Parenting with mental illness. Top 3 essentials to weather the storm.

Yesterday marked six full years since birthing my first and only child.

Birthing did not go as planned.

Conception not as planned.

Life over the years has not gone as planned.

However, the experience and lessons learned have been more beneficial and enriching than I could have ever planned for.

I live with the symptoms from Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Depressive Disorder, as defined by the DSM-5. And while I have decided not to go into too much detail about the illnesses themselves, I’d like to reflect on parenting whilst managing my mental health.

Before I continue, I’d like to remind you that I’m reflecting on my personal experience as a sole parent. This article should not be used as an alternative to the mental health services that you may need at this time. If you’re in urgent need, please stop reading and seek medical attention immediately.

Parenting without mental illness still requires us to be ON all of the time. Most especially during the early years. This means sleep depravation, and dysregulation of many sorts.

Parenting with mental illness means our emotional and cognitive thresholds are shorter than usual, as our nervous system is dysregulated. Our internal panic button has been smashed and we’re operating, regardless. So, as some of you might likely assume, my first tip for parenting with mental illness is;

Image by Alison Anton
  1. Amp up the self care in as many areas as possible.
  • Find yourself a good support network. Ask for help and accept the help offered to you.
  • Drink water, eat regular meals and try your very best to sleep as much as physically possible.
  • Get outdoors and ground yourself at least once a day.
  • Set boundaries; whatever that looks like to you. “No, I’m not taking visitors today” (adjust accordingly).
  • Remind yourself of what felt good before kids – your favourite book, film or TV show and carve the time out to enjoy those again. If you don’t have time; revisit bullet-point one.

In the midst of an anxious or depressive episode, our feelings can become so overwhelming. It’s important to ensure we’ve got a good set of coping techniques and an action plan in place. With that said, my second tip is:

Image by Danielle MacInnes

2. Get yourself a good therapist; they’re trained to help you through this!

You don’t need to know all of the answers, or exactly how you’re going to get through this. Just like surgeons study and train for years to perform life-saving surgery, Counsellors, Psychologists and Psychotherapists have trained for years for this very reason; to help you through this particularly painful and challenging part of your life. Doing your research and pairing with the appropriate and relevant mental health professional can help you in the following ways:

  • By providing you with a safe space to vent your frustration in. A good therapist offers unbiased understanding and validation of your feelings.
  • By helping you to understand how current environmental factors apply to your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.
  • By providing you with practicable techniques to cope with your emotional and cognitive processing. A good therapist will help you gain clarity and teach you to apply evidence-based techniques during your time of need.

Realistically speaking, parenting in the early years can be difficult. It’s messy, stressful and our boundaries and patience can be pushed to their limits. My third and final tip applies to a time where our children are able to really perceive and observe our behaviour and a time where we’ve adjusted and settled into our recent life event.

Image by Daniel Cheung

3. Work on acceptance, get realistic, be honest and play.

This is not to be mistaken for defeat and we should try our best to avoid becoming nihilistic. Coming to a point where we accept that our mind and body is struggling under current circumstances can be the catalyst for change that we’re so in need of. In my view, “allowing the dust to settle” and viewing my current state of being in a realistic manner is sobering, yet necessary. Doing away with the pressure of what’s expected of me by my social circle or society at large can be empowering and rather freeing. When I rest in the knowledge that my relationship with myself and my relationship with my child is taking priority right now, I’m better able to bring about a sense of calm, safety, wellness and confidence in my abilities as a parent. This only strengthens the bond in our relationship, because children are naturally very sensitive to the emotions of their caregivers.

The kind of honesty I’m referring to here is honesty with accountability, as it relates specifically to admitting we’re having a hard time or crying in front of our children, while maintaining accountability for our behaviour. Normalising crying is important, as it models the healthy expression of emotion. Maintaining accountability is important, as it prevents children’s tendency to develop self-blame as a pattern of their conditioning. This might sound like “Mummy/Daddy is having a hard time right now and it isn’t your fault. I’m feeling really sad (or nervous) but I’m going to help myself and get through this”.

Lastly, I mention play as an essential element to parenting with mental illness. Play is medicine. It’s education. It’s connection. Play is communication where words fail us. And if we’re wanting to create healthy neural pathways in ourselves and our children, respectively. We need to keep playing.

These three essentials have helped me to live through mental illness in my six years as a parent. While I acknowledge that one size never fits all, I hope you’ve found something useful from this article. Below, I will list some Australian Mental Health resources as well as parenting resources. And as always, I wish you healing – With Gratitude x

Featured image by Aswin.

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