Mental Health: How to raise a child amid mental struggle?

Keep yourself afloat mentally with these tips and practical strategies

By Geraldine Naidoo

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Published: Tue 7 May 2024, 2:40 PM

As the sunset bathes my clinic in a gentle glow, Emma arrives with a heavy heart, her steps weighty with sorrow. As she wearily perches on her seat, tears brim in her eyes as she confides her struggles with a soft, trembling voice. "How can I provide for my boys when I'm struggling to keep myself afloat mentally?

Emma’s sentiment resonates with countless parents worldwide who grapple with the daunting task of nurturing their children while navigating the complexities of their own mental health conditions. From anxiety, overwhelm, and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, these parents face a unique set of challenges that require compassion, understanding, support, and diligent self-care.


Recognizing the Difficulty

Having a mental health condition can affect a parent's capacity to offer consistent care, emotional support, and stability to their children. Research emphasises the impact of parental mental health on child development, highlighting the need for timely intervention and vital support for parents.


So, what can parents do? Where do they begin? And how do they stay grounded when the ground beneath them feels like it is constantly moving? As a seasoned Stress and Anxiety Specialist with over two decades of experience, I'm here to offer you some empowering tips for support.

Understanding the Impact on Parents

Parents coping with mental health conditions often endure stress affecting both their mental and physical well-being. They may struggle with persistent feelings of anxiety and depression, making everyday tasks seem overwhelming. Constant intrusive thoughts, self-doubt, worries about self-worth and parenting despite their condition can overwhelm their minds, causing difficulties with concentration, decision-making, and emotional balance.

Physically, the stress of managing a mental health condition while raising children can take a toll on the body. Many parents experience symptoms such as fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, or gastrointestinal issues. Sleep disturbances are common, as racing thoughts and worry can interfere with the ability to fall or stay asleep, leading to chronic sleep deprivation, which in turn feeds into the loop of mental stress. Additionally, the body's immune system may be compromised, making parents more susceptible to physical illness.

Overall, for parents with mental health conditions, the experience of stress is a constantly exhausting and demoralizing balancing act. As they seek to manage symptoms while fulfilling caregiving duties, they also experience insurmountable amounts of guilt, self-doubt, isolation and fear of judgement.

Understanding the Impact on Kids

Healthy parental connection is critical in shaping a child's emotional development. Parents with mental disorders often face difficulties in forming secure attachments, potentially impacting the child's sense of safety and trust. Research is also clear on the impact of intergenerational transmission of trauma, suggesting that unresolved parental issues can affect parenting behaviours, family dynamics and the future well-being of children.

The Good News

While the path to recovery may have its ups and downs, many parents find that with dedication, and the right support, they can absolutely recover from mental health issues and lead fulfilling lives again.

Recovery is a multifaceted journey that involves time, and a combination of various forms of treatment, including talk therapy, somatic practices, medication, lifestyle changes, and social support.

Reaching out for professional support is crucial. Studies highlight the importance of timely therapeutic interventions in fostering healing and recovery while offering a safe space to process difficult experiences and cultivate emotional regulation, benefiting both the parent and the child.

By leveraging herself with my professional support, Emma later commented:

“I feel that I have recovered parts of me that I thought I had lost forever. I feel a huge change in my mind and my body, and a calmness reflecting In both my sons too! They are calm and organized because I am calm. It’s been empowering, and life changing!”

Self-care Tips and Practical Strategies for Parents

Central to the journey of parenting with a mental health condition is self-compassion. Self-compassion is the practice of treating oneself with kindness, understanding, and acceptance in moments of difficulty or suffering. Self-compassion is by no means selfish; it's a vital component of effective parenting. By prioritizing self-kindness and understanding, parents can create a nurturing environment to better attend to their own needs, as well as to the needs of their children. Parenthood, infused with empathy and resilience, can become a journey of profound transformation despite the shadows of mental health challenges.

Intentionally prioritise relaxation. Finding wellness isn't automatic in today's stress-filled lives. Learn what works best for you, and explore the underlying causes of emotional challenges with the support of a skilled therapist

Recognising and respecting your need for rest and respite can greatly support your well-being and prevent overwhelm, preserving your bandwidth for what matters most.

Spending time around nature, with or without your children, can offer mental health benefits by reducing stress, increasing feelings of relaxation and well-being, and providing opportunities for mindfulness and connection.

Engaging in daily household tasks can provide mental health benefits by promoting a sense of accomplishment, reducing stress through physical activity, and creating a calming environment through organisation and cleanliness.

Physical movement helps alleviate stress, improve mood, and boost overall well-being. Engaging in regular exercise can also provide a valuable outlet for emotions and promote a sense of empowerment and control over one's mental health journey.

Incorporating and pursuing play is especially essential for parents with mental health conditions as it fosters joy, reduces stress, and strengthens the parent-child bond, promoting overall well-being.

Asking for help is fundamental to ensure you receive the support and resources needed to navigate the journey effectively. You do not have to try to do it all on your own. Seeking assistance not only benefits the parent's well-being but also promotes a healthier family dynamic and a nurturing environment for children.

Remind yourself often that you have strengths alongside your vulnerabilities too. Making, and displaying, a list of strength’s provides encouragement to get you through particularly difficult days.

Tips and Practical Strategies to Support Children

Unpredictability is the nature of mental health challenges. Establishing structured daily routines can provide stability for both parent and child in the long term. Research suggests that consistency and routine are vital for children's sense of security and predictability.

Additionally, open communication and age-appropriate clarifications can help children better understand their parent's condition, while also serving as confirmation to the child that they are in no way responsible for their parents lack of wellness.

To promote the mental well-being of children, mindful parenting practices, such as full presence, emotional attunement and reflective listening, can enhance parent-child bonds and promote emotional resilience in both parties.

Furthermore, the concept of repair is vital in alleviating parental guilt and boosting child autonomy. Becky Kennedy, in her TED talk, emphasises the importance of repair in nurturing healthy parent-child relationships. "Repair involves acknowledging mistakes, apologising when necessary, and actively working to rebuild trust and connection with our children. It's a fundamental aspect of parenting that allows for growth and healing within the family unit."

Identify Resources that Empower and Support

What are the resources available to you today? How can you set up your life in order to tend to yourself and your mental health? Resourcefulness helps parents find support, information, and coping strategies, reducing isolation and building resilience for themselves and their children.

Building a Support Network

A significant buffer of the impact of parental mental illness is community. Seeking, and accepting, support from family, friends, and support groups can alleviate feelings of isolation and provide practical assistance when needed. Additionally, reaching out to mental health professionals or parent coaching services can offer valuable guidance and resources.

Online communities and support groups can offer a safe space for parents to share experiences, seek advice, and find solace in knowing they are not alone in their journey. If you do not know of a network, consider creating your own network.

Amanda, a mother of four, living with General Anxiety Disorder, reflects on the significance of peer support. "Connecting with other parents who understand what I'm going through has been a lifeline for me. It's comforting to know that there are others who can empathise with my struggles and offer guidance based on their own experiences."

Conclusion

Parenting with a mental disorder is a journey fraught with challenges, but it is also one filled with opportunities for potential growth, resilience, and connection.

In the words of Maya Angelou, "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated."

Remember, you are not alone. Help is available to guide you through this journey with compassion and understanding. For support www.drgeraldine.com.

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