A Parent’s Guide: What to do when Your Child Experiences a Mental or Behavioral Health Crisis.

Maybe you can relate to this scenario:  hour long meltdowns for no apparent reason, inability to re-direct, aggressive tantrums that result in property destruction or flying objects, bruising left on you due to trying to restrain your child.  If this sounds familiar, or you know someone who is walking this path, keep reading.

The holidays can be extremely hard for children who have mental health and behavioral disorders.  Changes in schedules, routines, online classes and pandemic, and the overall stress of holiday events can lead to more meltdowns than usual.  Parents often find themselves at the end of their rope, feeling unequipped, scared and alone.  

We, my husband and I, have had many, many years of this routine with our son, who is on the Autism Spectrum.  Three years ago we experienced our first trip to the ER for a psych eval and 72 hold.  This was followed by three years of multiple hospitalizations, residential placements, court involvement, DHS involvement,  and hours and hours of therapy.  We have had the epic 2-3 hour meltdowns, complete with threats to run away, physical destruction of property, aggression toward us, threats toward others,  and leaving the house without permission in the middle of the night.  That is us in a nutshell.

As I have offered words of encouragement and resources to parents over the last couple years whose children seem to be heading down the same path, I have come up with a short list of resources.  Resources can be our life line to sanity and to survival.  Maybe you need these now.  Maybe you know someone who needs these.  Please feel free to share this post.  Most of these are based in Colorado, but many states have a similar system.

If your child is under the age of 18, and is in crisis NOW:

1. Take them to a Children’s Hospital ER that has a Psychiatric Unit.  At our Aurora, CO campus there is a Psych Unit in the ER where you will find staff members (nurses, counselors, social workers, doctors) who are there to de-escalate your situation, do an initial eval, and offer options.  Your child can be admitted, or they might point you in the direction of day treatment programs. IF your child is admitted, please know that you CANNOT stay with them.  This is different than the regular part of the hospital.  You will spend the next few days on long phone calls with the clinical team who is observing and treating your child, and will be called in to learn more about how to help your child at home. The silver lining to hospitalization is that you get to REST.  Let people bring you meals, find time to rest and practice self-care while your home is at peace.

           Children’s Hospital offers a Day Treatment Program, as do other Psychiatric Hospitals.                                                                                                                                                                                                    We also recommend Denver Springs Psychiatric Hospital for inpatient and day treatment, especially for teenagers.  

2. Call 911 and ask specifically for the CIT team.  The Crisis Intervention Team is comprised of officers, counselors and social workers who are trained specifically to handle mental health crises.  An officer can come to your house and help de-escalate your child, and give you next step resources.  They are amazing with children!  The direct line to CIT is: 1-844-493-8255, or text “TEXT” to 38255

3. If you find you are not sure what to do, there are Walk-In Centers in the Denver area for anyone who is in crisis or has a family member in crisis.  You can walk in anytime and talk confidentially with a social worker who will help you process and figure out next steps.  Google “24-hour Denver-Metro Walk-In Locations” to find the one nearest you, or go to coloradocrisisservices.org.

If your child is in a pattern of crisis that ebbs and flows, do NOT wait to seek professional help, diagnosis, and treatment.  Our son started to escalate in 3rd grade, and it was not until 6th grade where we got serious with seeking a diagnosis and treatment.  This meant we were not only playing catch up, but we had reached the point of crisis that led to hospitalizations and removal from our home.  Please do NOT stay in the cycle of crisis without seeking help!

As parents we want to think that tomorrow will be better, but the truth is that kids will do good if they CAN.  But for some kids they CAN’T because their bodies won’t let them!  Your pediatrician is not necessarily the professional you need for specific mental health risk.  They are trained for general pediatric care, rather than in specialty care like Autism, ADD, ADHD, Bipolar, Sensory Processing Disorder etc.

Here are resources that we have found invaluable:

  1.  Get a diagnosis!  A diagnosis opens up a world of resources and pathways to change.  Children’s Hospital does evals, as well as many other agencies.  Call NOW and get on their waiting list!  Then begin to make a list of your child’s “-isms.”  What makes them different, what is out of the bell curve, what would shock people if they knew.  Once I showed my -isms list to several counselor friends, they said to get an eval ASAP!  For us, once we had our Autism Spectrum Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder Diagnosis we were pointed in the direction of Occupational Therapy, CBT counseling, and Eqiune Therapy (Horseback Miracles in Larkspur, CO is THE BEST!).  These became a lifeline to us. 
  2. Consult with a Psychiatrist.  Unlike your pediatrician, a Psychiatrist has the expertise with medication-what is best for a specific disorder, what drugs interact well with each and what does NOT, and they can also work with you on nutrition and see if there are underlying metabolic deficiencies playing a part in your child’s behavior.  For us, we found a mood stabilizer and a seizure med that calms down the Fight/Flight response in the brain-these are GAME CHANGERS!  We went from riding the roller coaster each day of extreme mood changes and aggression and epic meltdowns, to now very few escalations throughout the month.
  3. Find a good counselor and/or social worker to work with your child and also your family.  As parents, we are unequipped for this life of raising a child with a behavioral disorder.  It is JUST AS BENEFICIAL for you to have counseling as your child.  Social workers can work with your family unit, as well as an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor) who specializes in your child’s area of need.  Many therapists and social workers take insurance.    
  4. Reach out to your County to get funding and resources.  We live in Douglas County, so we because we have a diagnosis we have received funding through Developmental Pathways to help cover ALL of our Occupational Therapy, Equine Therapy and Audiology bills.  This is an amazing resource.  Did you know that most special needs families and families with children like mine spend $20-30K a YEAR on treatment and resources!

I will write a follow up post on Psychiatric Hospitalizations and Residential Treatment Programs-what to expect, when is the right time for admission, and what parents need most when their child is hospitalized.  Please subscribe to my email list so that you do not miss these future posts.  Feel free to drop me a comment too-I feel very passionate about helping those in this particular situation.  We have walked this road for 14 years, have learned a few things along the way and would love to help others navigate this difficult and challenging road.  Resources and knowledge is power.  We have gained this along the way, and we hope to equip you sooner than later in your journey of parenting.

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