“Stop bumping into walls!” Would it be okay for a mom to say that to her child who is blind? Absolutely not. She’d understand it’s not intentional.
“How many times do I have to tell you to stop falling down?” Would a mother of a child who has cerebral palsy ever discipline her child that way? Never. She’d show compassion rather than give criticism.
It’s easy to know how to handle those situations. Disciplining children without special needs is fairly clear as well. Maybe not easy, but we have an idea how to respond.
A toddler’s constant talking can feel like torture at times. There’s a limit to how many words a mom can hear in one day. The young mother’s mind screams, “Leave me alone! Shut up! Please, for just one hour, stop talking. I’m begging you…I can’t stand it any longer.”
She replies with all the gentleness she can muster. “Mommy needs to concentrate on making dinner right now. Why don’t you go play with your toys for a while?”
Disciplining a child with mental illness (MI) isn’t so clear.
When a child is emotionally fragile and mentally unstable, how do you handle behaviors which would otherwise be unacceptable? Responding the wrong way could be dangerous. Or, an inappropriate reaction could plunge the child into deeper depression.
When Chris first started to unravel, he talked incessantly. Little did we know, his mind was racing. He continued talking even after our repeated instructions to stop. Finally Howie and I loudly demanded, “Stop talking!” Chris’s MI prevented him to comply. We couldn’t understand his disobedience. Until he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.
In the throes of a psychotic episode, Chris barked obscenities at us and punched holes in walls. He often broke things. Reasoning with a delusional mind wasn’t possible. Shouting at him would have provoked worse violence. Punishing him would have enflamed the situation.
We needed to respond calmly. Often ignoring the anger and destruction. That was the only way to defuse the situation. Preventing incidents proved better than reacting.
Does the Bible help us know how to discipline our MI children? Christ is our example.
Christ individualized His responses to those who need correction. He …
- Used a statement (telling Peter to put down the sword he cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest, telling the adulteress’s accusers that whomever is without sin should cast the first stone, telling the adulteress to go and sin no more)
- Coupled an action with a statement (when He turned over the tables of the moneychangers)
- Extended mercy (asking God to forgive those who were crucifying Him)
- Gave a command (rebuking the demons in the man to come out in Mark 1:23-26)
- Asked a question (when he responded to the Sadducees and Pharisees)
So, how do we discipline a child with MI? We follow Christ’s example. Considering the situation and the heart of our child. Seeking God’s guidance.
When Chris was a child with MI, it helped me to contemplate three things (in addition to talking it over with Howie):
- What must it be like for Chris to have MI? Are his actions deliberate? To what extent can he control his behavior?
- What would God have me do regarding a specific situation? If I lean on Chris too hard, would it be worth sending him over the edge? Is it time to extend mercy?
- Is Chris posing a risk of harm to himself or others? If so, what actions should I take? Is this a time to trust God for protection?
This was and is my daily prayer:
Guide my thoughts, words, actions, and emotions. Help me know how to prevent unwanted behaviors and to respond to them. Give me Your wisdom to know how, when, of if I should react. Protect our family from any physical or emotional harm. Fill Chris with Your perfect peace and restore clarity of thought. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Let this song minister to you as it reminds you of God’s love.
Hallelujah (Your Love is Amazing)