Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Like so many others, 2020 hit our family like a wrecking ball. Within the space of a few months we were processing new diagnoses of depression, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), ADHD, and anxiety. On top of that were myriad other serious social and academic struggles. My days were spent frantically trying to force my children to do schoolwork on zoom and keep everyone fed, calm, and clean, while my nights were spent glued to google until the wee hours, convinced that if I could just find the right therapist, or the right treatment or the right parenting technique, I could "fix" my kids. I felt like my children were falling apart, and so I was falling apart.
In January, a friend introduced me to a life coach who asked this question: "What if nothing has gone wrong?"
That seemed like a ridiculous question. Clearly, everything had gone wrong.
But it intrigued me. And I began to play with the question in my mind.
As I worked with this coach, I learned the source of my pain was not COVID or new diagnoses or my children's struggles. What was causing me so much pain were my thoughts about what was happening. Things like: "I'm a terrible parent," "My kids will never be the same;" "I have to fix this;" "This will never get better."
Those thoughts made me feel panicked, angry, guilty, and scared. Powered by these emotions, I tried desperately (and failed spectacularly) to control everyone and everything around me. I thought if I could just push hard enough, I could force and mold our lives back into the neat little container where they used to reside. I'm a good mother, and at the time, I was the absolute best mother I had the ability to be. But my panic over the situation was not allowing me to show up as the mother I wanted to be. My problem-solving skills and rational thinking were so suppressed by my emotions I didn't even know what that mother looked like.
University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, says our brains function sub-optimally when we feel pressure to get everything right. In these moments when our emotions are running high, our brains can have information logjams, suffer from analysis paralysis as well as reduced processing power and working memory.
Sometimes a client suffering from anxiety over a child's situation will tell me that they need to worry because it drives them to "do something about it." On the surface, this appears logical. But what they don't realize is that operating from those emotions is actually robbing them of their ability to find answers.
So how do we help a struggling child? Most people are looking for a list of strategies and tactics here, but the most important thing you can do for your child is to manage your own mind. Once your mind is in the right place, your brain will be best equipped to help. Here are some steps:
1) Allow yourself to stop and feel
It is natural to feel negative emotion when our children are having a hard time. But rather than frantically launching into fix-it mode or pushing the pain away, spend some time just sitting with and processing the pain. Allow yourself to feel. Identify the exact emotion that is coming up. Name it. Find where you feel it in your body. Invite it to just be there. What you'll find is that as you sit with it, the pain will begin to dissipate.
2) Find acceptance and empowerment
For some people adopting the thought "nothing has gone wrong" is too much. What I find works well is to think something neutral that encourages acceptance and drives personal empowerment. For example: "This is our reality right now;" "I have all the resources I need to find solutions;" "I am the perfect father to help him through this;" "I can choose how I show up here;" "It's possible something good could come from this."
3) Recognize your child's agency
We have far less control over our children than we think. Rather than forcing, focus on loving and teaching your child. Nurture the relationship. Spend time together. Realize they may make choices you disagree with, but that is part of the learning process. We have far more influence over our children from a place of mutual respect and connection than we ever could from control. The short-term consequences of a failed class are no match for the long-term consequences of a supportive parent. Remember your child's choices are not about you and have no reflection on you.
4) Practice self-care
There is a saying that a mother is only as happy as her saddest child. Sometimes we wear that as a badge of honor. But it doesn't have to be true, and it is doing your child no favors if it is. Allow your children to have their own struggles, and allow yourself the space to find peace regardless. A calm mind will help you be more compassionate, patient, and creative.
5) Choose who you want to be
Decide intentionally how you want to show up for your child. How can you be most helpful? How can you ease her burden? How can you inspire? How does she best receive love? How can you help her develop resilience? When you know how you want to act, you can think about how you would need to feel to show up in that way. Confident, faithful, compassionate, helpful, loving, determined and calm are some of many good options. Remember that thoughts cause our feelings, so play with different ways of thinking about the situation that will help you channel the desired emotion.
After a few months of coaching and learning how to manage my own mind, everything had changed for our family. When I stopped trying to control and parented from compassion, my children and I began to work together to find solutions. When I relaxed about finding the perfect therapist, I was able to find good ones who resonated with my kids. When I accepted that I didn't need to fix what was happening, I stopped googling and spent time connecting. When I started looking for how these struggles were a benefit for our family, I noticed blessings everywhere.
Friday, October 1, I am opening three new spots in my private coaching program. If your kids are struggling, if you are struggling, if your marriage is struggling, I can help. Sign up for a free mini session, and let me give you a little bit of insight into your problem. If we both feel like we're a good fit, I'll offer you a spot in my program. If it's not for you, no pressure at all. Registration will close as soon as the three spots are claimed.