In the last blog, I shared information about The Parenting Pathway, which is my conceptualization of the parenting trek for parents of atypical kids. In my practice with children and parents in the past 25 years, I’ve been struck by how many parents discover so much about themselves as they are parenting and trying to help their children through their own mental health struggles.
It is a common experience for parents to discover that they’ve been adapting to ADHD (or anxiety, or some other condition) much of their lives, undiagnosed and untreated. Or they might get in touch with the level of their anxiety as they learn about their child’s anxious behaviors and how to help them. Many of these parents are hugely successful. To me, that is not surprising. Mental health conditions are highly genetic. And smart people adapt well (with still a lot of effort) and innovate usable solutions to mental health issues even if they aren’t aware of the issue or aren’t treated. And parents who embrace this learning find that their child’s treatment process becomes a real opportunity for themselves personally and for their family. Whether you are parenting a child with mental health or behavioral problems and/or dealing with your own mental health needs, you can find relief and inspiration in treating your parenting experiences as a portal, a port of entry into your own growth.
One author, Dr. Neil Altman and colleagues, who wrote Relational Child Psychotherapy (https://www.amazon.com/Relational-Child-Psychotherapy-Neil-Altman/dp/159051422X) describes child therapy as a ticket of admission into a parent’s own personal and psychological growth, which can result in parents seeking their own therapy or support of some kind.
I like to think about our children’s struggles/mental health issues as a portal into our own growth. Why? Because when our children are in pain and suffering, SO ARE WE, to a degree. And what is the best motivator to grow and change—PAIN, and the desire for more PLEASURE. We want to enjoy our children more, and we want them to be in less pain. It’s as simple as that! In my opinion, parents working alongside their child while they are both growing in child treatment leads to the best recipe for success on many fronts. Here’s some of my rationale for that:
- Parents are naturally triggered by their children’s behaviors or symptoms (i.e sadness, anxiety, anger, meltdowns). We feel A LOT when our children act up or are upset.
- Emotions amplify our experiences and make them more memorable and impactful–that is true for both pleasant and aversive feelings. Emotions often urge us to change and do something different. Feelings allow us to do hard, personal work that we wouldn’t do otherwise. This dynamic is true for us and for our children.
- Emotions are signals to something that needs attention or protection (Dr. Robert Masters says this so well–https://www.amazon.com/Emotional-Intimacy-Comprehensive-Connecting-Emotions/dp/1604079398).
- For instance, anger is a signal feeling. When we are angry, we need to ask ourselves what needs to be attended to or protected–either in our lives, with our child,or in our relationships. When we are anxious, we often tune in. If we’ve learned how to deal with anxiety well, we will try to approach and meet that anxious feeling with attention or self care or soothing and more rational thought. If we rely on old habits or are overwhelmed, we might avoid the anxious situation or attack the problem too boldly. Yet, our emotions almost always guide us back to “redoing it” until we come to a more satisfactory resolution. For example, have you ever had that “same old fight” with a partner? Yes, all of us have. We get to retry—do it better—aim for more healthful communication again and again in that repeated fight, don’t we?
- Emotions also “glue” us together in relationships, as highlighted by Dr. Sue Johnson. When we feel a lot together, we form stronger bonds. This is true for both positive, connected relationships and negative, conflicted or distant relationships. Emotions offer the perfect opportunity for us to tune in and tend to something within ourselves that needs attention or protection as a parent, which gives us the path forward about how and in what ways we need to grow to keep parenting our unique children better.
- Once we acknowledge emotions for their utility, then we get to work with that emotion toward our own purposes in our parenting–both for yourself and for your children.
- For instance, anger is a helpful emotion when used well. When we use controlled anger well, we convey to our kids that we are serious and firm on our stance. When we use it poorly, we break connection with our child and pass shame and blame, which often only fuels negative behaviors or increases symptoms of anxiety or sadness.
So catching our reactions and learning from our triggered emotions are two of our primary tasks along The Parenting Pathway. You see, parenting your difficult child is an unexpected opportunity. And honestly, what are your options here? To suffer through it or choose to grow through it too? I invite you to think about your parenting as a developmental pathway. And, I’ll offer you my model for developing your own customized path that fits you and your child’s needs. I’ll be the guide, both as a parent of neurodivergent children and as a professional with expertise sifting through all the information and resources and pulling out what is most important, for which to scaffold your own plan.
REMEMBER, Parent development is….
- Progressive, reciprocal and iterative
- Growth promoting
- A process of preparing, of growing, of practicing perspective taking, of becoming
Parent Development is not……
- Linear, finite, inborn, or natural
- Perfecting, Performing, Producing, Pushing our children to grow and develop beyond their/our current experiences or abilities
Consider your desires for a more pleasurable relationship with your tough child and the pain that is inherent in parenting challenged kids as invitations–as portals into something new and better. Join me in developing your own Parenting Pathway!