Parent of a Child Who is Struggling? Here are 7 Things Other Parents Want You to Know

Parent of a Child Who is Struggling? Here are 7 Things Other Parents Want You to Know

It isn’t easy to be the parent of a child who is struggling. You may be feeling stressed and overwhelmed and unsure of what to do to help. You may be feeling frustrated and angry or worried and scared – or sad that life is so difficult for your child. You may be feeling so many different things, sometimes all at the same time.

How do I know this?

I know this because I’ve lived it.

I’m the mother of four children who experienced a variety of different mental health, neurodevelopmental, and behavioral challenges during their growing up years—and who are currently thriving as young adults.  

I’m also the author of a brand new book (Parenting Through the Storm) that is based on interviews with over 60 parents who have faced similar challenges in their own lives. Those interviews taught me a lot about hope and strength and family resilience and what it takes to weather life’s storms.

Here are seven important lessons that emerged from my research – seven things other parents who have been there want you to know if you’re the parent of a child who is struggling.

  1. You and your child are not alone.

It may sometimes feel that way at times, but the numbers paint a dramatically different picture. Nearly one in five children and teenagers are affected by a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder that is serious enough to cause them problems at home, at school, in the community, or in their relationships with friends. That means a lot of kids are hurting – and a lot of families are hurting along with them – because when a child is struggling, the entire family is affected at the same time.

The good news is that there are other people who understand the challenges that you and your child are facing – people who have been there and who are eager to lend a listening ear, share non-judgmental advice, and offer practical support. You don’t have to weather the storm on your own. 

  1. Having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent, just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid.

It just means that you’re going through a difficult time as a family: that this is the particular challenge you’re dealing with right now. Blaming yourself only makes the situation more painful and more difficult and it doesn’t do a thing to help your child. So instead of investing your precious emotional energy in an activity that is counter-productive at best, start treating yourself with self-compassion (which basically means treating yourself with the same amount of kindness that you would extend to a friend who is struggling).

  1. It is important to reach out for help as soon as you begin to suspect that there could be a problem.

If your parent radar is telling you that something’s not right, pay attention to that feeling and start looking into having your child assessed. It’s better to err on the side of caution by checking things out than it is to ignore your all-powerful parent radar. Of course, it’s always possible that your child will be doing just fine by the time the assessment date rolls around – or that the clinician who assesses him will conclude that there’s no immediate cause for concern. What a great problem to have: discovering down the road that your child is actually doing just fine. It certainly beats the alternative: not getting in to see someone soon enough and watching your child (and your family) continue to struggle.

  1. There are things you can do right now to start making things better for your child and your family. You don’t have to wait until you have a diagnosis or a treatment plan in place.

Some things that can make a world of difference for children (to say nothing of their parents) include

  • using parenting techniques that bring out the best (as opposed to the worst) in your child—like learning how to validate your child’s feelings;
  • becoming a strong advocate for your child and helping him to learn how to advocate for himself, too;
  • working on your own coping and stress management skills and teaching those all-important skills to other family members, too;
  • making a healthy lifestyle a priority for your entire family, which means eating well, exercising often, getting adequate sleep, and making time for fun. 
  1. You don’t have to be afraid of obtaining a diagnosis for your child.

A diagnosis simply provides a snapshot of information about your child. It doesn’t have to define or limit your child and it can provide you with valuable information that allows you to zero in the parenting strategies and treatment options that are most likely to be helpful to your child. A diagnosis also opens the door to all kinds of treatments and supports, including in-school supports that might not otherwise be available.

  1. It is important to give yourself permission to continue to experience joy in your life, even when your child is going through a hard time.

Every parent deserves time off for good behavior, especially the parent of a child who is struggling. You can’t put your life and your happiness on hold until some unknown future day when your child is no longer struggling. You have to do the hard work of finding happiness in your life right now.

And it doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. You can feel really sad about the difficulties that your child is experiencing while also allowing yourself to experience happiness in your life. So don’t feel guilty for doing things that give you pleasure, like meeting a friend for a cup of coffee or going for a walk on a beautiful day. Self-care isn’t an act of selfishness. It’s an act of self-preservation. And that’s an act of kindness toward yourself and your child. After all, no one needs a happy and healthy parent more than a child who is struggling.

  1. Find shelter in the storm. Connect with other parents who truly understand so that you can help one another to weather the parenting storms.

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child’s parent. And when a child is going through a difficult time, the need for support is even greater.

The good news is that it is possible to tap into that kind of support, if you’re willing to be open and honest about your family’s struggles. And when you take that step and open up to other people, you make it possible for other families to ask for and tap into the support they need, too.

Not quite sure how to get started? Odds are you already know at least one parent who has dealt with these types of struggles—or, at the very least, you know a friend of a friend.

Don’t feel comfortable reaching out to someone you know? Connect with the parent support and advocacy group (either community-based or online) that seems like the best fit for your family, given the nature of your child’s struggles. Peer support is magical. You won’t regret making that call!


About the Author: Ann Douglas

Ann DouglasAnn Douglas is the author of numerous books about pregnancy and parenting, including, most recently, Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Hope, and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems (Guilford Press). She is also the mother of four children who struggled with a variety of mental health, neurodevelopmental, and behavioral challenges during their growing up years and who are currently thriving as young adults. Find out more about Ann and her work at anndouglas.net, or on Twitter.

 

 

4 Comments

Jessica C

What do you do when your butting heads a lot with your daughter? Thats my situation right now and she’s only 8 years old. I try and treat her like an adult but she always cries when i talk to her and ask her questions? I get frustrated 😞 what can I do?

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Linder

Thank you for sharing this information. Your tips are right on target. sometimes my husband and my different parenting styles can divide us instead of bringing us together even though our goals are the same. When in crisis it’s really hard to see the forest for the trees. Even though we’ve done everything possible to provide supports for our child, we often feel blamed by providers for the struggles my child is having with us about her self care and clearly this isn’t helpful. Parents definitely need support!

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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