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September 21, 2021

Parenting and Mental Health: What Ignoring Your Needs Could Mean for Your Child

Post By:
Dr. Brandy Pidermann, LCSW-QS
In-House Contributor
Licensed Psychotherapist | Clinical Social Worker
Changing Tides Therapy
Guest Contributor:

As a parent, does it often feel like you’re constantly on the go and in high demand? Whether you’re attempting to help your child navigate life, trying to meet your partner’s physical and emotional needs, striving to accomplish a career goal, or aiming to keep a social life, it appears as if you’re supposed to know how to do it all unfailingly. But the reality is that it’s exhausting-and not just in an, I-could-use-a-nap, sort of way. Parents are physically, emotionally and mentally drained from the societal expectations of these anticipated duties. This level of constant fatigue, if not properly addressed, is frequently followed by feelings of anxiety and/or depression which can occur for long periods of time without ever recognizing or acknowledging the early warning signs. What happens when this is being observed by your child? How do you manage parenthood, romantic partnerships, a fulfilling career, and a social life without batting an eyelash and make it look as if you’ve got it all under control while everyone is watching? The short answer? You shouldn’t. Here’s why.

It’s challenging to not get wrapped up in our society’s way of looking at parents, particularly mothers, as mythical creatures who can handle everything thrown their way with ease and grace. Even parents compare themselves to other parents and wonder why they don’t feel as “put together.” They’re questioning their intuition and struggling to use their voice to ask for help, for fear that they will no longer be seen as the idolized parent or, at the very least, gratified. Parents are often seen as resilient and empathetic beings who can quite literally do it all, as if this is a badge of honor to be worn or declaration to be said. Truthfully, it’s hard and carries very unrealistic and challenging expectations- expectations that your child can begin seeing as, “the norm.”

Managing expectations from others is a difficult task, particularly when you struggle with your own expectations and life isn’t what you imagined it would be. A common parenting statement I hear as a psychotherapist working with children and families is, “I just want to give my child the life and opportunities I never had.” To this I turn and separately ask the parent, “To what extent and at what cost?” Usually by this point I’ve already met with the child and I have a sense of what their treatment goals are and their expectations of therapy. Now I’m trying to assess the parent’s expectations and gain more context. When I’m faced in the therapy room with questions and comments from parents like this, I take a moment to stay in this space and try to gain a deeper understanding of the “I never had.” It’s almost always coming from a source of anxiety or pain in a parent where they have unmet needs, goals, and underlying stressors that are making them feel unhappy and unfulfilled, while unconsciously sabotaging their relationship with their child.

Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, once said, “The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of parents.” This quote has stuck with me since first discovering it in graduate school. It may be tempting to immediately conjure up the image of the pretentious parent bragging about their child’s sports accomplishments, all while struggling with internal shame about their own experiences, another image comes to my mind. That image is one of a parent who experiences shame in a different, more silent manner. A parent who struggles with perfectionism and portrays an unrealistic expectation of their abilities in an effort to control the perception of others to make them appear as some may call “put together.” My point is that all too often we walk past the parent picking their kid up from school fresh from work with a smile on their face and dinner already planned out not realizing that they may be feeling internal shame and resentment- putting on a façade for those around them. That parent may be struggling to keep their social life afloat or connect with their partner. To the outside world they may appear to be in control and gratified, but this can send a message to the child that as long as everything looks alright on the outside then it’s alright on the inside even though we know it really isn’t. This is teaching children to deny their reality and dismiss their own needs.

According to Wolicki et. al (2021), poor mental health among caregivers was associated with an increased risk of mental and emotional difficulties among their children. Additionally, 22.8% of female parents reported having at least one mental health diagnosis in the past year while 12.4% of male parents reported the same. Unmet mental health needs among mothers can distort their expectations for their child which can result in deterioration between their relationship and have lasting effects on both their mental states. Here are some tips that parents and caregivers alike can utilize to help address and reflect on their own mental and emotional wellbeing to create a safe space and environment for their child to thrive in:

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  • Validate your own feelings so that when your child sees that you are struggling emotionally and/or mentally they can see that it’s safe and normal to do this. This humanizes the process so that they can gain the ability to acknowledge that, it is ok to not be ok. If you’re frustrated, angry, or sad you should express these feelings in a healthy way and not attempt to bottle it up to keep the peace. By not expressing yourself, you are at risk of your feelings turning into resentment or a full-blown melt down.
  • Ask for help and take your mental health seriously. If you don’t deal with it, then your child will be forced to. You can own the fact that you may not have an answer to a problem and take some time away to deal with what’s going on around and within you. Don’t be afraid to seek counseling services with a mental health professional. Remember that vulnerability is a strength.
  • Foster a functioning parent-child relationship and communicate better. Children need to see authenticity- not a mirage- of what society thinks is acceptable. Be open and honest with your kids. This doesn’t mean you need to discuss your marital or friendship issues with them. Instead, allow them to see that life can be hard, and yet, we can still “do hard things,” as famed author Glennon Doyle puts it. This enables your child to feel safe in expressing when they are struggling too and reduces the chances of them avoiding tough conversations with you.
  • Let your kids figure themselves out and take a break. Remember that life is not an exact science here. Just as you need a moment to gather your thoughts or process a feeling or experience, so does your child. Make a habit out of the “take 5” rule whenever you find yourself needing that time to process. You simply let those around you know that you need to step away for five minutes or so and will return when you are ready. In return, your child can learn this is a healthy way to gather their own thoughts during times of stress too.
  • Model good habits by communicating in moments where you feel strong emotions. Not only does this exemplify appropriate self-expression but it creates a safe home environment. Additionally, children can learn to identify and talk about their feelings in an emotionally intelligent way which can help build character. 
  • Help combat the stigma of mental health and discuss it at home. Own your ability to be human and avoid feeding into the parent-shaming process by pretending that you have a handle on things when you’re actually ready to implode beneath the mask.

How you deal with your mental health can directly affect how you parent your child. For example, if you have been experiencing long periods of anxious and/or depressed moods, find yourself easily agitated or irritable more often, are experiencing excessive tiredness, struggling to concentrate, or have suddenly lost interest or pleasure in activities you once enjoyed, how you respond to these changes and express yourself could have an impact on your ability to emotionally connect with your child. Overtime this could lead to feelings of abandonment by your child. By implementing these steps in your home, you are modeling what positive mental health is really about. Encouraging these habits shows empathy and builds resiliency while removing unhealthy patterns of thinking.

Everyone will be faced with adversity in their lifetime. What better time than now to change the way you and your family approach these challenges. As a parent, you have the unique position of nurturing a child’s mental health and developing a closer relationship with them. As they grow and get older, the likelihood of them confiding in you and having the ability to trust you with their struggles, increases with each step towards encouragement and modeling positive mental health. Not only can these habits significantly improve you and your child’s mental health, but they can improve your interpersonal relationships and overall wellbeing. Let’s take this time to refocus ourselves on the realm of possibility that life was never meant to appear perfect but rather in the form of artistry where you are the paintbrush and life is your canvas. We don’t have to pretend that we have it all figured out or put on a mask for our peers, our family or even ourselves. Be human. Make mistakes and own them. Then get back out there and keep doing your best knowing that you are enough and this world will accept your authenticity. If no one has told you lately- you’re brave and you’re loved. 

Be well.