“Studies show,” the researcher told us, “that kids do better when their parents are involved.” Well, duh, I thought to myself. But when I looked around at others in the group, not everyone was so sure.

This is the tension parents of children with mental health needs face every day. Some of the people working with their children see them as a wonderful resource while others aren’t so sure.

I was attending a two day meeting on how to improve services for children and teens with emotional and mental health needs. We were a mixed group of attendees – some of us were parents, some were therapists, some were state agency staff or other funders. The hope was that as we heard from the researchers and trailblazers, we’d be enthusiastic and ready to create change in our communities. I go to this kind of meeting regularly, sometimes as a “token parent” but always ready to add a family perspective. Sometimes changing people’s minds is more difficult than other kinds of change.

I remember the first time I ran up against this idea that parents must somehow be part of the problem. My son was only 7 and had gone from being a sweet and anxious first grader to a child who had regular meltdowns and lots of school phobia. I brought him to the pediatrician and I talked daily to the teacher at his school. They knew me. Although I expected questions like, “When did this start?” or “What seems to help?” that’s not what happened. Instead, they both asked the same question: “What’s going on at home?” The implication was pretty clear.

I’ve heard this question many times since then and I always hear and flinch at the unspoken part of the question. I begin to doubt myself and think, “Is there something that I’m doing wrong? Is there something that I am failing to do?” The unspoken implication makes me feel like I am somehow part of the problem, not part of the answer.

About a year after the “what’s-going-on-at-home” conversations with the teacher and pediatrician, I had a very different conversation with my son’s therapist. He said, “Your son is lucky to have you. The two of you are a really great fit. Where he has needs, you have strengths.” Wow, I thought as I took that in. That made up for a lot. I played that comment over again and again, taking it out in my mind when the going got tough. It changed things. It fortified me. I saw myself as a real force to help my son and felt confident that he did better because I was involved.

I was right. That researcher was right. There are lots of studies that show that kids in residential programs who have involved families have better social and behavioral outcomes. The National Education Association says children with involved parents are more likely to attend school, get better grades and graduate. Even kids who have been placed in foster care show positive impacts from parental visitation. These are pretty powerful findings. What’s more they are consistent across different settings and situations.

The parents in the studies weren’t perfect, or perfectly consistent. They weren’t always involved in the way that schools or therapists or researchers told them to be. They were simply involved. It made a difference, often an enormous difference.

We talk out of both sides of our mouths in America, saying family is sacred and then saying parents are the problem. We get it right when kids are little. Who would think that not involving the parents of preschoolers is a good idea? But along the way, when kids aren’t adorable anymore, we start to think differently. If they end up with anxiety, depression, bipolar or another mental health problem, that decades-old thinking that parents are somehow to blame creeps in.

Kids Do Better When Their Parents are Involved: 5 Reasons Parents are the Best BenefitSure, parents make mistakes. But mistakes are how we get smarter and learn to parent better. I used to fervently wish for the handbook on how to raise a child with mental health issues and have someone direct me to the page I needed. There was no guide, of course, but holding on to the idea that I was a “great fit” made me feel like I had a superpower.

Here are five reasons that I knew it was true and that parents are the best benefit kids can have:

1. Parents give unconditional love.

Parents are their children’s biggest cheerleaders through thick and thin. We learn to always love the child while disliking or trying to change the behavior.

2. Parents know their family’s history.

Sure, we know the medical history and how our family moved a lot or had financial ups and downs. But we also know what works for our child with emotional or mental health problems and what doesn’t. Ever try to explain to a succession of people that no, star charts are a waste of time and yes, I know what I’m talking about?

3. Parents are like a one person band, playing all the instruments.

We assume a variety of roles including therapist, coach, improviser, translator and skill builder, often all in one day. It’s not what we signed up for since many of these roles require knowledge and skills we frantically try to acquire once we realize what our child needs.

4. Parents are bridge builders from their child’s inner world to the outside world.

Every family has a culture, every school has a culture and our children have to navigate them all. My son was very literal (if you made a joke, he thought it was true) and he needed me to help the school understand him and help him understand the world.

5. Parents have an enormous capacity for expertise.

A parent’s expertise increases over time and what’s more it’s tailored to their children. When my son got his first diagnosis, I learned everything about it, how it described him or missed and, over time, learned a lot about effective treatment. Like most parents, I began with a little knowledge and became a walking encyclopedia of relevant facts.

When I talk to other parents, I make sure to say something like, “Your child is lucky to have you” just like that therapist said to me. Because, even without knowing all the details, I know that just by being involved, it’s true.