Observations & meditations on modern life
How can I help my…?
A large part of my work relates to the mental health of children and teenagers, and with that, inevitably, comes parents.
I’m not a parent, so I can’t comment from a parent’s point of view, but I certainly am becoming accustomed to the alarm bells that start going off in a parent’s mind when I tell them that their interpretation of what’s going on isn’t necessarily the be all and end all of their child’s mental health. The general pattern is that a parent will get in touch with me and describe the “issue”, I then meet the child and discover another opinion on the “issue”, and then part of my job is to bring both parents and child onto the same page with a mutual understanding of what is going on and what steps can be made to reach a desired outcome.
But it’s more than just pointing people in the right direction. For many parents, their children are the most important aspect of their lives and it must be incredibly difficult to see your child hurting in a way that you don’t feel able to support. However, what I’ve learned is that it’s not a matter of being unable to support your child, it’s a matter of going through a short phase where it becomes difficult to understand the child’s point of view because ultimately, your life is different to theirs from the moment that umbilical cord is cut. You can still support your child, but it’s not a matter of telling the child what’s “right” or how they “should” feel. The hardest thing in all of this is to step back and allow your child the space to grapple with and understand their emotions whilst still feeling supported.
Renowned psychologist Esther Perel spoke about this beautifully between partners. She describes that the best way to support your partner is not to get sucked into their depression and end up feeling just as helpless, but actually to sit back and be a source of love, support, and a reminder that things can and will change with some help. Similarly, parents, don’t be afraid to provide help to your child if they need it, but then trust that they are receiving the professional help they need and you can go back to being the parent and not the therapist.
Children hold a great deal of power when it comes to their parents: they hold your hearts in their hands and have the power to draw you into the turmoil that they are in. As parents it is possible to support that turmoil without actually being in it. You can help without becoming a cog in the malfunctioning machine. I know the instinct is to jump in and do everything, but the best thing you can do (which is not at all easy) is to be present, supportive, but whilst remaining on the outside. You’re not abandoning your child by giving them space to understand themselves. You’ve not been “wrong” about them their entire lives. Your feelings are also valid, and the thing that gets so lost in therapy with children is often the parents.
A child or teenager going through inner turmoil definitely needs support and there are people like me out there that do that and can help. But when I take on a child as a client I am also taking on their parents and my support extends to them as well. It’s not just difficult going through emotional turmoil, it’s also difficult to know how best to support a loved one who is in that situation. Therapy should be inclusive and collaborative, not individual and secretive. If you trust the therapist, trust the process too.