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Parent support is a basic need

When my son was 9 and his brother was 6, we moved back to Massachusetts.  They were both born and raised in southern California (up to then) and we liked it there. The weather was great and we had friends (though the number had dwindled because of my son’s mental health problems). But I was going through a contentious divorce, getting care for my son was a full time job and frankly, the most important thing in the world right then was support for me.  My own family was in Massachusetts and they offered support with open arms.

I was lucky, having a supportive family.  At times they were bewildered by my son’s behaviors and sometimes disagreed with how I picked what to ignore and what to stand firm about.  But they believed in me, believed I was a good parent and that a family’s job is to accept you. It made a world of difference.

Support is a small word that means a constellation of things.  It can look like education and information.  It can be advocacy and walking shoulder to shoulder.  It can be acceptance and non-judgement.  It can come from groups or be given one on one.  It can come from family and friends, formal parent peer support and sometimes, professionals with skills and compassion.

In children’s mental health, we talk about the needs and strengths of families.  Many families have basic needs as well. When we list basic needs, we usually talk about things that can be measured or delivered such as housing, food, utilities, transportation and clothing. Sometimes personal safety makes the list and sometimes legal help does as well.  Most of what is listed under basic needs is about survival or accessing things necessary to survival.

I think parent support, for those of us raising a child with behavioral health issues, is a basic need too.

I have talked to lots of parents who feel as if they cannot take another step.  They find it hard to get out bed, or feel profound sadness, or feel like they are one step away from emotional collapse.  I’ve known lots of parents who need therapy or treatment themselves and say they would have been okay without this emotionally exhausting experience.  I have even visited one or two parents in an inpatient unit.  I’ve met parents who go before the court and say,”Just take him, I can’t do it anymore.”  Please don’t say to them, ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.”  It sure doesn’t seem that way to them.

Parent support doesn’t fix things when you get to that point.  But it sure helps. Often, it helps a lot.

When things are dire, or seem like it, parent support from someone who has been there is pretty wonderful.  Even though you intellectually know you aren’t the first to be in this position, you still feel pretty alone.  You’re not sure there is a route to a better situation and you have no idea how to break it down into small, doable steps.  You doubt yourself. Just like someone without shelter, you are out in the cold. Someone who has been through it has credibility, skills and compassion, all in one package.

Even though formal parent support can be superb, informal parent support can come from many places large and small.  It can be a reassuring story from someone who is a friend of a friend.  It can be a generous gesture.  Before I moved back to Massachusetts, I had a smaller move at a time when my son was having epic meltdowns 3 or more times a day.  Some people from my church took control of the details of my move and even ordered in pizza.  One of them said, “Your son needs you more than he needs you to pack or lift boxes.  So we will do that.”  I felt supported, cared for and able to keep dealing with my impossible day-to-day life.

When parents have support, their kids do better.  Mine sure did.  Pick up a book on self-care and you’ll read something along the lines of “put on your oxygen mask first.”  There should be an equal emphasis on “Let someone get you coffee” or “Let someone show you the ropes” or “Allow someone to tell you how lucky your child is to have you.”  The last one is the one I needed to hear most, because I rarely said it to myself.  It’s one of the things I make sure to say to other parents regularly.  They need to hear it just as much as I did.

When a parent raising a child with behavioral health issues doesn’t get her basic need for support met, she can’t parent the way she wants to.  If you are emotionally depleted, you can’t give any child what he needs, let alone your own child who needs megatons more.  You can’t do that do-si-do where you step in to nurture and step out again.  You’re not replenished and you simply just can’t. “You can’t give what you don’t have,” the adage goes.

Parent support is not a luxury or optional, it’s a basic need.  Systems need to build it in and parents should ask for it often.  We wouldn’t be shy about other basic needs, would we?