What can you do to help when your child is suffering
"The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”
-Joan Didion, On Self Respect
As a parent you have already had to navigate so much uncertainty and unpredictability through the years that your child has been in your life. Now your child is in treatment for mental health struggles of which you may not have anticipated. It is so incredibly hard to see children and teens suffer. You may not know what to do or why this is happening to your child. Oftentimes these things show up as screaming, yelling, or misbehavior rather than a child or teen coming to you to describe what they are feeling or seeking help.
As a parent you might feel hopeless, worried and alone and you may not have any idea what you are supposed to do when your child is acting in these ways. It can be so hurtful to be the recipient of their anger and distress. You might feel guilt or worry that the therapist your child is spending time with is standing in judgment of you and your parenting. You may not know if you can talk to your friends or other parents about the struggles that your family is going through. You might feel that someone needs to be responsible for your child changing their behavior and yet you feel overwhelmed at how to get them to feel better or do seemingly simple things like go to school or keep their room managed.
This is a note for parents who spend hours every week sitting in a therapists’ waiting room wondering and fearing that their child might not be okay. You are seen and this is hard, I know it is so hard. This is to remind you that getting your child into a therapists’ office is a huge step and I want to offer support and guidance regarding what your role might be while your child is getting mental health treatment. Also, this is an article to let you know that you have the ability to support and offer change within your family so that you don’t have to feel stuck in this anguish forever. You matter and your influence in your child’s life is way more impactful than you might know. One of the best things you can do for your child while they are learning the skills to manage their own challenges is to get your own therapist. Find someone who understands the importance of navigating your own triggered responses to your child’s story. Parenting is challenging and life altering. You deserve to have a place to take care of yourself and gain the resources you need when you are at the end of your rope.
As a family therapist, I am a strong believer that the patterns that develop within the family throughout generations do not happen in isolation. Parent’s often can notice the significant challenges that their child is struggling with but they might feel ill equipped to help. They might feel helpless when they bring their child to a therapist and they hope that the therapist can just figure it out and help the child make some changes. However, getting your child the support that they need is only one piece of the puzzle. You also will need to look inward at how you might be involved in a reactive pattern with your child. In a family everyone contributes to a pattern of dysfunction within the family.
When I meet with a child I recognize that I am seeing one piece of the larger story. The child is one member of generations of stories, patterns, struggle, and courage. My role when I meet with a kid or their parents is to start helping each member to recognize their own strengths and power towards shifting and changing the pattern. As a parent of a child or teen who is acting out, you might feel embarrassed or triggered by their behavior. Parents often feel their own childhood stories creep into their mind when they are trying to support their child. Sometimes parents get so overwhelmed they say things like “I would have never acted this way towards my parents, don’t you know all that I do for you!” or “Do you think you're the only one who feels this way?” “Life isn’t fair, suck it up”. You might find yourself lashing out or trying to rescue them so that they don’t have to suffer under the long term consequences of such behavior. Dan Siegel, clinical psychiatrist, uses a metaphor to describe the challenge of developing new patterns. Just like if you are walking through the woods on a snowy pathway, you are much more likely to follow a path that is already made. The patterns within your family are easiest to keep navigating even when you know that they are destructive. It takes a lot more work to find a new pathway through the snow and develop a new pattern in your family. It takes a lot of time and repetition before this path becomes familiar and easy to navigate. When parents can start to see their contributions to a pattern they can work intentionally to respond differently and recognize that everyone has work to do in making new pathways for health within the family dynamic.
If you are interested in working with a family therapist or parent therapist on how to be intentional about recognizing your own patterns in your family, please give us a call.