When a Child Has a Mental Illness: the Teenage Years

When my eldest daughter Felicity was a teenager, she could be moody and sullen and emotional. She was very hard to live with. I thought she was a ‘normal’ teenager.

We tend to judge other people’s experiences by what we know, what we have experienced ourselves. Most people label teenagers as difficult. Felicity was our first child. Of course her behaviour was typical of a child her age, or so I thought.

I tried to put myself into Felicity’s shoes, to think back to when I was her age. I remembered being sullen myself. I’d withdraw into a mood and refuse to be enticed back to happiness by my very patient mother. It was my way of responding to those hard years of being almost grown up but not being allowed the freedom or trust I felt I was ready for. I was drifting between childhood and adulthood and yes, it was difficult. I assumed Felicity was going through a similar experience.

Some days Felicity was ‘normal’. I’d watch her carefully when she got up in the morning. Was this going to be a bad day or a good one? When she smiled and was chatty, I sighed with relief. On those days we’d sit around the table sipping coffee and talking about all sorts of things. Felicity was very open and our conversations were deep and satisfying. She was delightful company and I thought, “If only all days were like this one.”

Sometimes Felicity would be in a good mood but then all of a sudden I’d realise she was slipping away into her moody world. When I talked to her she responded in short curt sentences. I could feel her emotions becoming cooler and more remote. At these moments my heart sank. I did everything I could to draw her back into our warm and loving world where we could communicate properly. I’d smile and offer love, say nice things. I’d ask her if she’d like to do something special with me. Felicity would shrug her shoulders and I’d find myself driving her to town so we could have mother-daughter time in a café. After ordering coffee and huge cakes (which she didn’t need but I was willing to buy if it helped), I’d try to talk to Felicity and keep her engaged. My efforts didn’t often work.

There were many days when I ended up frustrated. I’d shout such things as, “I spend so much time with you. I try so hard and you refuse to respond. Do you realise everyone is going to get fed up with you if you continue like this? What more can I do?”

The huge amount of time I gave to Felicity was time I didn’t give to our other children. I resented this, especially as my efforts didn’t seem to be appreciated.

Felicity is a talented person. She is musical. She can write. She can draw. And she is clever in so many other ways. During her teenage years she played the piano and clarinet, and she sang.

Sometimes when Felicity was practising the piano, I’d walk by and as soon as she realised I was there, her hand would jerk and a book would disappear out of sight. She’d resume her practice instantly as if she’d been playing all along and not reading the first book that came to hand. “Felicity’s lazy. She has no commitment,” I’d say with frustration. “Haven’t I taught her to be hard working? We’ve paid for all those lessons. She wants to study music at the conservatorium but she’d rather read than work hard. She’ll never make it.”

Felicity didn’t make it to the conservatorium. Her confidence seeped away. Her commitment disappeared. Even her ability seemed to desert her. I listened to her practising the piano the day before a big exam. She made so many silly mistakes over and over again. In the end she asked if she could miss the exam. We agreed. It was a relief for all of us.

But there were times when Felicity’s ability and confidence were awe-inspiring. When she was in the examination room doing her 6th grade clarinet exam, she discovered her teacher hadn’t prepared her to play enough of the set pieces. She was one piece short. The examiner pointed out an appropriate piece of music in her book and asked her to give it a try even though she hadn’t worked on it. Felicity came home with a triumphant look on her face, and a grade A result.

And there were many times when Felicity stood up in front of hundreds of people at Mass and sang solo so beautifully. Yes, I thought God had given her extraordinary talents. I was afraid she was wasting them due to a lack of self-discipline.

So Felicity changed her mind about studying music at the conservatorium. What was she to do instead? I tried to help her by making some suggestions. Could she do a Bachelor of Arts degree and study writing? She’d always enjoyed writing and was good at it. She’d completed a few Open University units and achieved high distinctions and distinctions. I knew Felicity would be able to cope with the work.

Somehow we found ourselves talking about a TAFE horticulture course. It wasn’t necessary to get high grades to be accepted on this course. I thought Felicity was aiming too low. She had the talent to achieve so much more. It wasn’t as if she had shown a passion for plants either. But after Felicity began talking about making a career out of being a check-out assistant in a supermarket, I said, “Find out the course details.”

Felicity never did enrol in that course. She continued to cry, “What shall I do? I just don’t know.”

“You don’t have to decide right now,” I replied. “You’re young. There’s plenty of time to make a decision.” But this didn’t help. Felicity seemed to have a real need to know what she was expected to do right then and there. And I couldn’t help her.

While all this was going on Felicity worked as a casual at a supermarket. She got the job with the aim of saving money and buying herself a better clarinet, and for a time her savings grew. Then she started frittering her money away. Before all her money disappeared I dragged her down to the music shop and we bought the clarinet. I don’t think she ever used it.

One thing she did want to buy was lollies and chocolate, family sized packets which she ate by herself. We’d find the lolly wrappers hidden away under her bed. Rather, her super-spy sisters would find the evidence. I guess our family started to divide, with Felicity on one side and us on the other. No one else would consider eating a big packet of lollies on their own. Why did she? I suggested she bought sweet treats openly and share them around.But this wouldn’t have satisfied her need, the need we didn’t understand.

Of course, Felicity’s weight steadily increased. I began to worry about this. I tried to talk to her about it. It wasn’t healthy. She’d
regret it later when she realised she’d have to diet. She should exercise more. I’d say, “Come on, we’re going for a walk.” Felicity would reluctantly put down her book and follow me outside. She walked behind me, her head down, barely lifting her feet off the ground. However slowly I walked, she could go slower. In the end, I’d shout at her and head for home: “You are impossible to help!”

There were times when Felicity cried, “I have no friends!” Her crying was always dramatic and noisy, with tears rolling down her face in torrents. Actually Felicity had more friends than her siblings have ever had. We’d take her to every possible homeschooling gathering. She invited friends over for sleep-overs. She visited her friends in return.

During her homeschooling years, I said, “Do you want to go to school? You’d see a lot of people there. You could make some new friends.” But just like every other suggestion I made, this one was rejected. It was as if I could never help her however hard I tried. I thought she wanted to complain but wasn’t really interested in finding a solution. And so I got frustrated. I can remember many times when I gave up and my mood of trying to help turned into one of anger. I’d yell. We’d both yell. I’d leave her, slamming the door on the way out. A moment later, I’d return wanting to say more. Didn’t Felicity know how difficult she was making my life?

I could tell you so many more stories of those years. I could write an individual post about every paragraph of this post. But perhaps I have recorded enough.

I thought Felicity was a normal teenager exhibiting normal teenage behaviour. She had good days. She had bad days. Very bad days. I thought she was sullen and moody, lazy and undisciplined.

I tried to help but got so frustrated when I thought Felicity wouldn’t let herself be helped. I yelled and got frustrated and wanted to give up. I invaded her privacy. I didn’t trust her. I didn’t show her unconditional love. I didn’t parent her at all in an unschooling kind of way.

Do you think that would have made any difference? Maybe it would have alerted me to the fact that she was suffering from more than the need for respect and trust. It might have made me realise she wasn’t a ‘normal’ teenager, but one with special needs. And even if I’d never worked it out, doesn’t everyone deserve to be treated with kindness, respect and love?

Felicity had a very difficult time as a teenager. She didn’t understand why. I didn’t understand. We both didn’t know.

We didn’t know Felicity was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness.

If you’d like to read Felicity’s post it can be found on her blog Felicity’s Felicity. It is called The Mentally Ill Teen and Other Memories.

Reading Felicity’s post, the words that stand out for me are these: 

“I also took my rising desire to prove myself as individual, to have different looks and hobbies and interests to my mum’s, as a very bad thing. I felt guilty about wanting to be different, so I would take any criticism of my appearance or interests very badly.”

Maybe I can explore that in another post.

Image: A happy day, cooking with Andy. Did I ever tell you Felicity is a fantastic cook?

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    • Fliq
    • January 6, 2014

    This post made me tear up with bittersweet memories, Mum! It is nice to realise just how much you cared for your difficult daughter, despite my behaviour.

    I never really thought of myself as a "special needs" child. I guess I did have different needs – possibly the need to explore the roots of my behaviour with a professional? I mean, I think it's becoming ever more obvious that we were not able to fully communicate and understand each other due to my behaviour being driven by mental problems neither of us understood, not because either of us was "bad".

    Thank you for publishing this today. I feel very loved – which is wonderful on a day when I am having s rough time. It's important for me to remember my medication every day, not forget it one beautiful sunny Sunday because I am too much in a hurry doing other things! I love you!

    1. Reply


      Thank you so much for commenting. I was wondering how you would react to this post. Would you see how much I love you, despite my words about being so frustrated when you were a teenager? Yes, I did care for you (and still do) very much!

      Neither of us were bad… That is so true. And we did have communication problems. Though I am so grateful we had those good days too. We never got to the point where we gave up on each other.

      Slow down and look after yourself! I am so glad you feel very loved, because you are. xxx

    • Hwee
    • January 6, 2014

    While we are caught in difficult situations, such as the ones you've described above, it is very hard to remember that children (including teenagers) usually use difficult behaviours as a way to call for attention to something that they're struggling with. Being difficult is their way to cry for help because they don't know how else to deal with their struggles. Of course, it is easier to realise this on hind sight, or when one is far detached from that situation.

    I have been researching into neurology and behaviour, and have found some very interesting correlations. Mental illness, as commonly termed, has much to do with neurological dysfunctions, which are in term affected by toxicity in the environment as well as food.

    1. Reply


      Oh yes! Sometimes when I'm very very tired or not feeling right within myself because of some problem, I become difficult too. I haven't got the necessary resources to explain properly what's going on. How much more difficult it would be for a child with a real problem. Neurological dysfunctions affected by toxicity in the environment as well as food… That is so interesting. Another reader mentioned food. I will follow that up. Thank you for sharing!

  1. Reply

    This continues to touch me more than I can express. Thank you both for such generous sharing – your love and integrity just shine right through.

    1. Reply


      Your encouraging words mean so much. Thank you! Thank you! xx

  2. Reply

    I too have been callenged too, very similar like you, whereas not always with the same subjects. There were no over weight problems e.g. But I wonder if it happens when kids or youngsters unconsiously want to form a kind of protection around them? An other question which arouses, when I read about your daughter not being diciplined etc. This could almost be me writing that. When my daughter chose an other lifestyle and an other education, I was quite disapointed (even though I would never express it clearly). I think, I had too high expectaitions. I have been examining myself earlier and noticed a lot also comes from proudness. I slowly learned to except her as the person she is, not the way I would like to see her (or how I would want others to see her!). Recently she started to be more herself, be more at home and and pick up her creativity again, she used to have as a child. Of course, we are not through the whole "teenage journey" yet…

    1. Reply


      Maybe we do put pressure on our children to fulfil our expectations. It can be so difficult when we know they have talents which we feel they should be developing and using. Yes, we can get disappointed. I also feel sad when I see potential not being fulfilled. But our children are not us. They can make their own decisions about who are they are and what they want to do. And perhaps if we back off they will eventually make up their own minds to explore their talents. I bet you smile when you see your daughter being creative! I saw the beatiful photos on your blog.

      Pride… oh I suffer from that too! It sneaks in and I can ignore it, calling it something else. Isn't it hard to examine our true motives sometimes?

  3. Reply

    Just thought, since you are such a talented writer, these stories you write about your teenager experiences and family life, wouldn't they make a good book?

    1. Reply


      Thank you for your kind words. I am touched you think I could write such a book. I will think about it and pray!

  4. Reply

    I think this is a beautiful and gutsy story you are telling, Sue, thank you very much!

    This is really bringing up the heart of my own ambivalence about unschooling my special needs kids (I'm not talking about your situation at all, you didn't realize Felicity had a special need). Is it the right thing to trust a child to follow their inclinations when their brain does not function in a normal way? My autism kids are on the shallow end of the spectrum, but the unchecked tendency can manifest in an over riding interest in, say, used subway transfers. What if, if allowed to do as they wish, they shut themselves in their room and develop ritualistic behavior?

    One of my children with brain damage would prefer not to learn how to write (or type). If I wait until he realizes the need to be able to write, he will be past the developmental time when the fine motor skills will have developed. And yet, how to do that without crushing his confidence in his own decisions? I try to explain and convince, take writing in very small doses, and I let him make his own decisions in other matters. Will it be enough?

    I don't know, and I think, the right path is humanly unknowable, which has really encouraged me to pray more! 🙂 I try to listen to what God is asking me to do with each child because at the very least, I don't know! And I'm all right with that, actually. None of us really know the true consequences of our good or bad actions. What can you do but trust in God's love and mercy?

    Also, I realized in my last comment that listing my kids health issues makes it look like I have a hard life, but I don't really! If you had told me all that would happen, I would have run away like my hair was on fire. But, in real life, I have always had a very happy life with my kids and I've enjoyed it even in the difficult times.

    I don't really blog about about these issues, because, by the time I began blogging, most of them had been resolved or were being smoothly manged. I had been blogging for several years before I realized I had never blogged about them. Also, it's not the first thing I want people to know about my kids. Their medical issues are hardly the most significant things about them and I think it's enough for people enjoy them as the quirky, funny, brilliant, loving people they are.

    1. Reply


      This is such a complex issue. I've had children whom I can label as 'special needs' but their interests and abilities haven't been extreme. Despite various difficulties, my children have still been very keen learners and I have never been concerned about their academic and developmental achievements. It's been more social skill issues I've had to think about and help with.

      I had a quick look online and there seems to be lots of people who have unschooled special needs children. I only skimmed a few posts but some of the ideas involved being patient and letting kids develop at their own rate and learn in their own way, and become the special people they are meant to be. Could it be we need to help our kids with certain things but encourage them to be who they are at the same time? And what are the essentials kids need to know? That's a hard one. I think you are so right about having to pray and trust.

      I was glad you shared your children with me. Probably all of us are special needs in some way. None of us are perfect. It's just some children's needs are more visible than others. But even these needs, as you said, are not the most important part of them… "quirky, funny, brilliant, loving people they are." I like that. And I wonder if we took away our children's differences, we'd also take away the things we love most about them.

      I think there is a very good reason we can't see into the future. I too would have panicked if I'd known what was ahead of me. Taken day by day, year by year though, we can cope, and it doesn't seem as bad as it sounds. Yes, we have happy lives!

      So good to chat. Thank you!

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