When my son KC was about two months old, I took him in for his first round of baby shots. This was my first and only (and as I like to still say “my favorite child”) so I wasn’t prepared for what happened when the needle pierced KC’s chubby little arm. My beautiful baby boy had never experienced a nanosecond of pain prior to this point in his short life. His first emotional response was that of surprise. In shock and disbelief, he turned his stunned eyes to me, which implored, “How could you let something like this happen? This HURT me! I trusted you!” and then he broke out into a heart-wrenching wail. I started wailing right there with him. No lie. The doctor had to calm BOTH of us down. KC settled down in under two minutes, but there was no consoling me. I sobbed all the way home because I realized at that moment that this little human being was counting on me to protect him from pain. And sometimes, I would be helpless to do so. Nothing terrorizes a mother more.
No parent wants to feel helpless when it comes to protecting or helping their child. No parent wants to think there’s something wrong with their kid that they can’t personally fix. Whether your kid has a strange rash or you’re getting calls from a teacher, you never want to think something’s wrong with your kid. But what happens when there is?
Recently, a friend told me about the diagnosis of her nine-year-old son. “He’s bipolar,” she told me. Through the phone, her voice held relief wrapped in sadness. I knew that she’d gone through some really tough times lately. There’d been problems with her son shouting at teachers at school. She’d seen her son literally punch his younger sister. She and her husband had endured night after night of explosive tantrums over little things like finding a favorite bunny blanket at bedtime. She was at the end of her rope. Like any parent, my friend kept thinking there was something she or her husband wasn’t doing. Not enough attention. Not enough love. Too much sugar. During meltdowns at the grocery store, amidst judgy stares from strangers, she felt that she should spank her son … but she knew that lack of discipline wasn’t the issue. It was something else.
Parenting is already brutal. It takes a lot of courage and diligence to stop and get your child a mental health checkup. But I’m telling you, momma, you’ve gotta do it, especially if you’re experiencing some major behavioral blowups or developmental oddities when your kids are young. Or when they are older, and you’re seeing signs of depression beyond normal puberty-related angst. Or your college-aged son calls you and tells you “he’s spiraling.” It never gets any easier to pull up your big girl panties and try to find a solution. To make the needed calls. Mental health is not something you can put a Band-Aid on. Your baby is hurting, for real, for real, and he needs you to do that one thing you haven’t tried ─ calling a doctor. You and your husband, or you and your baby’s daddy, or you and your Nana can’t do this one alone. You need to seek professional help.
You can start by asking your pediatrician for referrals. (Most pediatricians will remain your child’s doctor until they turn 21.) They already know your child, and that’s helpful. But I know from experience that they won’t be able to help much by way of mental diagnosis. My son was bullied when he was in the 8th grade, and the mental toll it took on him was devastating to watch. I felt a sense of utter helplessness, like when I was in the doctor’s office sobbing harder than KC after his first baby shot. His pediatrician made referrals that were helpful. Your healthcare provider should also have a number you can call for referrals of professionals who accept your healthcare plan. But be careful. This is the time to channel your good old-fashioned Nancy Drew skills and sleuth out the BEST professional for YOUR child. Not just the doctor who accepts payments from your healthcare provider.
I felt like Alice in Wonderland going down one rabbit hole after the other. Thinking it might be helpful for KC to talk to someone who looked like him, I contacted a male African-American counselor. The first question out of his mouth after I sobbed my way through the reason for my call was “What medical insurance do you have?” He didn’t say, “I’m sorry your son is experiencing this.” Or “I know what a difficult period this must be for you.” Nope, he bluntly asked about the insurance plan, which told me he cared more about the money than he did about my son. I hung up on him without another word. Then I stopped crying and GOT MAD.
Mad at the system. Mad at how COMPLICATED it is. Mad that there was no one who could help me through this. But I kept at it. I had no choice. This was my baby. I made an appointment to see a female counselor who sounded good over the phone. She met us in the hallway after buzzing us into the office building. She led us to her waiting room, which was a closet. Literally a converted CLOSET. And not a clean one. It was tattered, and it smelled. And this was a professional our healthcare provider had REFERRED us to! I left before she ever returned to claim us for our appointed time.
Our pediatrician referred us to Dr. Ken, who finally helped us through this dark period, and the Meier Clinic that held weekly support groups for adolescents going through pain. It took months before we could breathe again. I painted our family room walls Benjamin Moore’s Hot Lips pink, as a form of my own therapy while going through all of this. Do your homework, mommies. YOU know who will relate best to your child. YOU know what level of professionalism you demand—healthcare plans be damned. YOU know if your child is feeling better or not. Trust YOUR gut. Check out the resources below. If you know of others, let me know. Oftentimes, just being in action will make you feel better. Now, stop crying, and go take care of your baby.