We are a huge part of our children’s world. If our emotions, thinking and behaviour start to skew, then they will probably be able to see it and will be impacted by it. But here is the good news: children can be amazingly resilient and sympathetic about a parent’s struggles. From school age on, with a little help, many of them develop surprisingly mature insights into our ‘ups and downs’. More good news: if children feel loved and safe, then you already have your ‘pass-mark’ as a parent! It is amazing what else can be ‘wrong’ in their upbringing but, if they feel loved and safe, they will still grow up to be healthy, whole adults… and they will most likely still love you to bits!
Here are a few tips:
- Let kids know that there is always a plan B. If our children have experienced episodes of our poor mental health in the past, they may be really scared about who will look after them if we get unwell again. Ahead of time, line up your back-ups. “You know if I am getting unwell, Mrs Green next door says you can pop in there any time and stay. And Aunty Tina will take you home if it looks like I need a bit of a break. So you never need to worry: there are always people who can look after you if I get sick.” Our priority will always be our children’s safety. If we honestly have to concede that our children might be in some risk, it is great to have a plan ready-to-roll to get them quickly to a safer situation.
- Debrief with them. Our children will gain better insights into what is happening if we actually talk with them about issues that have arisen. Maybe that won’t be possible in the midst of a difficult time; we might need to wait until we recover, or our partner could step in and speak with them. Rather than just telling them information, it is more important to listen. Ask questions and don’t be too quick to contradict their fears or distress. Sympathise. If it is appropriate, apologize.
- Patience. Patience with them, patience with yourself. A huge skill is to pause before reacting. Even if we were not experiencing mental health challenges, parenting can be very hard work. Their immaturity and poor impulse control create all sorts of scenarios that would try the patience of a saint! Of course, we are going to need to get on top of poor behaviour but take your time. Allow anger (theirs and yours) to settle. Get some extra skills from online, books or parenting courses (e.g. Toolbox courses and family coaching from ParentingPlace.nz). Our motto during the tough times: “This, too, shall pass!”
- Reducing stress helps them and us. Routines are wonderful for giving children a sense of security. Patterns and rituals around getting up and getting ready for school, mealtimes, chores, homework and bedtime keep them feeling safe and secure. Even though establishing routines can be hard work at the start, after they are running well they require very little input to keep going. Good routines can reduce our stress wonderfully as well. They can keep family life ticking along even when we are tired or not very well.
- Reassure your children you love them. Children can misread our low moods or agitation. They might conclude we do not love them, or even that they are the cause of the problems they are seeing. Leave your kids in no doubt: you really do love them! Say it with words, with your kindness, with your gentle touch and hugs, with your care and attention and with the fact that your eyes light up and smile when you see them.