“We have to be a person before we are a parent, or we cannot even be a parent “.
We love our kids to death, don’t we? But when they have issues we might as well be experiencing it alongside them. We feel every slight, every pain they have as if it was ours, whether it is physical or emotional, it doesn’t matter we feel it in our bones, our soul as well as our heart .
Someone once said to me that being a parent was like carrying your heart outside of your body. I remember when the Mum of a relative of mine become very mentally sick. She turned to me with tears in her eyes and said “if only it was me instead, I could handle it better than him “. This broke my heart. We are prepared to die for them, and we are prepared to take on their burdens without question, but Is there a limit to what we can give as a parent? We have many reserves saved for our children’s needs but there comes a time when we need to replenish, or hold back a little, or our capacity to love and support will become too depleted Can we keep digging into that emotional bank and keep withdrawing without there being consequences for us as individuals?
Teenagers and young adults are always a challenge in some way but when a child is also mentally ill, the years can be tougher and a challenge that they sometimes will feel swamped by if they don’t have the tools as parents for self-preservation and an ability to create some emotional distance.
There is a truism to the saying “I must save my sanity” I have heard of parents in my practice who across the years have become so co-dependent and enmeshed with their child’s “mentally ill life” that they are unable to fully relief their own chronic anxiety leading to depressive disorders themselves and even severe psychiatric disorders such a Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder; Essentially worrying themselves into “madness”. Yes, this can happen to you.
Surely there must be a time when we must say it’s time that we pulled back a little. That we can’t keep becoming embroiled in their emotional de-regulation all the time. We must be a person before we are a parent, or we cannot even be a parent.
A human being can only take so much consistent anxiety- producing thoughts across time before their brain says, ‘Hey I can’t cope anymore”.
Parents of children with mental health issues are a little like the pivotal conductor orchestrating the orchestra body full of unpredictable emotions. They need to keep it all together, flowing, and synchronised. Aware of the rhythm and pace they feel every vibration through their body as they try to maintain and contain the sound that is emanating.
The thoughts rushing through their head every day,
“Will she be ok today “,
“Will she cope? “,
“Can I leave her on her own today?”
“Should I take her there or let her be independent “.
“What sort of mood will she be in when I enter her room?”
“Does she need to change her medication?”
“What if she never improves?”
“What if she never has a life of her own?”
‘What if she tries to kill herself and I am not there?”
The biggest fear for parents of mentally ill children is that they will, the moment they turn their backs, try to end their lives in a moment of irrational gloom and change the course of their family’s existence forever. This is no irrational fear, especially if the child has tried it before. The parent becomes hypervigilant, obsessive and over protective, to maintain control and safety. It’s a very difficult road to travel.
Taking care of the person, before the parent, is vital. You cannot give away what you don’t have to give away, and that includes love support and strength to hold up your vulnerable child.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when you feel yourself “losing it “or in danger of becoming so consumed by your child’s issues you lose who you are.
- Don’t buy into every emotion, learn to say they must feel that pain sometimes and ride it like a wave. You cannot always be there to ride every negative emotion or feeling with them, someday they may be coping with their hurt, fear, sadness or anxiousness alone. They need to self sooth effectively.
- Don’t let them be rude and disrespectful or emotionally cruel to you. Just because they have a mental illness, even if it’s a severe psychiatric disorder or personality disorder, they still can be kind considerate, respectful of your feelings and need to learn to regulate their emotions just like the rest of us. After you have made sure they are safe, keep your distance if they are railing on you or using you as an emotional punching bag. Don’t buy into the viper tongue lashing in your direction.
- Have a regular counsellor/therapist to debrief with for yourself. Emotions build up over time and can engulf you. Once they are “expunged” through verbalising out loud, you will be surprised how cathartic that is, even if there are no solutions to your issues, as there often are not when you have a mentally ill child. It’s a bit like crying is for grieving, a way to off load, to be able to let it build up again, and then off load again.
- Take care of your body, eat well and get exercise doing something you enjoy.
- Have a hobby and social interests outside of the home.
- Have a pet. This will be good for your child too. It gives you someone else to focus on besides your child and their ongoing intensive care.
- Practice Mindfulness meditation – this a skill that you get better at with practice. Staying with the feelings and not judging them, letting them float away will help you to manage their intensity and frequency.
- Make time for just you and your partner (if you have one). You are not just tandem parents, doing running relay with your mentally ill kid you are also a couple who need to love and respect each other for who you are as people. Make a date to talk about anything BUT the issues with your child. You need that for each other.
These seem such simple things, now when I read back over them but it’s surprising how many carers forget to do this, or do not know to do this for themselves. One of my greatest regrets was not knowing this many years to share with my mum so that she could have prepared herself and armed herself with some tools for coping with severe mental health issues in her child.
Loving yourself enough to take “time out “and not be continually at the mercy of the emotions of your sick child is necessary for a healthy mind and spirit. Then you can come back to them with renewed vigour and an ability to manage much more.