“You have to be the parent your child needs you to be,” she told me, “not the one you expected to be.”
This piece of advice was offered to me by a veteran parent at the beginning of my odyssey through the children’s mental health system. I was at a parent support meeting hoping to learn something that I could grab on to. Most of the professionals in our lives were quick to tell me the things they thought were wrong with my child and the ways they could or couldn’t help him. But no one told me what I could do that might actually work. So I turned to other parents to find out what it was they did.
This advice intrigued me. I could change myself. (I sure wasn’t having much luck changing my son). I was definately being transformed already by my frequent failures and less frequent successes with a very challenging mental health care system. I had already discovered that I had to throw out all of society’s ideas of what a “good” parent or a “bad” parent is. The rules had all changed. Looked like I would have to change too. I had become a member of a very elite group of parents and wanted to learn from the other members.
Parenting a child with mental health needs can be difficult and exhausting. Typical parenting strategies from time outs to rewarding good behavior might get you a different result every time. Like many families whose children have mental health needs, I tried a system of rewards and consequences only to find that no matter how consistent I was, my son’s reactions were not. I knew how to parent my other son but often wondered, “How do I parent this child?’
Most of us learn from our own parents and the parents of our friends while growing up and form an idea about what a “good” parent is. Sooner or later we discover that we need to shift our focus from being a “good” parent to being an “effective” parent and it’s pretty tough to figure out just what that is. Some weeks it seems that Thomas Edison’s observations about the process of inventing should also apply to parenting. He remarked, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. ”
In many parent support groups or other groups of parents whose children have mental health needs, I have often observed that two parents with very different parenting styles can face almost identical challenges. An authoritarian parent and a more laissez-faire parent each find that their middle school child with a mood disorder has intense rages or irritability, for instance. Although their child’s behavior is not a result of their parenting style, the authoritarian parent is advised to be less rigid, while the lenient parent is told to have a firmer hand. And other parents might murmur (often in front of them), “I would never let a child of mine behave like that.” They, too, are looking for ways to become the parent their child needs.
When parents tell me of their experiences and the many calls they have made, strategies they have tried, hours they have spent and love they have lavished, I often say, “How lucky your child is to have you as his parent.” And I can’t say it often enough. Therapists, teachers and treatments may all come and go. Some solutions might work for a while but then you have to find a new one. Most parents become advocates, walking encyclopedias and could write a critical review of children’s services for Consumer Reports. They are the parent who hangs in there, is resourceful and has a sense of humor is. Maybe that’s the parent we should expect to be.