Caring for the Caregiver
Few words can describe the relief I felt when, with the bang of a gavel, a juvenile court judge decided that my then 14-year-old daughter would attend a mental health boarding school instead of prison.
Nine months earlier, she had gotten into trouble with the law for a serious crime she committed amid an escalating bipolar disorder that no one, including myself, quite understood. During her stay at San Francisco’s Woodside Juvenile Hall, I worked tirelessly with therapists, psychiatrists, social workers, investigators and defense attorneys to ensure she received the help and treatment she needed.
Knowing she would finally be safe at her residential treatment school and have access to a small army of therapists, psychologists and dorm counselors at all hours of the day for the rest of her high school career was an enormousweight off my shoulders. But my work was far from over.
Caregivers of children with mental health conditions give a lot. We spend countless hours talking to therapists or playing therapists ourselves. We attend classes and do so much research we could become honorary-degree psychiatrists. We drive our kids to their appointments. We make sure they take their medication, if they need it. We hold them when they’re scared or angry or hurting.
For many of us, this is simply an extension of parenting. The biggest difference is: There is often no finish line. Parents of children experiencing mental health conditions rarely escape the potential for heartbreak. For some, that means courtrooms and navigating juvenile or adult corrections. For others,
it means desperately trying to prevent your child from self-harm or helping them navigate their turbulent journey between addiction and recovery. For all, it means sleepless nights and anxiety-filled days.
All this stress and worry take a toll—on our emotions, our mental health, our careers and family lives. Caregiving parents routinely focus on the needs of their children at the expense of their own needs. Of course, a certain amount of self-sacrifice comes with parenthood. But in the long run, if you have poor mental health yourself, caring for your child’s mental health is all the more difficult.
So, while you might not be able to engage in self-care practices every day, here are a few ways to consider caring for you, the caregiver
Allow Yourself to Feel
Caregiving parents often condition themselves to put aside their emotions and push on to do what needs to be done for their children. Eventually, this catches up to us. Caregivers can feel a range of emotions from sadness, grief, despondency, anger and even apathy at any given moment. Rather than suppressing or dismissing uncomfortable or painful emotions, acknowledge them. Label them aloud and let them wash through you. Until you deal with them, they’ll likely resurface again and again.
Talk to a Professional
It’s easy to want to vent to your friends and family about your worries and struggles. But friends and family aren’t always available or able to help, physically or emotionally. Speaking to someone who is trained to provide solid, impartial guidance as you deal with the difficult emotions that come with caring for a child struggling with a mental health condition will go a long way toward keeping you healthy and stronger for the challenges ahead.
Exercise is a critical method of self-healing for your child and you! Find an exercise you enjoy and weave it into your daily or weekly routine. While your challenges won’t disappear completely during that run, Zumba class or bike ride, you might find once-overwhelming challenges a little more manageable.
Dig into a Hobby
Few can deal with life head-on all the time. So, find something you love to do and can do with passion. Among other things, hobbies tend to keep you present—a critical tool in cognitive behavioral therapy. They can also bring you much-needed moments of joy, keeping you buoyed when seas get rough. And if nothing else, your hobby can simply be the bright spot that gives you something to look forward to each day.
This is likely the hardest one of all. We parents often blame ourselves for everything that happens to our kids. This is especially true for parents of children with a mental health condition. It’s easy to question every misstep you’ve made—every time you lost your temper or said something you regret—and wonder if it either caused or worsened your child’s condition. But don’t go down that road. Making mistakes is part of being a parent.
Ensuring your child has your love, support and presence will give him or her a solid foundation that will help them overcome many hurdles down the road, regardless of how many bumps there were along the way.
Self-care might seem completely foreign when you’re putting so much of your time and energy into your child’s mental health—that is, until you realize selfcare’s long-term benefits. For me, talking to my therapist, going for long runs or taking salsa dance classes initially only seemed like ways to help myself cope with the stress of caregiving. What I later realized was everything I did actually made me stronger and more resilient during my daughter’s darkest days, which in turn helped her get through them, too.
What’s more, I was modeling behaviors she now regularly uses as a young adult to self-heal and become more present when dealing with challenges resulting from her illness. Now, looking back, I have no regrets in making those small investments in myself—because they were also investments in my child.
Stefanie Hoffman is a writer and mental health advocate on the NAMI San Francisco Board of Directors. She has a blog for parents of children with mental health conditions titled, “Anything But That: Parenting the Mentally Ill Child.”
Note: This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of the Advocate.
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