As parents or carers it is our natural instinct to protect our children. If they are ill we do our best to make them better. If they hurt themselves we try to take their pain away. We mend, we fix, we offer cuddles and reassurance until things are better and forgotten about.
When our children are struggling with their mental health, that desire to fix things for them and make them feel better doesn’t change. I cannot explain the feeling of helplessness that I have at times when I can’t offer my son any form of comfort or my words do not seem to be getting through.
I always thought of my son’s journey as a straight line. That he felt like this now, but after the involvement and interventions from one organisation or another everything would be better. My expectation was that they could ‘fix’ things for us. I went in with high hopes that they would have all the answers.
But the more I’ve learnt about mental health I realised my expectations were a long way off from the reality of living with mental health problems. Feeling better or recovery is not a neat straight line. Life has its ups and downs and so does recovery. For me I wanted a sense of control, I woke up everyday and I didnt know what things would be like. I would have a ‘plan’ of what the day would look like, and this very rarely happened.
With every strategy that came from a professional I would raise my hopes again. But a lot of the time these strategies would try to control my son’s behaviours rather than help him explore why he was feeling the way he was. And those behaviours were a reaction to those feelings, and he could not manage them without support. He didn’t need controls or having consequences dealt out because of his behaviour, he needed me to help him process his feelings and emotions.
There are days and weeks that go by where things are going well and my son is happy and healthy. Then something happens – sometimes I know what it is, and other times I have no idea, and he can’t communicate it to me and I feel like the world has fallen in on us. But what I have learnt about mental health is that this expectation that things will be fixed is not always realistic. Life is not predictable and you don’t always know what might throw a spanner in the works. Sometimes things I think will affect my son don’t, and other times things I’m not prepared for cause the most upset.
I try to remind myself there is only so much in my control and even when we hit a rough patch everything isn’t hopeless. Sometimes it’s my own expectations that cause me the most upset or frustration. And that is something that I am having to work on – it’s been really hard.
I remember a time when my son was about 3 and we went for a walk along Marriots Way in Norwich. There is a field with horses and I had planned to walk there and show them to him. But he was so slow and he wanted to stop and look at everything. And because I’d got it into my head that I wanted to show him the horses I grew impatient that we were never going to get there. And it wasn’t until later that it dawned on me that he was enjoying himself, it sounds cliche but he was enjoying the journey! And if we didn’t reach the horses that didn’t matter nor mean the day had been ruined. I just had to readjust my own thinking and expectations and this is something I still have to work at.
Another thing that I have found hard is how communicating with my son has changed. I remember when he was little I was the one who understood him, I’d know what each sound or cry meant. What he needed, how he was feeling. When he was learning to talk people would look at me when he said a sentence that made no sense to them because I’d know exactly what he’d said. And I genuinely thought it would always be that way, that I would just know.
But I don’t!
And sometimes he doesn’t.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried talking to him and he didn’t want to, or couldn’t, but I did not give him the space he needed because I so desperately wanted to fix things for him. My own need for answers took over and I wasn’t picking up on his cues.
I’m not saying having expectations is wrong. It is important to set goals and our expectations play an important role in doing this. Especially if a new professional or organisation starts working with your child or family. It is a good idea to communicate expectations and set realistic goals together. Be proactive, I always find writing down all the points I want to cover and taking it with me helps. I have especially learnt to communicate what I don’t want to happen, remember you know your child and you know what hasn’t worked for you as a family before. And of course we want the best for our children. But their recovery is not a straight line and it may be a process that starts over and over again, learning more each time. I will be putting together my top tips for communicating with professionals/services to get the most out of your sessions for you and your child for my next blog post.
From my own experience when my expectations and reality don’t match up this can lead to feeling disappointed, frustrated, and sad. It adds to my stress which can affect my own mental health. Taking time out for ourselves to destress is so important for us and our children. I will create a blog about self care for parents soon, so keep an eye out for that!
Communication as a family can be tricky, our online Build Together workshops can support you as a family to develop these skills.