The new HBO documentary "A Dangerous Son" exposes the challenges of parenting a child with a psychiatric disorder. We spoke with two of the film's subjects.

By Sarah Klein
May 07, 2018

When kids are diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder like autism, anxiety, or ADHD, outsiders are often quick to point fingers–at their parents.

“As a parent you will be blamed. You’ll be blamed for your child’s struggles. You’ll be told, ‘Oh you should just take parenting classes, that will fix it,’” says Liza Long, author of the viral essay I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.

Long is one of several mental-health experts and advocates featured in the new documentary A Dangerous Sonwhich airs tonight on HBO at 8 p.m. and tomorrow on HBO On Demand. The film follows three families as they desperately seek treatment for their boys and exposes the blame, guilt, loneliness, and fear experienced by their mothers in particular. “If your child has cancer, the whole community rallies around you,” Long says in the film. “But mental illness is not a casserole disease. Nobody brings you a casserole when your child’s in the acute care psychiatric hospital.”

Health spoke with two of the women featured in the film—Stacy, who is mom to Ethan, and Edie, mom to William. Here’s what they want others to know.

We love our children—and they’re not bad kids

Both moms agreed with Long’s sentiment that parents are blamed for the mental health of their children. “I think people misunderstand that we are good parents, that we love our children,” Edie says. “We were thrown a curveball that we weren’t expecting, but it doesn’t have anything to do with a lack of discipline or a toxic environment in the home. It just has to do with the chemicals in their brain.”

Stacy tells Health that loving her son Ethan means feeling sad for him because of the emotional pain he’s going through. “I know my son is saying things like, ‘I want to kill you,’ but he’s really mad you’re upset at him. Sometimes it just takes saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and in an instant he’s okay. He lacks the skills to say, ‘I’m upset,’ so it comes out in full rage.”

Ethan Courtesy of HBO

Strangers who witness Ethan having one of his emotional outbursts have approached Stacy and called him a terrible kid, she says. “These children aren’t bad children. These children have feelings. Take a step back from thinking you could do a better job and have more understanding that if a kid is behaving a certain way, there might be something going on. It’s not that this kid is bad, he might just need some extra patience or a kind voice,” she explains.

RELATED: 5 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Having a Panic Attack

We probably don't need your well-meaning suggestions

Even if they come from a place of compassion, recommendations—to put a child on an anti-inflammatory diet, for example, or let him start journaling to release his emotions—probably aren’t helpful for a child with a mental illness.

“People think parents should do this or should have done that, but I hope people can kind of see that … this is a real issue that takes more than one professional!” Stacy tells Health.

Families have most likely already tried those methods—and more. “We’re going above and beyond the call of duty of motherhood,” Edie says. She moved her family from Colorado to Wisconsin to get her son William into a program for children with autism, which he was diagnosed with as a younger child. “We had to live in a friend of a friend’s basement until my husband could get a job, that’s how desperately we were seeking help for my son.”

We want your support

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t offer help. Take the time to ask a parent or their child what exactly you can do to support them. “[People at our church] wanted me to explain to them how they can help our family," Edie says. "They really took the time to understand. That was super helpful to have a support system and to have people really want to ask the questions: How can we help? What would be the best thing for you? Being a good listener really goes a long way.”

RELATED: 13 Things People With Anxiety Want You to Know

Children in need must have access to care

The film focuses on various roadblocks to getting treatment for children with mental illnesses, including cost (rehab is described as a luxury), bureaucratic obstacles, and a lack of options (there’s a waiting list for residential facilities even for the kids that qualify). Edie wants the public to know this is unacceptable. “I hope people take away from the film that there is a crisis that we need to address here,” she tells Health. “We need to demand that there be access to the help that these children need.”

William Courtesy of HBO

This kind of parenting is a full-time job

“It is really hard for me to get a job right now and know that I’ll keep it,” Stacy says. She’s frequently called away from work because of Ethan’s behavior, and she is constantly taking him to important appointments. “Having a child like this is a full-time job,” she says. A mom in her position "has the whole world on her shoulders.”

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You’re not alone

If you watch A Dangerous Son and find that it hits close to home, know that you’re hardly alone. Even so, seeing your own child struggle with mental health issues can feel isolating. “Especially with the Facebook generation, you see all these pictures of happy families and their children,” Edie says. “My friends, we all had children about the same time, and they’re posting about how they’re succeeding here and there, and I’m like, ‘William didn’t have a meltdown today, yay!’ My life was very different than theirs, so in that way it can feel isolating.”

“I think all of us moms feel judged," Stacy adds. "I’m not ashamed of my son, but that doesn’t mean he can’t embarrass me, so I’m hesitant to go certain places with certain people, and I've lost friends. The fact that I have to feel that way—that I’ve been made to feel that way—is not enjoyable." With more compassion and more understanding, she hopes other moms won't be quite as judged or shamed.