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.

 

 

3 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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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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