Tag Archives: Children’s Mental Health

Our family’s path to recovery from trauma

October 16th, 2018

My children and I are currently in recovery after leaving a domestic violence situation back in 2010.  Both my children and I have PTSD, but we are on the path to recovery.  Both of my children also have high functioning autism, complicating treatment and their recovery.   It has been a long haul to get where we are today.  Not all of the treatment that we have received was helpful or effective.  The biggest thing that has helped us is knowing that we have friends and family that care about us.  I am sharing our story because what has helped us may help others.

When I initially left my ex-husband we were extremely isolated, and that made it difficult to leave and heal.  I am originally from the North Shore, and my ex moved us to Lowell, which isolated me.  I didn’t know anyone in the area.  Luckily, we found a program that allowed their social workers to visit me frequently.  They provided the support that I needed to push me to follow through with leaving my situation.  This experience has taught me that we truly need the support of others  There are some things that we cannot do completely alone.  Raising children is one of them.  It really does take a village.

After leaving my ex, my family immediately started therapy with a big agency in Lowell.  This agency taught me how to restrain my children, triggering them in the office to have me practice restraint.  I now know this was a completely inappropriate thing to do.  Restraint should always be a last resort.  This agency, like many in the Lowell area, has a very high turnover of staff.  They also overmedicated me.  I luckily had a friend point this out to me.  Snowing me with medication was not a good solution, and it slowed my recovery.

For me to move forward, I needed to feel the pain I was feeling and move through it.  Taking a pill for depression and anxiety is not a fix.  Sometimes medication is needed, but overmedicating patients isn’t acceptable. Patients who live with anxiety and depression and/or who are recovering from trauma need to develop skills and foster their strengths to function fully.

I am very fortunate to have a circle of friends who care deeply about us.  One of my closest friends is a social worker who pointed me in the direction of Dr. Ross Greene’s, Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS).  I changed from a traditional consequence-based way of disciplining my children to listening to them, and looking at why they behave the way they do.  With this approach, I have been able to help them develop skills.   Attachment Regulation and Competency (ARC) is a trauma informed treatment approach (similar to CPS) that is beginning to be implemented in the Lowell area.  When working with children with mental health and behavior issues it is important to focus on building their skills and self-esteem.

My family continues to work on managing emotions.  We have had to work on accepting that sometimes emotions are not fun.  The zones of regulation have been helpful for teaching my children to identify what they are feeling and assess what they can do to calm themselves down.

There have been times when I have thought I couldn’t manage the job I was given, parenting two high needs kiddos.  When one of my children was younger, they had a habit of running off, and both children had explosive outbursts.   There have been very challenging moments where my friends and community support have been all that has gotten me through.

There was a time that I thought my history of depression made a less qualified parent.   I realize now that my own trauma history and my struggle with depression make me the best qualified person to raise my children.  No one else will love them, empathize with them, or fight for them the way that I do.   I luckily was reminded that the one thing that correlates with children recovering from trauma is their having one constant person who loves them.

There are times that all we can do as parents is put one foot in front of the other, slowly pushing forward.  We need to cut ourselves some slack and accept that we are not going to be perfect.  All we can do is our best.  We can learn from our own trauma experiences and give our children the best life we can!

Christle Roberts is the mother of two children with complicated needs.  When she is not parenting, she loves to crochet, knit, cook, and teach English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).   She hopes that sharing her story will help other parents who are raising high needs children.  

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Don’t call me an enabler. Or anything like it.

August 24th, 2018

Let’s talk about enabling.  Or rather, let’s talk about being accused of it. Happens quite often to parents like me.

The first time I ever heard the word “enabler,” and later its sister words co-dependent and over-controlling, was early in my son’s mental health journey.  He was doing progressively worse each day, exploding over minor things, threatening to hurt himself daily and I went looking for support and help.  I made a long series of calls and finally got what I thought was a sympathetic and wise person on the phone.  She listened, asked a few questions, then pronounced that I was an enabler.

My son was 7 years and, as it turns out, about to have his first psychiatric hospitalization. What I needed was help, not a label.

It also turns out that she knew diddly squat.  It took me a while to figure that out.  I took that word out and turned it over and over and even shook it a few times to see if it would change into something else. It didn’t.  It stuck in my mind, adding to my doubt in those dark moments when I wondered if I could parent my son with his enormous needs.  It undermined my pleasure when I found a moment, all too rare, when I sat with my son and we both enjoyed the moment, the hour or the afternoon.

About a year later, I found a group of parents who all had children like mine.  Some had teenagers (and their stories scared me), some had girls, some were strict and some weren’t.  At a meeting, I told my story of the phone calls and being called an enabler.  They laughed, they scoffed and they said it had happened to them as well. I felt a weight lift and some of the guilt leave.  I wasn’t ready to laugh along with them though.  The woman on the phone had been so certain.

What I had started to do from the very beginning was use a mashup of techniques that actually work for those of us trying to parent a really challenging child.  I was letting behaviors go that weren’t absolutely necessary to deal with right then and there. I was trying in a thousand ways to accept and support a son who the world was rejecting when they saw him in his bad moments.  I was adjusting to our new normal. The lady on the phone asked me what I did when my son had meltdowns and I told her I was letting the unimportant go and accepting my son no matter how he behaved.

When you parent a child with mental health needs, you are very focused on finding what works for your child.  You can’t afford a lot of trial and error and it may look controlling when you say no to things you’ve tried before or you just know are unlikely to work.  You also learn how to manage the details.  My son would have a meltdown if we walked through a store with images of zombies or monsters on t-shirts, DVD covers or books so we got good at avoiding those sections.  Sometimes his younger brother would walk 10 steps ahead and turn over the images so we could only see the backs of those items.  Yep, you bet we controlled the environment and even where he walked sometimes.  We made it easier on him, but also on us.

Enabling is described as excusing, justifying, ignoring and smoothing things over for a person who is addicted, has a mental illness, has out of control gambling and so on.  The enabler thinks things like, “If only I can keep this person going through their current crisis, it will buy us another day.” If I had been asked if that definition or self-talk fit, I would have raised my hand in a heartbeat.

When I stopped talking (much) about the details of my son’s life to people who didn’t know us, or had little expertise in children’s mental health, I stopped hearing words like enabler. The therapists, psychiatrists and special education teachers who had experience with mental health issues in children simply got it.  They were using the same techniques I was and comparing notes with me.  My hard won knowledge and experience in what works were seen as just that – expertise.

I’m pretty sure, however, if I looked at the notes from the early IEP meetings or therapy visits, I’d see a word like enabler in there somewhere.  And that’s the problem.  Those words get put in the notes and the next person sees them and maybe wonders or believes it to be true. One casual observation from someone who has a little knowledge and more judgy-ness can have an outsized impact.  So, please don’t call me an enabler.  You’ve got that wrong.

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Five things that parents need you to say

July 16th, 2018

There are memory moments you take out, hold up to the light and bask in for a minute or two.  They give you a little spark of brightness, a lift or bump of energy.  Those are moments you hoard and take out sparingly because you know you’ll need them again.  You don’t want them to lose their impact.

When my son was nine, I had such a moment.  It was a particularly tough time when nothing was going right.  He was diagnosed with depression but the succession of medications made him wired, rarely sleeping, acting on nearly every impulse that crossed his mind.  I was taught behavioral strategies which were pretty worthless and the word “no” reliably caused meltdowns or worse behavior. I was tired, discouraged, often near tears and holding on with a grit-my-teeth determination.

During an appointment with his psychiatrist, my son flipped through every mood, touched everything in the office and was headed for a major outburst.  I don’t remember what I did – talking, rubbing his shoulder, bribing or distracting but it worked for a few minutes.  The doctor looked at him, then at me.  He said, “You two are a very good fit.  Your son is lucky to have you.”

I replayed those words over and over again that day and would take that moment and those words out and relive them over the years.  I never doubted them and felt more confident.  They always lessened my discouragement (at least a little) and became a kind of touchstone.  Every parent raising a child with emotional, behavioral and mental health needs simply should have one of those moments.  Two or three, or even more would be even better.

Many appointments are focused only the child or youth and have little time for conversation, except for giving directions for follow up.  Sometimes parents call, email, facebook or contact someone for help and the entire exchange is focused on problem solving.  We are all thinking about the needs of the child, not the parent.  We give lip service to the notion that a parent is the most important part of a child’s life, but that’s about all.

Parents raising children and youth with mental health needs have learned to take a smidge of encouragement and run with it.  It’s usually in short supply.  Whenever there is a chance, it’s important for all of us to hear these five things.

1.  Your child is lucky to have you. Parents hang in there and do the best they can. We are blamed, judged and excluded regularly and many times don’t feel lucky at all.  Our efforts go unnoticed though we are the ones dealing with the aftermath of the latest meltdown or shopping for a rigid eater or anticipating the next crisis.  Without our advocacy for services and school supports or our willingness to live one day or one hour at a time, things would be a lot worse.  It’s really nice when someone notices that.

2. It’s not you, it’s the system. Our children don’t get approved for services or we have no idea what’s available.  A program or treatment is stopped too soon or we wait for it forever.  We do our damnedest to parent well, to keep our child on an even keel and then the system simply doesn’t work the way we are told it’s supposed to.  It feels personal.  It’s nice to hear it’s not.

3. I like the way you said that. Parents often have a unique way of looking at things and they coin their own phrases or create funny names for things.  My son and I made up names for our pointer dog and she was the stand in for a lot of family jokes.  Parents shouldn’t need to learn jargon or acronyms (though most of us do) and we often use words that make things sound less intimidating.  Instead of talking around us or “above” us, appreciating our point of view is worth a lot.

4. You’re doing everything right, even if you’re not seeing the results. Thomas Edison, they say, failed 1,000 times before creating a successful light bulb. All the diets, discipline and many treatments we try often don’t work.  We take the blame on ourselves too often or wish we were better at this. We are often doing it right but the results don’t point that way.  It’s nice to hear it said out loud once in a while.

5. You’re doing a good job. It’s a tough job, raising a child with emotional or behavioral issues. People are quick to judge (why can’t you control him?) or offer platitudes (it’s only a phase).  There is still a lot of stigma out there around mental health issues and many parents feel it’s not getting any better.  Even professionals who say they are strengths based in their approach only offer suggestions or new things to try without taking the time to notice our good work and herculean effort here and now.

Parents are great at detecting what’s authentic and what’s not.  One of the reasons it meant so much when my son’s psychiatrist said he was lucky was because he truly meant it.  If you say one (or more) of the five things, you’d better really believe it .  On the other hand, if you truly mean it, it might be one of those moments a parent like me takes out when the going gets tough to cherish and make their day a better one.

 

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Children, suicide and race

March 19th, 2018

When my son was 7, he tried to jump to his death.  He was climbing our stairs to a landing twelve feet above a tiled floor.  When he got there, he put his foot over the bannister and tried to launch himself into the air.  I was right behind him, grabbed him and yanked him back to safety.  As I held him he struggled, sobbing, “Let me go, let me go.  I want to die.”

My heart was pounding, time slowed and everything I saw and heard became sharper and more vivid.  There is no single word to describe how I felt.  It was some combination of shock, horror, disbelief, anguish, inadequacy and panic.  My young son, who until then had been school phobic with nightmares and sadness, had veered sharply into new, horrifying territory. It was his first suicide attempt, but not his last.  He got older and more sophisticated in his methods and I felt that combination of shock and anguish each time.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for children increased 64% from 2006 to 2016.  The rate for young children rose even higher. But the rise in suicides for African American children outpaces all other groups, rising 71% in the same time period.  Just like me, their mothers and fathers no doubt feel unprepared, in shock and disbelief.  We wonder how to make sense of this.

The Washington Post article, “He was happy. So far as I know” tells the story of 11 year old Rylan Hagan, an African American boy, who hanged himself last November. His mother found him and is devastated each hour and each day.

Rylan was loved, he had friends and did well in school and sports, even winning a trip to Disneyland that he never had a chance to take.  His mother is searching for clues she might have missed in the music he listened to, the video games he played and the movies he watched.  Once, when she asked him to do chores, he reacted emotionally, saying he wanted to kill himself. She wonders if she missed an important clue.

Parents look for answers everywhere after a suicide attempt and certainly after a completed suicide. Since we can’t look inside our children’s minds, we look at the things they surround themselves with, hoping to find leads.  We hope we will know it when, if, we see it.  A lot of the time, however, we don’t find what we are looking for.

Researchers don’t know why the rate of suicide for children has jumped and they can only guess why the rate of suicide for black children is even higher. They are alarmed by this spike and we should be too.  Researchers do suspect that racism plays a part as does an idea, a myth, that suicide is not a “black problem” and black children don’t kill themselves, says Rheeda L. Walker, a psychology professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. Myths like these mean that African American parents can be slower to get mental health care for their children.

Have you ever noticed that myths seem to congregate in groups? We believe groups of myths about food such as eating before swimming causes cramps and Twinkies don’t have an expiration date.  We believe clumps of things about animals including that toads cause warts or bats are blind.  People will still tell you that spicy food causes ulcers and carrots improve vision. No matter how often they are debunked, some myths seem to live on and on. If we believe one myth on a topic, we are more inclined to believe others.

We have a lot of myths about mental health, too, and they can encourage us to act or delay.  The one parents hear most often is that mental health issues stem from bad parenting.  Another myth is that mental health problems are a sign of weakness or only a phase.  Just wait, we are told, he will grow out of it. People will say with great authority, repeating common and false ideas, that therapy for kids is a waste of time and considering medication will lead to overmedicating. Just as people continue to believe that teaching sex education in schools leads to more sexual activity in teens, many also believe that talking about suicide will put that thought into a child’s head.  None of these myths are true.

Some of these myths are stronger and more persuasive for some groups of parents than others, but most of us buy into one or two.  No parent should be faulted for what they don’t know.  No one wants to believe that small people, children, can have big illnesses.  Unless you have a personal or family experience as a point of reference, myths guide us away from realizing what’s going on with our child. At least until it smacks us in the face.

Nikki Webber Allen created I Live For, a storytelling intiative to end stigma around depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color.  When her 22 year old nephew took his life, Allen realized that remaining silent about her own depression had also robbed her of the opportunity to talk to him about his own mental health issues. Allen, an Emmy winning producer, is creating a documentary to tell the individual stories of people of color who have struggled with anxiety and depression.  She hopes it will help boost understanding and dispel myths.

When my son made his first suicide attempt, I looked for other parents like me.  They were very hard to find and in my search I was often met with disbelief that young children could be suicidal or depressed.  Even my son’s pediatrician and teachers were unhelpful, telling me I’d have a hard time finding other parents who were going through the same thing.  We need to find each other and tell our stories out loud. We all need to ask why suicide rates for children, especially African American children, are going up.  Parents are looking for answers. That’s what we do.

 

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My grandfather, my son and the right thing

February 19th, 2018

I was 9 years old when I noticed that my grandfather dropped my grandmother off for church services every Sunday but never went inside.  Oh, he went to church for weddings, funerals, fairs and Saturday bean suppers.  But he never once attended Sunday services.  My grandmother would say he didn’t like sitting in the pew or that she simply needed a ride.  I asked my mother about it, feeling a little anxious, trying to make it fit into my limited understanding.  “Your grandpa doesn’t believe in God,” she explained, “But he believes in Good.”

I sucked in my breath and my little-girl understanding shifted.  Until then, I had Good, God, having morals, doing good deeds and being a good person firmly super-glued together in my head.  You couldn’t have one without the other, right?  I began to understand the different shape of each thing and how they were not identical.

I saw in my grandfather, whom I adored, a warm, generous, very kind man who adhered to a strong code of conduct.  If you left a dime at his house, he returned it to you at the next visit. But he was agnostic, not religious. I noticed others who did the “right thing” every time, even when it was uncomfortable or a stretch for them, but they had beliefs about the world that startled me.  I gradually became comfortable with the idea that our inner guidance systems are unique and help us navigate the world in singular ways.

Many years later, this would help me understand and love my son during the hardest times.

My son was 7 when I realized that he saw and heard things that no one else did.  He was too old to label it magical thinking and his therapists and teachers were reluctant to call it psychosis.  What he saw and heard often scared him and that fear followed him all day, often even into the night, resulting in nightmares.  His fear, frustration and despair would overwhelm him and he would lash out or fly into a frenzy, hurtling objects and even hurting himself.  In those hours, he changed into someone else, shedding the things that gave him joy: his laughter, his creativity and his curiosity.

Sometimes the voices and visions told him to hurt his younger brother and I would hold him tight while he raged.  I would urge his smaller sibling to close himself in his bedroom, to be safe and out of sight. We did this again and again over the years, our family’s version of a safety drill.  His younger brother went from telling people that “I have a very, very good brother who does very, very bad things” to simply announcing that his brother was bad.  Very bad.  Once, when someone asked what his brother was like, he replied, “I have a bad brother and he is a very bad brother to me.” In his mind you couldn’t do such bad things and not be bad yourself.

It’s hard when you are in the midst of daily chaos to unstick the superglue that binds together your ideas about what children are like, especially your own children.  I thought children were naturally resilient, absorbing life around them, sometimes being silly.  That wasn’t my son’s life at all.  He was emotionally fragile, sometimes lost in his own world and unable to laugh. It was my job to untangle my assumptions and instead put in plain view the things I wanted others to see.   It was my job as a parent to paint that picture, showing the world outside my family that my child could be good and do bad things.  That my child had lots of moments where he was brilliant and vulnerable and caring.

He could be loving and smart, hold my hand, give great hugs and say funny things and still have moments and hours where he made me cry, made me angry and pretty scared for him.

There were no guidelines to understanding my son; I had to create my own.  I began to understand that while he did not always understand what was real, he could understand what was right. Even more, he cared about that. Often, after his rages and being lost in his phantasmic world, he would feel deep remorse.  (He was still unable to stop himself the next time though.)   His sense of what was right and wrong vied with the voices and destructive impulses.

When he was a little older, he announced he had made what he considered a better moral choice.  He began directing the raging and hurting only toward himself, sometimes viciously, sometimes persistently and away from his brother and me. His inner guidance system was trying to make peace between the storms in his mind and his sense of what was right.

We are all nuanced people with complicated beliefs.  It doesn’t get any better when you throw mental health issues into the mix.  On those parenting days when I came up for air, I would channel my mother.  I would talk about my son saying, “My son is not always sure what is real, but he loves knowing what is right.” Then I would add a story or two which showed the shape of our lives, hoping to unstick others’ ideas about good children and bad behaviors.

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