When Butterflies Aren’t Flying: An Irreverent Look at Childhood Wisdom

My son likes to spend his allowance at the dollar store. He hasn’t learned that cheap toys don’t last. For him it’s all about stretching his two dollars as far as he can.  That’s fine but ten minutes after we get home most of his choices fail the usage test.  Still he smiles and marches to the cashier, generally presenting money before the item being purchased, and week after week buys junk.

Victory! I talked him into saving and with the help of some extra side jobs, he has nine dollars. Now he’ll see the error of his ways. Off we go to Wal-Mart in search of a more substantial choice than a hollow plastic dinosaur or a set of cars with axles already falling off in the bag.  Nope. That’s too much money. Take me to a different store he says, clinging to his green.  Ugh. We need more than nine dollars to shop at Toys-R-Us so now what?  His suggestion … back to the Dollar Store.  Oh for Pete’s sake!

Well, a dollar lighter we are home with a super duper lime green butterfly net which will momentarily be adorned with duct tape to better secure the net to the stick. Chasing butterflies, bugs and hopping critters is a great spring pastime and I applaud his choice in theory.

This spring has been unseasonably cold and we here in mid-America are still getting thermostatic whiplash with a hard freeze following right on the heels of an 82 degree afternoon.  Another freeze is coming next week. I’ve told Munchkin that we are not likely to be inundated with morphed caterpillars while the nights still feel like December. Undaunted, he dons a coat and goes in search of the illusive butterfly.  I get a cup of tea, wondering if the net will survive long enough to ever whip through the air in pursuit of a Monarch.  (No I don’t think we get Monarchs here, but using the word butterfly again in this short blurb would create a grammar gaff that would leave me sleepless. And, well, chasing a Painted Lady with a net just seems kind of inappropriate for a four-year-old.)

A bit later I’m in search of a too quiet Munchkin. There he is, net full of bright yellow flowers, smiling.

Whatcha doing?

Nothing.

Find any butterflies?

Nope. But I got these. What are they?

Dandelions, I say resisting the urge to call them weeds.

Well, Mama, when butterflies aren’t flying, just hunt dandelions!

Eyes watering and fighting back a sneeze I congratulate Munchkin on his catch just as the net full of bounty is bunged beneath my nose.  Back inside I grab a glass of water to wash the pollen from my throat. Munchkin stares at me through my half empty glass. There is something naively profound in what he said I murmur, knowing he sees my glass half full.

Butterfly Hunting

5 things I learned raising mentally ill children

Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons
Image by Lynn Kelley via WANA Commons

1.  Listen, listen, listen

As much as I sometimes want to stick my head in the sand it’s important to stay involved. Good advice for every parent, but vital to those of us with mentally ill children of any age. Clues are everywhere – even in their silence. If you practice listening on purpose you’ll gain insight into their thinking that you wouldn’t otherwise have because they can’t or won’t tell you. You’ll know how they handle pain; you’ll know where to start looking if they go missing; and you’ll learn to know when they’ve been quiet too long.

2.  Take every threat seriously

Don’t put threats from your children under a bushel basket of fear or denial. Whether directed inward or outward, every threat needs to be addressed. Even very young children can be dangerous to themselves and others. I’m throwing myself onto the proverbial sword here but as bad as it sounds children aren’t all fluffy puppy-like creatures and it’s unwise to stereotype them like that. I’m not saying that all children with mental health issues are dangerous and you shouldn’t read that into what I’m saying, but be willing to be honest with yourself and others if you think there is a problem. It’s an act of love. I feel compelled to add this word of forewarning: adults accusatory of the very young will themselves be viewed with mistrust and put under a microscope of suspicion. This is especially true if you don’t yet have a firm diagnosis. Don’t let that stop you.

3.  Isolation comes with the territory

Stigma isn’t just a word thrown about in discussions of mental health. It’s very real pain. There is a stigma that comes with being different, or having someone different in your family, and being different sets you apart – sometimes very far apart. You lose friends. You get shunned and uninvited. Play dates for a kid who overturns furniture without provocation or enjoys shredding paper into tiny bits to create cherished collections are hard to arrange. Even trips to the ER with an adolescent who self-harms can lead to medical professionals publically shouting “it’s the cutter again” and your wish to become momentarily invisible.

4.  Siblings can be peripheral damage

Your other kids can get lost in the shadows. Siblings are victims too. They have lost a person they loved and are faced with someone they don’t know. They fear it will happen to them. It kills them to see you hurting and they want to fix it. But like you, they are helpless.

5.  Love and Rescue are not synonyms

There is a time to stop making things right. It can be hard to define the line where helping becomes enabling. A good first step is admitting that the line exists. Don’t stop looking for resources, but stop replacing wrecked cars, covering debts, paying bail and buying the lies.

Having mentally ill children is frightening whether yours is a child carrying a lunch pail to elementary school, a defiant teenager killing emotional pain by creating physical pain, or an adult who follows voices you cannot hear.

What have you learned from your love of the mentally ill?