Parents Denial of Their Child’s Mental Health Issues Doesn’t Make It Go Away

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The more family sessions I do, the more concerned I become at the astonishing number of parents who are in denial of their child’s mental health issues.

Recently I was dealing with a teenage girl, referred to me by her mother because she was scared to be by herself, “acting weird”, talking and laughing to herself. After meeting with the girl twice I got her to tell me some information she had ever told anyone else. She was hearing voices and having extreme paranoid delusions of someone putting “voodoo” on her and making her do things against her will.

After further sessions and gathering more collateral information from her mom and sister, I diagnosed the girl with a psychotic disorder, with a rule out of paranoid schizophrenia.  I referred the mom to a local psychiatrist so the young lady could be evaluated further and the mom was extremely hesitant. She questioned my every judgment, and while she was very concerned for her daughter, she hoped that it was “all in her head”. I tried to convince her mother that it wasn’t “all in her head”, but an illness, that according to her records, seemed to run in the family. Their family history was peppered with un-diagnosed mental illnesses. Needless to say, the mother didn’t follow up on my referral until a few weeks later when her daughter had a psychotic episode that truly scared the mother. It was then she came back and thanked me for recognizing this when I did.

And then last week, I had a girl come to me extremely tearful. She had old and new self-inflicted cuts up and down her arm. She told me that she was suicidal, tried to walk out into traffic the day before but a friend stopped her. She had thoughts that day of hanging herself or jumping off the third floor of the school building. I called her dad to have a conference and recommend that she be taking to the nearby psychiatric hospital for her safety. I didn’t need his permission to do that, but I thought it would be better for her. When her dad showed up he was extremely annoyed, yelled at her for not being able to communicate with him, and said that she wasn’t suffering from depression, she was just “lazy”. He said she was failing school because she slept all the time, didn’t do her homework, didn’t want to be involved with her family and seemed aloof. The more he described her “laziness” to me, the more he re-affirmed my diagnosis of his daughter being depressed. He argued with me that she was depressed because of her failing grades and being behind in her work, even though she and I bought tried to explain to him that the depression is what caused her to start failing school and get behind in her work. He didn’t want to hear of believe that his daughter was depressed and suicidal and said that it was a cry for help, and it very well may be, but as a mental health professional, my job is the evaluate the situation and keep my client from hurting themselves or other people. Her dad left with her angry, probably thinking we were wasting his time, but I’d prefer him to be angry with me for being overly concerned than to be made at me for not trying hard enough to prevent her suicide.

Even just recently I have been working with a girl suffering from severe depression and suicidal thoughts. She confessed to me that she had attempted suicide last weekend by taking 18 sleeping pills and was disappointed that it didn’t work. I confessed her to allow me to call her father so that I could recommend psychiatric help, possibly hospitalization. The first thing her father said to me over the phone was, “No, I don’t believe it. We are Christians, we don’t do things like that.”

It took me while to confess her father to actually come into my office so him and I can sit down and talk with his daughter, and even then it took nearly the whole session before he started to accept that his daughter was indeed depressed although he was still in denial about her suicidal thoughts or previous attempt.

Parents can be my biggest allies or worst enemies when it comes to dealing with children and adolescent clients, and their denial of their child’s mental health issues only complicates everything. I see so many kids who can benefit from intense therapy and maybe even medication, but their parents ignore the seriousness of the situation and write it off as defiant behavior, active imagination or they just hope their child will grow out of things such as torturing animals and setting fires. Denial is a defense mechanism and while it’s okay to be skeptical, being in denial is almost always unhealthy in the long run.

Check out this commercial. It’s referring to substance abuse, but denial for parents extends well beyond just mental health issues.

29 thoughts on “Parents Denial of Their Child’s Mental Health Issues Doesn’t Make It Go Away

  1. I love this article. Being a mother, I can understand the “scariness” of imperfections in children. No one ever truly prepares for the unexpected when it comes to the kids. But being able to move parents from denial to acceptance through proper education is the best way to stop the parent’s emotional suffering.

    1. Thank you for your comment and your sharing. I can’t begin to imagine what it was like, but I am sure you are the best parent he could have ever asked for. Many parents simply remain in denial or give up, but twenty years later you’re still there. That speaks volumes of your love and dedication as a parent.

  2. I was one of these parents in a way. I wanted help for my child,but went the wrong way about doing it. When things came to a flood, there was no denial. He needed help. in this Journey. I found a lot of theripist balm the paarents insted of helping the child. I was told that there was nothing wrong with my son that a more love couldn’t fix.He was just acting out. We did everything we could to show our love, but that didn’t fix the fact that he was mentally ill. When the dam broke and my son’s life was nearly ruined, We found someone who would listen and wouldn’t stop talking until he got the help he needed.
    This isn’t unusual. I had another parent tell me who’s daughter was having behavioral problems at school. She was diagnosed as ADHD. When that didn’t pan out for the theripist the parent s were told they were just bad parents and the theripist didn’t know what to do with her anymore. The parents did a lst ditch effort with an other psycologist and was she diagnosed with a differrent illness that was not adhd.
    The child started meds and quickly started doing much better.
    We know our kids and when we bring them to someone for help that is what needs to happen.
    I have seen both sides of this when parents don’t want a stigma attached to their child so they just put up with the problems. I would rather my child have a stigma that he can work past and be healthy then to watch him suffer.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting. I’m sorry you had to go through that early on with your child. Some therapist do blame parents when there is definitely something wrong. I’m glad you followed through with your parental instincts. I know a fairly prominent school psychologists who blames almost every childhood problem on bad parents/parenting, and while sometimes it is the case, I find this more often to be the exception than the rule. Many children really do need help in the form of therapy and/or medication, and no amount of “proper parenting” will solve the problem without that help. I’m glad you were persistent and got the help you and your child needed and deserved!

  3. “It’s all in your head” – I don’t think I’ll ever understand this comment when it comes to mental health issues. Many adult clients have told me how thoroughly invalidated they feel when they try to explain their issues, only to be told, “It’s all in your head.” The best response yet? “Sure, it’s all in my head – and diabetes is all in your pancreas.”

    1. Wow, you are so right. It’s hard for people without any real understanding of mental illnesses to really understand that it’s not “all in your head”. I think sometimes I spend more time explaining that to families than doing anything else. Thanks for your comment!!

  4. I am going thru the same thing with my son, however, I am trying to get him help but his father is the one that is in denial. We are not together and we have Joint Legal custody so without his consent I can’t get my son the appropriate help that is needed, such as meds. My son is 8 and has been diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger’s and now he has delusional thoughts. His father blames me for the way that he acts, cause he most certainly doesn’t act that way with him. I have been reaching out to everyone that I can think of but without an attorney I feel that my hands are tied.

    1. I’m sorry that you are going through this. Sounds like you are more grounded in reality than your husband is, but it’s not uncommon for men to be more in denial than women. You are an easy person for him to blame for your son’s behavior and it will be hard for him to swallow the fact that his son actually needs professional help, maybe medication and alternative schooling. He may accept it once your son is older, or he may always blame you, that doesn’t mean you have to accept that blame. ADHD and pervasive developmental disorders are hard for any parent to deal with, hopefully he will come onboard sooner than later. Think about a support group for yourself as well, it will help you not only deal with the stress of taking care of your soon, but maybe even give you some better insight into the things you can do without your husbands okay. Best wishes.

  5. Is this sort of denial legal? Is it considered child neglect if a patient is self harming and the parent does nothing?

    1. That’s a good question and a tricky one. It can be a form of neglect depending on the severity and the level of ignorance on the parents part. A lot of students I work with have been diagnosed with an illness such as ADHD and prescribed medication, but they haven’t gotten the prescription filled in years and the child is obviously paying the price through constant behavioral problems, poor grades and interpersonal problems. I had a student diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her parents hadn’t given her any medication or taking her for psychiatric treatment in years and she could barely function. She was all over the place, other students couldn’t stand her because of her erratic and impulsive behavior, and she was failing almost every class and being sexually promiscuous. I spoke with her mother repeatedly about taking her to a psychiatrist to get her her back on medication, but her mom never did do it. I made a call to child protection services to report medical neglect. It’s usually a case where a child has been diagnosed and prescribed medication and they are obviously in need of help that those neglect reports are taking. More often, it’s the parents who are in denial that their child has a mental illness and so doesn’t even take them to get evaluated despite my persistent urging. There’s little that can be done about that unless the disorder causes significant distress or impairment in social, school or other important areas of functioning for the child.

  6. My Name Is Deontray And I Was Dianosed As Severe Depression With Psychotic Features And My Mom Is In Denial About My Illness What Do I Do.

    1. Hey Deontray, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I am assuming you are under the age of 18. The best thing to do would be to talk to someone at your school such as a guidance counselor, mental health counselor or better yet, your school’s psychologist so that they can help you better educate your mother on your illness and hopefully help her see the importance of her supporting you with love, therapy and medication if needed. If you feel like you are going to hurt yourself or someone else, you can always call 911 and they will make sure that you are kept safe and also provide your mother with the resources she needs to better understand your situation. Also, don’t be afraid to print things out for her to read. Education is often the key for parents. The better she understands your illness, the more likely she is to come out of denial.You and her both may need to find a support group in your area. Until then, surround yourself with the support you need, trusted friends, adults and especially those at your school who can help you reach out to your mother. Good luck, let me know if I can be of any other assistance.

  7. My brother recently attempted suicide….after he was on suicide watch he was transferred to a facility where he was supposed to get diagnosed…he ended up just walking out and was missing for 3 days…when we found him he was cut up feet were blistered and bloody…when we got him cleaned up my parents took him to a different facility where he was diagnosed with bipolar depression and anxiety….they gave him medication and said he needs to go to therapy…but my parents said he’s fine he doesn’t need medication or help he’s fine and he’s sorry with what he did and he will get better….I was NOT ok with this being his sister I got in a huge fight and told them they are enabling him and make situation worse they told me to stay out of it my younger brother tried telling them as well but they ignored him…I haven’t talked to them in months …I feel so helpless my family is completely fallen apart….what do you do when no one listens to you

    1. Hi Liz, wow, this is a sad situation. You would think that the suicide attempt would have been a wake up call for your parents, but apparently it wasn’t. The thing is, because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and everyones individual hang ups, your parents like most parents refuse to see that their child is sick. If he had another illness like diabetes or asthma, they would make sure he is being treated and taking the necessary medication. However, when it comes to mental illness, most parents want to think it is something that either doesn’t exist or will pass. They are clearly in denial and unfortunately it may take more tragic events to happen before they get it, such as coming home to find the house trashed or having to bail him out of jail or multiple suicide attempts. It shouldn’t take that much, but from my experience, many parents have to get to the point of exhaustion and frustration before they finally except that their child has a sickness that they can’t control and need help with. My advice would be to try to educate them on his disorders. They still may not listen, but hopefully the information will start breaking down their walls of denial so that it won’t take a number of unfortunate events for them to finally open their eyes. Stay patient, I know it is super frustrating. There’s been points where I had to call parents and ask them to immediately take their child to the psychiatric hospital because they told me they were going to kill themselves or were actively responding to voices telling them to kill other people, and the parents would insist on taking their child home and not to the hospital. I would end up having to do an involuntary hospitalization order and have law enforcement pick the child up.

  8. recently i told my parents my deepest secrect. That i cut myself. My mom told me “you should have cut yourself deeper so you could be dead.” My father just stood by and said”if i find any more sharp objects in your room ill beat you black and blue”. I cant take it anymore. being called the devils child and that im going to die and not make it to paradise is killing me mentally and physically. Please help.

    1. Hi Sharay, thank you so much for sharing your story. So many people are or have been in your place. How old are you? If you are in school I strongly suggest talking to a counselor at school. He/or she could provide you counseling or refer you to someone who can in order to help you deal no just with the cutting, but the underlying issues to why you cut and perhaps even provide information for your parents so that they can support you instead of ridiculing you. There are many support groups for people who self-harm and being a part of a healthy group could help you feel not so alone and give you other people you can talk to openly about your cutting and your feelings. Many people, parents included, don’t understand cutting and self-injury and because they don’t understand it they write it off as stupid, attention seeking or something you can just stop doing. Your parents are ignorant on this subject, but you can help them by getting help for yourself. Seek counseling and I promise you feel better both mentally and physically. If you need help finding a counselor in your area let me know.

  9. I just left a relationship with a man who lives in the Midwest with his daughter who finally at age 19 is getting help for her borderline personality disorder and bipolar disorder / narcissistic personality disorder . It was a painful position to be in I was accused constantly of hating his daughter because I was the only person who recognized the dysfunctional family behavior or denial . Her mother was long ago diagnosed with the same mental illness and last year was convicted of felony blackmail online against a married man whom she demanded pay her 25,000 or else. Immediately upon finding out that I was right all along in my concern my x demanded I return to ” make sure “his daughter went to all her therapy appts. All along I had fought to get her help all along the family was embarrassed of the ex wife’s disease and now the daughters diagnosis and treatment .. Even the grandmother who is a nurse still stands by the belief that she is faking this for attention ( despite repeated suicide attempts ) the father never has provided a structured living environment there’s never been chores and no job for the daughter .. He allows her to treat everyone bad and protects her from consequences of her behavior .. I finally decided my sanity was more important because I knew if I went back I would have no support from him at all.. I raised my kids to be successful and independent .. I think he is codependent on his daughter.

    1. Hi, thanks for taking the time to read and respond. It sounds like you did the right thing by leaving for your sanity. Unfortunately, in situations like this the whole family system is infected by denial and shame and it can be almost impossible for someone to come in and change something that has been going on way before you got there and possibly for generations. If you look at something we do in psychology called genograms, you will see that many families have certain patterns and certain traits that started generations before them and they don’t even realize it. You would drive yourself crazy trying to undo the damage this family has done to itself and it’s their job to do the work themselves, not yours. They definitely need to look into not only therapy for the daughter, but family therapy as well. Her disorder is one thing, but the whole family system needs to be helped if they want to see real improvement. You could have stayed and tried to help, but most likely would have just ended up feeling angry, frustrated and drained which is not good for your own mental health.

    1. That is something I do daily. I am always studying people, reading books, doing research, reading other peoples research and theories and applying different approaches to the work I in my personal and professional life. In my opinion, no degree, PhD or not, can ever substitute for continued education on your own. I work with people with PhDs in various fields who don’t know more than I do in particular areas and will come to me for my thoughts, advice or critique. Thank you for responding.

  10. As a young woman suffering form a mental disorder I understand what it’s like for parents to be in denial. My mom thinks if I just eat right, exercise, and get more sleep the problem will go away. What she doesn’t understand is that I have an eating disorder so I can’t “just eat right,” I am so tired all the time from being depressed so I don’t have the energy to “just exercise,” and my sleep is full of nightmares from my PTSD so I can never just “get more sleep.” She thinks if she denies it’s a problem it will just go away. However, having been diagnosed with an eating disorder, PTSD, and bipolar disorder I know that I need lot’s of help. Now that I’m 18 I’m starting to get that help but it is very hard to have a mother who denies everything that I need help with; she doesn’t want anyone to know or it could tarnish her reputation and image. My father doesn’t even know because he would think I need to be locked up somewhere. I plan on sharing this article, maybe one of them will see it and realize how much their denial hurts me. Thank you

  11. My husband was diagnosed with depression after our son was born he had a tough upbringing and had huge responsibilities put on him at a young age he’s parents only a yr ago stopped saying it was all in his head and accepted his depression diagnosis but they still deny his past issues and say he’s manifested these ideas,he reached out a couple of times to them trying to resolve these issues however they just denied everything, he was kicked out of home at 14 because he was given a threatened choice of smoking cigarettes or not.he left.I’m so worried about him I just wish his parents could see he needs love from them but I think he’s tired of a non winning battle, he’s at a point now where he wants nothing to do with them and frankly I can’t blame him.how is he supposed to move on in his life ?

    1. Hi, is your husband in therapy? I believe he needs to be in therapy in order to help him move past these issues. The birth of your son probably triggered a lot of unfinished business in his mind which caused the depression and he needs someone who can help him walk through that and put it behind him. Medication will help only somewhat.

  12. This article really describes a lot! I sought therapy for my daughter about a year ago and her father wouldn’t get involved and gave me a very hard time (we are not together). He caused so many problems that the therapist no longer wanted to treat my daughter. She was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. We had since looked for another therapist where he actually participated. He claimed the first therapists diagnosis was wrong because he didn’t have his input. The new therapist has since diagnosed her with pretty much the same thing and has called my daughters dad out on the fact that a lot of the anxiety she is experiencing is because of him and his treating her like a soldier . She is basically not allowed to make any mistakes or show emotion when with him. Well now he doesn’t agree to her seeing this therapist. I think it also has to do with the fact that he’s enforcing corporal punishment on her even after a judge has ordered him not to and she’s telling a third party. Anyway i just don’t understand how people can deny their children help when a professional trained in the area suggests it. Luckily we will be going back to court in a few months and I can explain what’s going on but it’s just very frustrating to watch my daughter suffer emotionally because of him.

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