Earlier this week I wrote about being held hostage by someone else’s depression, addiction, personality disorder, or general instability, and I heard from a flood of people who wonder what to do when these challenging people are cherished loved ones. I heard from many mothers, struggling with their children, grown, or almost-grown, or very little, and from people who are having difficulty with one parent or the other, a sibling, their partner, their best friend.
I’m going to say the most excruciating thing is watching your child suffer. That’s a pain and powerlessness that’s simply brutal, and if that’s what you’re grappling with, walking away is not an option. If we’re talking about depression in a small child, you have to find help; a great therapist would be step one, there are brilliant people who specialize in working with children. If finances are an issue, and you’re here in the states, go to http://www.nami.org/ and get some support for yourself and your little one. This is a great resource for anyone suffering from mental illness, or loving someone with mental illness, at any age.
Parents who watch their grown children struggling often blame themselves. I’ve heard a lot of that over the last few days; the heartache and feelings of failure and shame, so I think the first thing I’ll say, is please try to stop beating yourself up. If you were there, if you were present, if you loved your child with everything you had and did the very best you could, you have to release yourself from feeling that you’re the root of your child’s suffering, whether your child is 19 or 49. If you didn’t do a great job with your parenting responsibilities because you were a child yourself when you had your babies, or because you were suffering from your own mental illness, personality disorder, addiction or depression, that’s a heartbreak for you and your kids, but blaming yourself just perpetuates and feeds the pain. Let go of blame.
We’re all going to suffer. This is not an easy gig. The parameters make us all vulnerable, and some people have a harder time with that reality than others. There are people who always see the glass as half empty. People who look on the dark side of things, expect the worst from people, and feel frequently disappointed in themselves. If you’re seeing that tendency in your little one, I’d get in there and point out a different perspective whenever you can. Keep re-framing things for your child, but also be sure to normalize their feelings. There’s such a desire to make everything okay for our little people, and loving, well-meaning parents say things like, “Don’t be sad”, or, “Don’t be angry”, or, “Don’t be scared,”, but the truth is, these are normal human emotions we’ll all experience. When we, as children, get the sense that certain feelings are not okay, like fear, or sadness or anger, we start to push things down. We start to edit ourselves, and that’s the beginning of loss and confusion. We become lost to ourselves. Also, show them what it looks like to be a forgiving and compassionate person. When you make a mistake, acknowledge it, but don’t berate yourself. Our kids do what we do, not what we say.
If you see your little one feeling down, you might just speak out about it, as in, “Hey buddy. You seem a little blue today. Everything okay?” If you don’t get far with that, you can get more specific. “What was the best part of your day today?” and, “What was the hardest part of your day?” Just keeping the lines of communication open is huge. Making your child understand that s/he is safe to talk to you about anything, any feeling or any situation, or any confusion that might arise creates a foundation of trust. Naming what you’re seeing in a loving way is also good. “It seems like you’re focusing on everything that isn’t going well. Can you think of three good things that happened today? Or one thing you’re really thankful for?” Basically, you are your child’s nervous system when they’re little. They can’t always self-regulate, so you’re helping them learn how to process and integrate all the things life is putting in their path, whether that’s the changing structure of your family, a friend who’s moving away, a new school, bullying or exclusionary behavior from someone else, or their own acting out. Any intense emotion that’s flooding their little nervous system might require some help from you. The steadier you are, the easier it will be for them to lean on you, and the more you’re accepting of all their feelings, the more comfortable they’ll be to share everything with you.
If you’re dealing with your older child, and this could mean your teenager, but it could also include your 50 year old child, you’re in a different area. With depression, I’m going to recommend what I did above; a great therapist is the place to start. If you’re dealing with addiction, then chances are the whole family is being held hostage, and you’re going to need help for everyone. There’s always a family system in place, roles each person is playing, a dynamic between all parties which needs to be examined and, in most instances, changed. If it’s serious, rehab may be your best hope, with additional support for every member of the family. Al-anon is a great resource here, both for people suffering with addiction, and the family members around them, but search for yourself, because there isn’t just one way, or one solution. There are obviously so many different situations with all their complexities, but understand when you’re living with and loving someone who’s addicted to drugs or alcohol, you’re also in the mix. You can’t save them, but you can do everything in your power to get them some help, and I think radical honesty is a good bet in that case, too. If you have things you want to own, own them. If there’s anything you wish you’d done differently, tell them, but also let them know they’re on their own path now, and they have the power to make it great, or to stay stuck and that you’re going to help them, but you’re not going to enable behavior that keeps them powerless.
If you’re dealing with mental illness or a personality disorder, it’s rough. Certain behaviors can’t be helped, they can only be regulated. It’s not easy to love in the first place. It requires that we make ourselves vulnerable, and it’s really hard to do that, and even reckless, when we don’t feel safe. So loving someone you cannot rely upon to be steady is no easy feat. It’s hard to love and protect yourself simultaneously. I think the best thing you can do in that case is have enormous compassion for yourself and set up a solid support system, so you don’t feel isolated in your experience. Find those people you can trust, and lean on them when you need to; sometimes our feelings of being hijacked and imprisoned make it hard to reach out. Think about what you need to feel respected and understood. This is where boundaries come into play. You can love someone who’s having a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. You can love someone who careens from high highs to low lows. You can love someone who says one thing to you one day, and something completely different the next. But it’s not easy. As always, your first responsibility is to your own heart. If you betray that, you won’t be able to help anyone.
Sending you love and hugs,