Ann Douglas is the parenting and mental health expert behind the “The Mother of All” series of books. You may have had her “The Mother of All Pregnancy Books” sitting on your bedside table at one time. Ann has just released her latest work, “Parenting Through The Storm” – a book that guides parents through the very emotional and challenging times of a child being diagnosed and treated for mental health, neuro-developmental, or behavioral challenges .
I was given the chance to interview Ann, and she is a lovely soul. As I read through Parenting Through The Storm, I found myself nodding – and many times, wiping away tears. I had a few questions to ask her, and this is our conversation.
I will note, I paraphrased much of what Ann said, but these are her stories and ideas.
I know this book is deeply personal for you. I wonder if you could go to the core of what inspired you to put pen to paper AND what you hope others will take away from this read?
(1) You are not alone – if you feel like your family is the only family or you are defective or did it all wrong, it is not true. There is so much stigma that keeps people quiet and it keeps us feeling isolated.
(2) We do not fail as individuals simply because we are parenting a child with challenges. Having a child who is struggling does not make you a bad parent, just like being a child who is struggling does not make them a bad child. Sometimes people worry about how they gave their child the genes for depression, etc. When we find ourselves going to these places of blame and failure, I often encourage parents to think, “But who better to understand the needs and inner-workings of THIS child?”
What do you think is the biggest misconception that plagues parents as they seek out supports for their kids?
There is this idea that answers should be available… NOW! Sometimes parents get understandably impatient. But I encourage parents to stop and think about what it is like to be the person on the other side of the desk who is trying to figure this out for your child and for your family. There are ten million things to consider and all the while your child is changing and growing. Diagnoses are often a best guess for right now – and they are always a work in progress. Having a variety of diagnoses made along the way is a normal experience for most families.
Another key misconception is that parents hold themselves accountable for how all of this plays out, leading to a lot of guilt. We have this idea of ourselves that we have to be excellent at all of this every step along the way. But if you don’t know at the time what is actually happening for your child, you might act in ways that you wish you hadn’t. For example, telling your kid to just pull it together or being angry at them for things very certainly out of their control. I think parents need to be so gentle with themselves around all of this. You can only do the best you can.
A third powerful misconception is that you can’t do anything until you have a diagnosis. But you can do so much! And really understand that if this is hard for you as a parent it is astronomically hard for your child. Keep that loving connection and understand this for them.
Finally, I think sometimes parents can feel hopeless. It is such an overwhelming experience to stand vigil at your child’s bedside after a suicide attempt. You can find yourself worrying that it will never get better. And to this I say to parents, you can never imagine how much better life can get when you are at the worst. You need to hold on to that hope – it is core to making it through. Even if the diagnosis for your child never shifts, what will certainly shift and grow is your capacity to cope.
You quote one of the parents you interviewed, “Rebecca” as saying “I’ve learned to trust my instincts – I actually know a lot and I’m the best expert when it comes to my daughter. Social workers and psychiatrists might be experts in their field, but my child is unique, not just a diagnosis.” What do you think is so core and pivotal about the parent as expert in terms of an approach to all of this?
You have to really accept that YOU ARE THE EXPERT. Nobody else knows your child and understands your child’s needs like you do.
In my own life, it was exactly this understanding of my child that prompted me to have an instinctual need to check on her the night she attempted to overdose. I was out for coffee with a friend that evening and when I returned home my husband mentioned that Julie, our daughter, had asked me to check on her before I went to bed. It was a bit of a strange request from my 13-year-old daughter and that alerted something inside of me. So I went down to check on her and it was then that I discovered she had taken all of the pills.
If I hadn’t paid attention to my gut instinct as her mother, it could have ended very differently. So I always remind parents that there is nobody who knows your child as you do. I was able to find my own expert hat when I did two things: (1) reached out to other parents who were living what I was living with which helped me feel normalized and validated; and (2) when I realized how important self-care was. When I was depleted I have no idea of how to approach things and problem solve, but when I was functioning better, I was able to take these things on more capably.
Talk me through what you, and other parents you have talked with, experience when a diagnosis is actually rendered?
There are two levels. First, you experience shock and devastation. It breaks your heart and you panic. Second, you move onto the “problem solving” mode which can be a very challenging period where you go on autopilot and become quite frenzied in trying to find solutions. Sometimes we become so mired in this as parents that we detach from our lives and social circles. We can lose relationships along the way because we become so immersed in problem solving. And then finally, you kind of emerge and it slowly starts to become evident that there will be a way through.
What do you see as being the most central impact on siblings of exceptional kids?
There was one stage when Julie [Ann’s daughter] required about 75% of the parenting energy in the family. At the time we were in triage mode and it just had to be this way. As a family, I realized that we needed to talk about the tough times. We needed to open the dialogue about what was happening in our home so our children did not have to carry all of those thoughts around on their own. I did not want any of our children to feel badly for voicing their needs or hurts. There needed to be space for everyone to exist. I also know that as I parent I sometimes was on auto-pilot and that didn’t always make me the best I could be in each moment. I have addressed that directly with my children and offered apologies for the times when I wasn’t what I needed to be for them. Kids need to know that these are things we can talk about.
One of the things that I loved about your book was the universality of so much of what you recommend parents can do, including this idea of creating a predictable environment. I talk about that in my own writing as this idea of containment – and it is good for all kids but I wondered if you could talk about why it is utterly essential for kids who are struggling.
I don’t want people to think that I actually totally conquered this in my home! I think every home has its own necessary and normal amount of chaos. But in our home there were definitely rituals in place. For example, family dinnertime was an essential thing. We needed that time to anchor ourselves as a family and as individuals, and talk through the difficult things, staying connected as a family. We were also very certain in not overloading ourselves with 10,000 different extra-curriculars in an attempt to keep the family schedule from becoming overwhelming. My husband and I had a core focus on preserving family time over activity time. In addition, I tried to create a lot of room and space for my children to be bored so that they might come into their own in terms of finding things to do, and while they were at it, finding themselves. So there were lots of crafts and things like that available to our kids. My children are now young adults and they will laughingly reflect on these various activities as “professional development!”
A quote: “There is no mental health fairy godmother” – talk me through this idea and why it was so liberating for you as a parent.
One evening we had to call 911 for our daughter. The policeman who showed up said these words to me. He wanted me to know that if I was waiting for some magic all-knowing person that was going to fix this for our daughter, it was a pipe dream. There was not going to be a magic fix. I was going to have to step up and realize that to make a difference for my child I would have to take this on myself.
Initially when you come into that understanding of yourself as a parent, it is terrifying! But slowly, as you realize the power you truly do have as a parent – the expert on your child – it is absolutely liberating. I still have this police officer’s card and although I have never seen him again, I have had conversations with some of his colleagues in which I asked them to be sure to pass along to him how pivotal he was in helping me take the lead when it came to my child.
Thank you, Ann, for taking the time to speak with me. Mental health is a very real thing, and the journey faced by parents and children dealing with mental health issues, neuro-developmental challenges, and behavioral difficulties can be utterly overwhelming. If you love a child who is struggling, or love someone who love’s a child who is struggling, I urge you to read Ann’s book, “Parenting Through The Storm” – and recommend it to family and friends. You are not alone. Others have lived this and not only survived, but really conquered. Ann’s wise, caring, and informed voice offers hope and concrete ideas. As a community we are all in this together.