The power of finding your parenting community
If you’re a parent of a child who has experienced mental health challenges, you likely know how tough it can be to actually talk about it. As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve worked with hundreds of families who have struggled with opening up about the realities of their situation, and that’s why I’m here to talk about the power of having a strong parental community.
It is estimated that as many as 1 out of 5 children experience a mental disorder in a given year, and yet, as a society, we’re still uncomfortable talking about it (we’re trying to change that). We’re currently in the midst of a mental health epidemic, so chances are that more people around you than you realize have struggled with these same challenges and have felt the need to keep it quiet.
What I want you to know above all else is that seeking out professional mental health support for your child does not mean that you did something wrong, or that there is anything wrong with your family at all. Mental health is treatable and it is part of our overall health, and your child is so fortunate to have you as their advocate.
While there’s nothing to be ashamed of, navigating a world of appointments, evaluations, and diagnoses can be incredibly overwhelming for anyone. And as a parent myself, I’m assuming that your plate is already SO FULL. That’s why opening up and sharing what you're going through with the people you trust is so important, and can help you to feel less alone in the unknown.
Dropping the stigma and shame
Let me put it this way — seeking mental health support for your child is no different than tending to their physical health. You would never face judgment for taking them to have an X-ray if you suspected that they had a broken bone, so it’s unfair that you feel the need to hide the fact that you’re seeking solutions for their emotional struggles.
As frustrating as it is, people don’t usually share the messier parts of parenting. We’re inundated with perfect parenting content, constantly scrolling through the highlight reels of everyone doing it beautifully with smiles on their faces. So of course we feel inclined to hide the parts of our lives that are highly unfiltered.
And let’s face it, you don’t want to be judged or labeled by other parents. You’re likely worried about your child’s future, struggling to find answers, and the last thing you want is for anyone to think that you’re a failure. This can be especially true for single parents, who are carrying so much of the load on their own and may be hesitant to reach out for fear of looking like they don’t have it all together.
All of these feelings are completely valid, but the less we talk about what’s really going on, the less likely others are to raise their hands when they need help. Without a supportive parent community, excessive pressure is placed on pediatricians. And I have heard from my exhausted colleagues first-hand that this can result in an excessive reliance on medication because that’s the tool that they have in their go-to kit.
The good news is that you’re far from a failure, and what we see on social media is not anyone’s reality. We’re going to walk through ways that you can begin to drop the shame, and open up to those you trust so that your family can be surrounded by the support you deserve.
How to build a community
Talking about mental health struggles is a relatively new concept, and not everyone is going to get it right. You may be met with insensitive comments, unsolicited advice, and a general lack of understanding. So try to pack your patience for this part, and know that you’re not alone in it.
- Model healthy communication. One of the first steps you can take is opening up an honest dialogue within your home. Let your child and their siblings know that this is a safe space to talk about what is going on. Take the time to listen and support without judgment, and know that you can turn to one of our coaches or therapists if you would like some guidance. The last message you want your child to pick up on is “There is something wrong and we cannot talk about it because it is very bad” so keep the door open for them to come to you.
- Focus on the power of positive intent. This is all about believing that we're all doing the best we can. By being vulnerable with those who have earned your trust, you’re providing a safe space for them to share as well, leading to deeper and more meaningful connections.
- Start with one person. Can you pick up the phone today to talk to your best friend or a family member that has historically been there for you? Think of who you feel the safest with and ask if they have some time to listen to what you’re going through. If you’re not looking for advice right now, feel free to say that upfront. Sometimes just having someone that can really hear you can make a big difference.
- Take care of yourself. I’m not suggesting that you run off to a day spa. The reality is you’re like going through a lot right now and feeling like there’s very little time left in the day for your needs. Is there something small you can do to bring a sense of calm in the chaos? Maybe taking a walk while the kids are at school or getting up before everyone in the house to have some quiet time to journal or read. This can be especially hard for single parents who may feel especially isolated, so I want to be realistic here. Maybe you can build a few minutes into your day to call a friend for support, or ask a fellow parent to pick your child up from school one day a week so that you can have some time to do something that you enjoy.
- Provide factual information. Mental health diagnoses are often misrepresented in film and television, so many people just don’t get it. While you don’t need to offer a TED Talk to your loved ones, it might be helpful to point them towards some credible resources to help them understand. You can compare your child’s mental health struggles with a physical ailment — describing the treatment plan and the overall path to getting better.
- Get specific. Do you need someone to watch your other children while you go to appointments? Would it feel nice to have someone just sit and listen? Or maybe a home cooked meal would be a spirit-lifter? Oftentimes, people are well-intentioned and want to help, but they just don’t know where to start. Be as specific as possible when asking for support.
Parents who have children with mental health challenges often don’t receive the emotional support that they need from family and friends, and that can get in the way of creating powerful, lasting change for the entire family.
From your child’s teacher to a caring neighbor, building a community is all about starting small and reaching out to like-minded people. Not everyone will understand your particular situation and that's okay, as long as they are able to provide emotional or logistical support.
I can’t say this enough — you are a wonderful parent for advocating for your child and for walking through any subsequent fear and guilt. Do your best to surround yourself with people who lift you up, and keep asking for help when you need it. I know it’s not an easy road, and that’s why the Bend Health team is here to help you along the way.