight, he started missing the odd day, leaving for school in the morning but then going missing if I was home or just returning home when we left for work. He would not answer his phone and would only get back in touch if I texted him saying I’d report him missing to the police.
Eventually after one of these situations I asked him why he kept doing this and he completely broke down saying he didn’t know why ‘he just couldn’t’ (go to school). He then didn’t speak for a week. He’d hide under a cover if you tried to even look at him, he couldn’t communicate, he completely shut down – it was distressing to see.
He recovered slowly after a few weeks. After that I stopped making him leave for school and realised he wasn’t just avoiding school, he was really unwell. I pushed again for a mental health evaluation (he had already been refused once) and had input from social care after I self-referred when he’d been threatened with expulsion from school.
Before this he had a large group of friends who he has now cut off. They came to the house as they are worried about him and don’t understand why he just stopped communicating with them. I tell my son he can invite them over whenever, that I’d buy them a takeaway, but he doesn’t want to.
Also, I believe he has some form of autism but it’s not obvious, it’s subtle. When he was little I knew something was not quite right and tried to get him diagnosed but was told he was ‘just at the extreme of normal behaviour’ – I wish he had got a SEND package then but I wasn’t listened to. I can see all the missed opportunities and that’s frustrating.
I love my son and know he’s unwell, it’s not his fault. But I am getting frustrated with him because I want what’s best for him but he doesn’t accept any help. He refuses to engage with any help that is offered to him – so much so I have attended multiple meetings with school, doctors and other agencies to try and get him help/support without him present, as he refuses to attend.
He is now on a waiting list for a mental health assessment but I am worried that even when this finally happens, he will not go. He needs to help himself, but can’t seem to do it. This is such an important time for him and his future life. I just don’t know what to do or how to help him. I don’t want his whole life to be affected by this either. I’m at my wits’ end.
*The above post has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
So, what can this parent do?
Ryan Lowe, child and adolescent psychotherapist and spokesperson for the Association of Child Psychotherapists (ACP), says “sadly, it really isn’t an unusual scenario”.
“We receive several referrals a day from families who are in a similar situation,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Having said that, it does look like there are some complex things going on.”
For example, the issues that are going on at school could be to do with suspected autism spectrum disorder (ASD), behavioural signs of distress, or anxiety – and these should be investigated.
“In an ideal world I would recommend that this family have a really full package of intervention which would include a psychiatric assessment both to understand the levels of anxiety and to see what factors a neurodevelopmental issue might be playing in the situation,” she says.
“I would also want a child psychotherapist to work with the young man, and ideally another child psychotherapist who can work with the parents and help them to know how to support their son and think about the situation their family is in.”
But she acknowledges that all services, both NHS and private, are “hugely stretched” right now. Earlier this year, the Guardian reported that a quarter of a million kids in the UK with mental health problems had been unable to get help on the NHS. “There are so few available child psychiatrists anywhere and it would be a long wait to see anyone,” Lowe adds.
Given this situation, she recommends finding a really good child psychotherapist who can start with an assessment and begin to help the family get unstuck.
“Because he [the son] is unable to cope with engaging with therapists or support, it will need to be the parents that take on the bulk of this work and learn to understand how to help their son. Sadly he is currently pushed past the state where he can help himself,” adds the expert.
Be kind to yourself and remember you’re doing the best you can
“I know that these situations are absolutely devastating for parents to deal with. It feels impossible and like wading through treacle. However, a good deal of the work is just exactly what they are doing – trying to understand, trying to find something that can support him,” adds the expert.
In reaching out for wider support, they can help their son see that the state he is in is survivable, and that they are all in this together as a family, and will survive, she adds.
“It won’t last forever and it is possible to find a way out. Giving him that hope and giving it to themselves is really important. But I think it is hard to do without a professional behind them giving them the same message.”
The therapist also praises the mother for the way she handled things when her son broke down.
“The description of their son in a completely collapsed and catatonic state is really heartbreaking,” she adds.
“They did exactly the right thing in that situation, you cannot ask anything of someone who has just shut down and stopped functioning, just love him and care for him, without pressure, until he is able to come back to being able to think and communicate.”
Help and support:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393.
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill).
- CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) offer a helpline open 5pm-midnight, 365 days a year, on 0800 58 58 58, and a webchat service.
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0808 801 0525 (Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on rethink.org.