By Jenna Morton
One in five. That’s how many Canadian children deal with a mental, emotional, or behavioural disorder. That’s a lot of families struggling to find their way amid a flurry of medical terms, overworked systems, and stress-filled days. Now, there’s a guide book by one of the best. Parenting author Ann Douglas has taken her family’s experiences with mental, neurodevelopmental, and behavioural disorders and mapped a pathway for parents looking to become their child’s strongest advocate, while maintaining their own mental health. She spoke with momstown’s Jenna Morton about the book and her personal struggles.
“It is what it is. It’s not the end of the world.”
That’s a phrase and a theme that Ann Douglas repeats, in her new book and in her life.
“Accept your situation for what it is,” writes Douglas, “so that you can begin to work within that reality.” This is not just aimed at helping you accept a child’s diagnosis, but also at helping you accept your role as parent. She reminds us to “extend the same spirit of kindness and compassion” to ourselves that we extend to our children. “You can forgive yourself for being a gloriously imperfect work in progress, just like your child.”
This rings true whether you are dealing with a diagnosis or just accepting the challenges of parenting.
The focus of Parenting Through The Storm: Handling the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between, is helping families maintain and improve relationships while dealing with a mental, emotional, or behavioural disorder. It walks you through those early days of trying to determine if your child needs additional help, then how to find the help you need. There are tips for how to document your process, to help you advocate for your child, and how to work with your child’s school and care team. There are chapters on raising an emotionally literate child, building attachment with your child, and using sleep, exercise, play, and nutrition to improve mental health.
The book also deals with finding community, defining recovery, and creating a better system.
But it all begins with those first anxiety-filled days that seem so lonely and terrifying.
“Before you have a diagnosis, you feel it’s up to you alone to solve your child’s problems, and that is scary and overwhelming,” Douglas says. “It leaves you feeling really discouraged; it’s just a horrible cocktail of emotions.”
Listen to your gut
Douglas encourages parents to listen to their intuition and to start asking for help as soon as they worry that there might be an issue. A 2011 mental health survey found that 80% of parents said access to information and services was the biggest issue their children faced, not stigma attached to their condition.
“Seek help early on,” Douglas insists. “It’s your job to flag things. Get on a waiting list. If you wait until everyone is sure there’s an issue, you’ll be so far behind in the process of getting help.”
The average time between a parent’s first true suspicions to the beginning of treatment is three years.
”It’s nice to have the problem of them saying your child is fine. They’ll say you were a concerned parent.”
The whole family needs support
Douglas also reminds parents that this is a family journey, not a solo one.
“We need to put the support pieces in place, so if parents or siblings are struggling, we can make sure they get some support. They need to be able to say how frustrated they are, if they’re angry or resentful about what’s happening. That’s normal, healthy. Be really open and frank, cut to the chase.
All family members need to know you’re there for them. That relationship piece is what matters. If your child feels connected to you, when they need help, when they’re floundering, they’ll know you’ll be there.
“What is most important in parenting, in life, is to have good relationships,” Douglas insists. “And to have good relationships, you have to take care of yourself.”
The voice of experience
She knows we all know what’s coming next. Find “me” time. Exercise. Reach out to friends.
And she knows we don’t all listen, even if we know it makes sense. But she pushes the message again, in the hopes someone will take heed—as she wishes she had done.
A few years ago, with her four kids moving through the teen years, all with various diagnoses—bulimia, depression, ADHD, learning disabilities, Asperger’s—Douglas suffered a three-year clinical depression.
“I was feeling so awful, I could hardly make a grocery list. I was missing deadlines. I had horrible anxiety. The worst was when I couldn’t write. If you’re a writer who doesn’t write, you have an identity crisis.”
Douglas remembers feeling physically ill and knowing then she needed to focus on her own mental health if she were to continue being an advocate for her children.
“I had to rebuild my reserves. I pushed back on deadlines, took a couple of years off, just allowing myself to rest. When I could feel my inner core start to bubble up, then I started to take concrete steps.”
Her first big step was to set a goal: that by her 50th birthday, she would lose the 100 pounds she’d gained during those depression years. She took it slow and easy, changing her eating habits over several weeks. When she’d lost some weight based on eating better, she started walking.
“As I became more active, my mental health improved so much,” she shares. “I did such a bad job for so long, never exercising, eating poorly. I got depleted. I see the advantages of having healthy habits in place; it gives you coping tools. I wish I’d signed up decades ago!”
Her new book promises to help parents deal with the high, the lows, and everything in between—and it delivers.
Whether you have a child with a diagnosis, have a child who you think might need one, or are just dealing with the fatigue, anxiety, and parental guilt of . . . well, being a parent, this book can help.
Douglas’ work is peppered with textbook quotes and references that give her chatting-over-coffee style a scientific weight, without feeling oppressive.
While Parenting Through the Storm is based on her personal experiences, Douglas shares stories from a number of families who have walked a similar path; you will find yourself reflected somewhere in these pages.
How to determine whether a toddler’s tantrums might be a sign of something more complex
According to a 2012 study, 80 per cent of children throw one or more tantrums a month. Fewer than 10 per cent have tantrums on a daily basis.
More signs the tantrum might be significant: if the tantrum happens with a non-parental adult; the tantrum is violent (hitting, biting, kicking); if objects are damaged or destroyed; if the tantrum appears to have no reason.
Coping with Stress
If you are overwhelmed with emotion, it becomes impossible to react calmly and rationally, and eventually it can lead to burnout. Neither of these things helps you, your family, or your child.
Jenna Morton is the community manager of momstown Moncton, the mother of three kids under four, and an expert metaphorical juggler.