A Guide to Coping with Your Child’s Psychiatric Hospitalization

by Marianne Cook, LICSW, Clinician, Harvard University Mental Health Service

Sometimes psychiatric hospitalization can be the best option to keep your child safe and stabilize severe symptoms. Below are the some situations where hospitalization might be warranted:

  • Thinking about hurting oneself or others
  • Seeing or hearing things (hallucinations)
  • Having bizarre or paranoid thoughts (delusions)
  • Being extremely aggressive or destructive
  • Using drugs or alcohol and refusing to stop
  • Not eating or sleeping for an extended period of time
  • Exhibiting severe psychiatric symptoms (e.g. anxiety, mania, or depression) that have not responded to outpatient treatment.

Most psychiatric admissions are made through the hospital’s Emergency Room. A mental health professional will evaluate your child and determine whether he meets the criteria for hospitalization. The wait to be seen in the ER can be long and frustrating for many families, but in most cases it is a necessary step in the process. Some communities have Crisis Teams that perform evaluations at school or at home in order to expedite the hospitalization process. Check your local community resources guide to find out if there is a Crisis Team in your area. If you are concerned that your child is an immediate threat to himself or others, or if your child is refusing to accompany you to the hospital, you can also call 911 and have an EMT or the police come to your home to assist you.

Having a child hospitalized can bring up all kinds of emotions for parents. Some typical reactions are anxiety about what will happen to the child during hospitalization; relief that the child is in a safe place and getting help; and guilt, shame, anger, or sadness that the child needs to be hospitalized. The hospital environment can be both intimidating and overwhelming to parents. Here are some important things to keep in mind as you go through the experience of your child’s hospitalization.

  • Keep in regular communication with hospital staff. You can help the staff by giving them any information you have on the child’s presenting symptoms, his/her treatment history, and what has worked or not worked in the past. The staff is there to help your child, not to evaluate you or criticize your parenting.
  • Many parents worry that they will be left out of treatment decisions or that their opinions will be discounted. Remember, you are the best expert on your child. If you feel that you are not being included in the treatment process, share this concern with the hospital staff so they can address it.
  • Your child may say hurtful things to you during hospitalization, and this can be quite painful. Realize that your child is just reacting to the loss of control he/she is experiencing. Keep in mind that you have chosen hospitalization to keep your child safe and stable. In doing so, you are ultimately acting in his/her best interest.
  • You will be invited to visit your child during certain hours at the hospital. This is an important opportunity to provide your child with support and reassurance, and to check in about his experience. If you find that visits have become too upsetting for you because of conflicts with your child, consider limiting them to 15-20 minutes. You may be able to leave encouraging notes for your child with hospital staff who can pass them along at a better time.
  • Some parents may feel tempted to pull their children out of treatment before the hospital staff considers them ready for discharge. The hospital staff waits until they believe that a child is stable enough to return safely to the community; if you disagree with their opinion, explain your position to them and find out more about their reasoning.
  • Keep in mind that it may take time for your child to get accustomed to the hospitalization and begin working on this issues that have brought him there.
  • Because hospitalization is often stressful and brings up many feelings for parents, you may find yourself frustrated with the hospital staff and other mental health professionals working with your family. This frustration is normal; express your concerns so that you can get the guidance and feedback you need to stay focused on your child’s treatment.
  • Ask for help from trusted family and friends with getting household tasks done and looking after other children. Hospitalization, whether it’s for medical or psychiatric reasons, can put a strain on any family. You will need to make time for treatment meetings and hospital visitations, and it may not be possible to maintain a normal schedule.
  • If you have a flexible work schedule and feel comfortable talking to a supervisor, it might be useful to arrange some time off to focus on the situation.
  • Find out about support groups in the hospital and in your community—it can be healing to share your feelings with other parents whose children have struggled with psychiatric problems and/or been hospitalized.
  • Take good care of yourself. Talking to people you trust can be helpful—whether that be family members, close friends, or mental health professionals. Realize you may be more fatigued than usual and get rest when you can.
  • Consider keeping a journal about your feelings to help you process them.

Sources:

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “11 Questions to Ask Before Psychiatric Hospitalization of Your Child or Adolescent.”

Children’s Hospital Boston. “Preparing for Your Child’s Psychiatric Hospitalization.”

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. “Understanding Hospitalization for Mental Health.”

Disclaimer: Material on the MSPP INTERFACE Referral Service website is intended as general information. It is not a recommendation for treatment, nor should it be considered medical or mental health advice. The MSPP INTERFACE Referral Service urges families to discuss all information and questions related to medical or mental health care with a health care professional.