Pam savors her morning coffee time after her son goes to day care and before she has to leave for work. This is time to herself — to sip on a good cup of coffee, watch her favorite show, and just be alone. But for Pam, those times are getting rarer. Steven, her rambunctious, often destructive 4-year-old, recently diagnosed with ADHD, was getting harder and harder to manage. The day care provider was often calling, sometimes within minutes of dropping him off, to request that he be picked up and brought home for the rest of the day.
The last time it happened, Pam was barely able to hang up the phone before she began crying. At that moment, she felt like such a failure. Although her family is supportive, and Steven is being seen by an excellent developmental pediatrician, some days it’s all just too much. Pam is frustrated because all of the family’s time and energy seems to be spent on getting Steven the help he needs, and her relationship with her husband and others is suffering. She can’t remember the last time they were invited to a neighborhood gathering. And then there is work. Pam knows her boss’ patience is waning as the absences pile up and she struggles to stay on task. She often feels exhausted and frustrated. Nothing could have prepared her for parenting a child with significant emotional and behavioral issues.
Of course, Pam isn’t alone. Having a child with significant emotional needs can trigger all sorts of demands on parents that can impact the entire family, put a strain on friendships, and negatively affect work performance. Worse yet, the stress can trigger bouts of depression and anxiety and damage the very relationships parents need the most during difficult times. Here are some practical ideas to help you cope:
1. Forgive yourself
Parents often carry a great deal of guilt and angst about their child’s struggles, especially when they cannot be “fixed.” Understand that your job, above all else, is to parent with unconditional love. You can’t change who your child is, but you can change how you feel about it.
2. Stay healthy
Parenting a challenging child can be draining, and it often takes its toll on a mother’s health. Put strategies in place to support yourself, such as finding a friend who will watch your child for a few hours each week so you can spend time with your spouse or other children. Take 10 or 15 minutes each day to do something relaxing — reading, yoga, or a soothing hobby such as knitting, for example. Try to eat healthy foods and get enough sleep.
3. Find good professional help for your child
It can take some real effort and persistence but you need to work with the best professionals you can find. Chances are you are not a child psychologist or special education teacher so try to keep your focus on being the best parent you can be. Remember to use those trusted professionals already in your child’s life, like his pediatrician, social worker, or teacher, for information and support.
4. Start each day new
Leave the previous day’s struggles behind you, and begin each day anew. Children struggling with their behavior need to have hope, and your support in giving them a fresh chance each day may just renew their motivation to try again.
It can be bewildering not knowing what to do about your child’s behavioral needs, and the sense of inadequacy that comes with that feeling can be overwhelming for parents. When you feel that way, please tell yourself that things will be OK. What worked yesterday may not work today. What didn’t work last week might be just the thing your child needs now. Take a deep breath and explore more options tomorrow.
Above all else, stay positive, give yourself credit for all the hard work you are doing to support your child, and believe that it will make a difference!
Have you experienced the stress of parenting a child with mental health or behavioral challenges? Your perspective could be helpful to other parents who are struggling with similar issues. Please share your thoughts and experiences.
PACER Center’s Children’s Mental Health and Emotional and Behavioral Disorders project offers a variety of resources for parents and professionals at PACER.org/cmh.
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