As every parent knows, when our children aren’t thriving, we suffer with them.
And with mental disorders on the rise in children and adolescents, many parents can’t help but struggle right along with their children.
We talked to UNC Health psychologist Samantha Pflum, PhD, about how parents can protect their own mental health so they can help their children deal with diagnoses such as depression, anxiety, attention- deficit/hyperactivity disorder, behavioral disorders and other illnesses that have an impact on the entire family.
“It’s hard to take care of others if we haven’t taken the time to care for ourselves,” Dr. Pflum says. “It’s critical to take care of our own mental health while taking care of our loved ones.”
Here are some of her suggestions:
1. Recognize the challenge.
“Parenting is an immensely difficult job under any circumstance,” Dr. Pflum says.
If your child is struggling, especially with mental health or behavioral issues, then the job is even tougher, especially in the aftermath of COVID-19.
“The demands of the pandemic have been very challenging for families as a whole,” she says. “Parents have been uniquely tasked with managing the family’s health and safety when it comes to engaging in different social activities, making choices about vaccination, etc.”
Children spent months or years away from their friends, teams, teachers and others, and in many cases, parents have been trying to help fill those gaps. At the same time, parents were socially isolated themselves, maybe working from home, and separated from extended family and their outside activities.
Many adults also care for their own parents or other older relatives.
“They have two groups of loved ones who need care and different types of attention,” Dr. Pflum says. “They end up spending a tremendous amount of time and energy—physical and emotional—caring for others.”
2. Don’t forget self-care.
When others are depending on you, it’s imperative that you take care of yourself, Dr. Pflum says. You’re not being selfish or ignoring your children when you take some time for you.
“Self-care includes things like getting enough sleep, exercising, eating nourishing meals, spending relaxing time with friends and family,” she says. “Take time for your hobbies and do other things you enjoy.”
If parents are struggling with their own mental health or have questions about how to help their children, they should not hesitate to pursue counseling through community resources or through their work. Many employers have an employee assistance program (EAP), which may offer assessments, short-term counseling and other support options.
3. You don’t always have to “fix it.”
“The desire to fix a perceived problem is a very natural part of parenting,” Dr. Pflum says. “When we see that someone we care about is struggling or encountering problems, we want to take it away or find a solution.”
But you can’t always fix the problem, especially in situations that don’t have neat solutions. And sometimes your children don’t want you to fix it for them. They just want your support.
“Remember, what your young person might want from you at this time is different from what you might want to provide,” Dr. Pflum says.
They may come to you because they need to vent, and they just want you to be there.
“We can validate their feelings,” she says. “Actively listening can go a long way.”
4. Try not to become overwhelmed with worry.
Your child may feel better after telling you their troubles, but now you are concerned about them, and it feels like there’s nothing you can do to help.
First, Dr. Pflum says, recognize that most troubles are temporary. Exams will end. Heartbreaks will heal. New friends will come along.
If the problems are greater than either you or your child can handle, reach out for professional advice and care.
Also, consider who else in your life might share your concerns. Maybe it’s a spouse or a relative. Maybe it’s other parents who have been through similar experiences.
“There is huge value in knowing that you’re not the only parent who is having this stressor or difficulty,” Dr. Pflum says. “There’s a whole community of caregivers who are coping with the same concerns and experiences.”
You may learn about new strategies or coping skills to try.
5. Be vulnerable.
“It can be difficult for parents to share their struggles or difficulties with friends and neighbors,” Dr. Pflum says, “but if you can be open and honest about how hard it has been, you might find others saying, ‘Yes, I agree!’ It’s hard to be vulnerable, but it can help us get the support we need.”
That doesn’t mean you have to spill your guts to everyone.
“This may be a situation where quality is better than quantity,” she says. “A small group of friends or family members, or even one person, can provide really impactful support.”
6. Be a good role model.
It’s important for parents to be patient and gentle with themselves. You are setting a good example for your children.
“This could be a nice opportunity for parents and kids to practice ways to take care of themselves,” Dr. Pflum says. “If you go to a counselor, you may want to tell your kids how that has been helpful for you.”
Letting them know about your experience might help destigmatize therapy or take away some of their fear of talking to a professional. It also shows them that you respect the importance of mental health and that seeking help is worthwhile.
If you are struggling with your mental health, especially while trying to take care of others, talk with your doctor, or find one near you.