Staying Alive

Did you know that statistically one in five children in the United States experience a mental illness? One out of five. Think about that for just a moment. It doesn’t seem possible, does it?

Mental health continues to be a subject that most of us know very little about. Unless we are personally acquainted with someone who has been honest about their connection with mental health conditions, we are often fearful or assumptive in our understanding and acceptance of that which is unknown.

In their Basics class, NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) discusses the stigma surrounding mental health conditions in children. One of the major symptoms in children is challenging, difficult, or extreme behavior.

If we believed that all behavior is communication and ultimately an appeal for connection, how might we respond to the children in our lives?

My husband and I recently engaged in a conference call with a neuropsychiatrist who has pioneered the successful treatment of childhood limbic rage syndrome, including the mood disorder that challenges our son’s brain on a daily basis. As he discussed the results of the complex EEG, we sat in awe as he described the behaviors most likely to occur in our child based on the findings in his brain.

The amygdala is an almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain. It is shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions, mood, memory, and survival instincts, such as flight or fight. This part of the brain sets anxiety in motion as it fights to protect you, often manifesting as a screaming almond when faced with perceived threats.

The hippocampus is involved in the formation of new memories and is associated with learning and emotions. This part of the brain is responsible for one’s capacity to pay attention and retain information.

These parts of the brain are only a small picture of the areas that can be affected by illness, and they are the primary areas that are affected for our son. Through testing, we have been able to learn that his amygdala is three times more reactive compared to normative values. His brain’s reactivity is comparable to someone on the front lines in a war. Nearly everything is a perceived threat, and his only mission is to survive.

Emotions shoot up like a rocket, but unfortunately, he also has inadequate brake fluid, which in turn leads to faulty brakes and an inability to stop the forward momentum, thus leading to explosions. Everything becomes a distraction as he is constantly looking for where the danger might come from next.

I wish I could tell you that this newfound knowledge constantly remains at the forefront of my mind when addressing my child’s challenging behavior. Nevertheless, I am human. I lose my temper and try to control that which feels so very out of control. I threaten with consequences and attempt to entice with rewards, only to fail time and time again. I make allowances for decreased responsibility and accommodations that push me out of my comfort zone in an attempt to bring calm and regulation to his agitated body.

To choose a path of parenting that is different than what we as a society have widely accepted for typical children is isolating and, at times, humiliating. When I shift my focus from reacting and controlling my children to connecting with my children, I find that defenses are lowered and, in turn, behavior is more easily redirected.

I believe that all children do well if they can. Children want to do well. If they are not doing well, something is preventing them from doing so. Could it be that they are actually lacking the skills necessary to behave differently?

As I begin to understand more fully what my child experiences, I find myself more curious about the skills that might be lagging and therefore manifesting in behavior that is challenging and undesirable. My hope continues to be that I grow in empathy and acceptance of my son, knowing that it takes courage for him to fight to stay alive…every moment…every day.


Bethany Cabell, a lover of simplicity, is often inspired to write by the relationships she holds as a wife, mom, and a physical therapist. Bethany, her husband and their boys returned to life in Texas after wandering off to the Midwest for a season. What she once pictured her life to look like has forever been changed by her two sons. Navigating this messy and beautiful path of parenting two children each with their own unique challenges, she finds grace and beauty in the gift of each moment.