Thursday 10th October is World Mental Health Day – a chance for everyone to focus on mental wellness, ways to support mental health difficulties and suicide prevention. I wanted to contribute by writing about a niche, slightly neglected corner of mental health: how do you keep yourself well when you are caring for someone else with mental health struggles? Specifically, how do you keep yourself well when your child has social, emotional or mental health needs?
As a parent myself, of a child with SEMH needs, I am all too aware of the toll it can take. No doubt people will accuse me of selfishly focussing on myself and my own needs when it is my child who is in real turmoil, but to them, I say this: when you are parenting a child with such needs, there is barely a waking minute that passes without you puzzling over how they’re feeling, why they’re feeling like that, what you can do to make things easier for them. You can tie yourself in knots wondering how certain situations might affect them and what measures you can put in place to reduce their anxiety or make things easier. You rake over previous situations wondering what you could have done differently, what else they might have needed, what underlying worries or upsets might have been driving certain behaviours. You write social stories, make visual supports, meet with teachers, buy sensory equipment. You read books, blogs, articles to inform yourself; to check you haven’t missed anything. You consider them and their needs in every plan you make.
I’m not saying any praise or accolade is required for that – it isn’t, it’s just you doing your parenting best like everybody else – but it is all consuming and somewhat exhausting.
The very nature of SEMH difficulties means that children who experience them will now and again (or often) present with behaviour that is difficult for people around them. Again, that might sound selfish, but I just mean it factually. It’s the nature of the SEMH beast. And no matter how good you are at looking beyond it, analysing it, understanding it, trying to support it, the fact of the matter is that some of the behaviour you live with is difficult.
In trying to support my child in the best way for him, I sometimes have to dig so deep into my emotional reserve that I know I’ve gone beyond what is actually there. Sometimes the effort required not to rise to provocation, not to shout, not to fully (or even partially) lose my shit, not to enter my own fight/flight state and to instead respond therapeutically and calmly, feels like a superhuman request. I am not superhuman. But sometimes I feel I’ve plumbed superhuman depths and that can’t be good for you. I often feel depleted after particularly tricky situations and that is probably because I am. I’ve used everything I’ve got and more.
This is where concerning ourselves with parental mental health is absolutely not selfish and should be a priority for all. If I am depleted, how can I provide all the things my child needs? How can I analyse and look beyond and generate solutions? I can barely get off the sofa.
This is why caring for carers is absolutely something that should be talked about.
For me, there are three main safeguards: self-care, self-kindness and external support. I have written about self-care before ( Self-Care ) and I generally consider it to be all the boring stuff that you should do to look after yourself and stay well. That is just my personal interpretation – some people include all the self-kindness stuff in there too but in my mind there is a distinction. For me, self-care is things like eating properly (which isn’t fun because I don’t eat sugar or bad carbs like bread but I know that I stay healthier this way), getting enough sleep (despite being a natural night-owl), getting enough fresh air and exercise. I don’t necessarily enjoy self-care but it is all about things I’ve learned from experience that I need to do or not do in order to function the best I can.
Self-kindness is much more fun. I view it as little treats to yourself that give you a boost and help to fill up your emotional reserves. It can be anything – sometimes the thought of getting into fresh pyjamas and watching Location, Location, Location is enough to help me through a day; at other times it’s some uninterrupted writing time, or being alone for a bit, or chatting to a friend, or now and again, I do need an actual treat.
Though self-kindness is more enjoyable and has the potential to vastly improve your mood quickly, I continue to struggle with allowing myself to have it. I can’t be the only one. We do seem to live in particularly trying times – with the threat of Brexit, political instability and, even more horrifyingly, climate change hanging over us. There is a general atmosphere of unrest and unpleasantness (just dip your toe into social media to see what I mean) and no doubt all these things are contributing to a country-wide dip in mental wellness. I can’t be the only one who thinks about using some retail therapy for self-kindness reasons then gets the guilt that I might be unwittingly ruining the planet. One purchase can lead to a spiralling concern about use of water to farm cotton, tonnes of clothes entering landfill and a general worry about human over-consumption. Whilst I clearly should be concerned about my carbon footprint (and I am), I am finding that my ways of practising self-kindness are dwindling in parallel.
I don’t drink, I don’t eat sugar, now I can’t really shop. But I’m still plumbing those emotional reserves and that need for a boost continues to gape. I suspect it is about turning away from having to have things and finding more wholesome ways of filling reserves. Writing is a salve, as is cutting myself enough slack to actually relax without constantly clambering around my to-do list. I’ve realised that buying books is pretty wholesome – even a hardback is a fraction of the price of a new top and unless we buy them, authors can’t make a living – so it’s a multi-faceted win (assuming it’s made from sustainably sourced paper. See? I have self-kindness with a side-scoop of guilt problems). Enid, our puppy, arrives soon and I’m hoping that her furry little face will be a salve in itself.
There are no clear answers, and what each individual needs will be different, but my point is that self-kindness is essential. We must let ourselves have it and find the things that work.
Lastly, parents of children with SEMH needs will require outside support in one form or another. It is too big and too hard to deal with single-handedly. Whenever Grizzly and I have one of our frank chats about how we’re feeling, it is never long before one of us wonders aloud how on earth single parents do it. If I couldn’t air my deepest darkest thoughts without needing to censor them or without fear of judgement, I suspect I would implode. Everybody needs that outlet.
We are lucky that outside of our family of four, we have a wider family of grandparents and aunties/uncles and close friends who get it. They are an informed bunch who listen and are willing to help with the analysing of behaviour and application of strategies as needed. They are happy to give us a break. I’m not sure we take that option enough, because life is a little manic and it requires forward-thinking, but it helps to know the option is there. We are also fortunate enough to have the support of school. I had a meeting with them recently and realised that despite the myriad ups and downs we’ve had with them (and the odd specific person I find it hard to engage with) they are genuinely caring and they do want us all to be ok. I feel comfortable speaking honestly with them too and just that ability to voice your worries and challenges outside of your four walls is invaluable.
Unfortunately, not all parents of children with SEMH needs have this emotional scaffold around them and I can only imagine how lonely a place that is. It must be particularly hard for those who don’t know others in similar positions – there is a very real risk they would consider themselves the only ones in their particular predicament, further compounding worries and stresses over whether they or their parenting may be to blame.
I hope that by being open about the challenges of SEMH parenting it will reassure other parents they are certainly not alone as well as raising awareness for any wider family members or professionals working with such families. For me, the key thing is to ask parents if they’re ok and to give them the time to talk if they are not. Be prepared for tears. Most of the time, it is just an outlet that’s needed, not necessarily a raft of solutions, because those parents are likely to have already tried most things you can think of.
Families of children with SEMH difficulties will have found themselves in all manner of weird and not-so-wonderful situations – please don’t judge them. It is safe arenas in which they can be honest that they so desperately need.
Parents can be made to feel guilty for talking openly about their worries and challenges – as though they are in some way disloyal to their child in doing so – however the real risk of encouraging them to put up and shut-up is that it might well push them to breaking point; a point at which they are no longer able to adequately meet their child’s needs.
As a parent, it is scary to admit that things are hard and that scenarios are arising where you don’t know what to do. Parents already fear they are failing, they do not need their suspicions to be compounded by bad listeners, naysayers and judgmental attitudes. Unless you have over-plumbed your emotional depths caring for someone, you cannot begin to imagine what it’s like.
Actually, I think there is a fourth thing that is needed, as well as self-care, self-kindness and support: niceness. It seems like an outmoded concept these days – it’s faded into obscurity along with other seemingly bland concepts such as beige clothing and magnolia paint. But I really miss it. I think we’re all unknowingly really missing it. Politicians could do with re-inventing it for sure. Since when did it become normal to shout and yell and name-call and judge and troll and alienate and oppose and incite? Just be nice. That would improve everyone’s mental health. Some kind words, a smile, a hug or an “I hear you” can go a long way to improving a day.
Let’s look after one another; we’re all just trying our best.