Caring for child with mental illness is great challenge and honor


Editor’s note: As Mental Health Awareness Month comes to a close, Karin Davis-Thompson of Tampa shares her story as a mom, caregiver and advocate.

When we first met, she was a spunky 2-year-old, a little unsure of her new surroundings but oddly enough, not as upset as I imagined she would be.

We started as my daughter’s foster parents after she was removed from her first foster home – the only home she had known since birth. It didn’t take long for my husband and I to realize that things were not as we were told.

The diagnoses

She was nowhere near fully potty-trained, her language seemed to be a bit behind, she mumbled A LOT, and there were times when I would ask her a question and she wouldn’t look directly at me or it would seem she just flat-out didn’t understand.

Time passed. We adopted her before she turned 3, and eventually, after a lot of persistence, the diagnoses began. Because I was a young mother, many people dismissed my concerns. But I learned early to trust my gut and never allow someone else to tell me what’s best for my child.

By the time she was a preteen, there was ADHD, autism spectrum, sensory disorder and a mood disorder. By 17, the mood disorder became bipolar 1.

Learning, sharing

Caring for a special needs child suffering with a mental illness has been one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do, but also one of the greatest honors of my life.

Because of her, I have been able to gain a better understanding of the importance of mental health, especially in communities of color. I have had the opportunity to learn and gather information that I’ve been able to share with others and made friends (in support
groups) with people I never would have had the chance to meet.

But to say that raising a child like my girl is emotional is an understatement. She’s up,she’s down, she’s happy, she’s sad, she’s cussing me out, she’s telling me how much she loves me. And now that she is 18, the challenge is to accept that there is no need for me to fight with her over every poor decision or unwise comment she makes.

Abused as baby

Sometimes, I have to let it go and wait for her to ask for my help.

Sometimes, it breaks my heart to think of what she’s been through – some of the trauma that has brought her to this place. Not all of what my baby struggles with is heredity or being randomly chosen for mental illness.

We know she suffered trauma. I mean some terrible abuse, around potty training. We don’t
know the details but trust me, it’s been manifesting in her behavior her entire life.

It’s been showing up in her behavior for so long that recently I realized I’ve been asking her the same question since she was a toddler, “Pumpkin, are you wet?” And still, after all of these years, she doesn’t trust me enough to just tell me so I can help her.

Still suffering

Anybody that tells you childhood trauma isn’t real and lasting doesn’t know what they are talking about.

According to Psychology Today, children who have suffered childhood trauma (up to 6 years old) are overwhelmingly likely to still suffer from it as an adult. It’s no wonder my girl lashes out. I sometimes feel like there is still a part of her I can’t reach.

That little girl who was hurt all those years ago who still can’t quite trust. The one who has to scream, yell, say mean things, all in an effort to see if I’ll still be there for her, love her, no matter what.

And no matter how many times I prove that she will always be my baby girl, she has to test me again.

Maybe one day I’ll be able to reach that part of her heart she feels she just can’t afford to give. Even if she doesn’t realize it yet and even if we never quite get there, I will ALWAYS love her, she will always be mine, period.

Take care of yourself

I choose to share my story in the hopes that it will connect with a mom, dad or caregiver struggling to love and care for someone battling with mental illness.

It can be a lonely road, and one that sometimes leaves us forgetting to take care of ourselves. But in the past few years I’ve come to realize that the cliché is true. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of you.

So, I’ve been deliberate in the past few years to make sure I find time to do things just for me, and to realize that I have the right to preserve my own mental health. Sometimes that means saying no to what my daughter may want from me, even if others don’t agree with my decision.

No one understands this journey unless they’ve traveled it. I know your struggle, and I am praying for you.

Karin Davis-Thompson is a former reporter who now works in communications for a global company in Tampa. She also has a podcast and blog, In My Shoes (, where she chronicles her journey as the mother of a child with special needs. She can be reached at



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