This is a contributed post by Ann Batchelder, author of Craving Spring: A Mother’s Quest, a Daughter’s Depression, and the Greek Myth that Brought Them Together
Trigger Warning: This post discusses suicide and other mental health issues.
I thought I was a good mom, until the day my teenage daughter admitted she had suicidal thoughts and an eating disorder.
My world suddenly came to a screeching halt. I desperately focused all my energy on trying to rescue her. And when that didn’t work, I blamed myself.
What I learned as a result of my experience is something I wish I’d known sooner.
Why parents of today’s teens often feel like a failure
I was raised to believe parents are responsible for their children’s success or happiness.
When I realized I couldn’t control the future of my child or even pave the way so she could avoid feeling hurt, disappointed, frustrated or rejected, I felt like a failure.
My guilt and shame prevented me from truly being helpful to her. (You may also like to read: Motherhood During These Hard Teen Years Can Absolutely Crush You)
Things changed when I combined self-compassion with self-discovery, which allowed me to stay centered as a parent. Without the shame and blame of perfectionism, I became willing to change.
Once I understood that the goal of parenting has less to do with outcomes and more to do with how I communicated love and support, my relationship with my daughter blossomed.
Today, she is a resilient, healthy young adult, and I am a more compassionate mother, grateful for the wisdom I gained through our family’s trauma.
After many years, I decided to share my experience in my memoir Craving Spring. My hope is that this book will support other mothers who might feel isolated and anxious, help reduce the stigma around mental health issues, and encourage women to trust themselves.
Here are five things I wished I’d known about parenting a teen struggling with their mental health.
Fear is natural but it’s not helpful.
A normal response to watching a child struggle is to be worried and want to help. In many cases, parents must advocate for their child, especially when they are not capable of helping themselves. But once a teen demonstrates that they can start handling their emotions, it’s time to ease off. Because I thought I had to stay in control of my daughter’s recovery, I was worried about anything that might go wrong. She needed my trust in her process more than my concern.
Self-blame is the flip side of being a victim
I believed that if I was somehow at fault for my child’s unhappiness, I was also powerful enough to fix it. I stayed addicted to my regret and worry until I became more skillful as a parent.
Eventually, I learned to take a deep breath when I was anxious and wait 24 hours before responding. I’d call a friend, meditate, write in my journal, take a walk–anything to calm my emotions and get centered again. I also started questioning whether my thoughts and actions aligned with my true intention to build confidence and connection with my daughter or simply serving my kneejerk desire to be in control.
Letting go doesn’t mean letting your child suffer
I used to get upset when people told me to let go. I thought that meant I wasn’t supposed to care what happened to my teen.
Then I understood that letting go was about releasing my need to be perfect and my expectation that everything should work out the way I wanted.
Recovery, I came to understand, is not linear—there will always be ups and downs. Learning to stay calm in the midst of a storm doesn’t mean everything will be all better, but that you don’t need to add to the chaos happening around you.
As my daughter wrote in the epilogue of my memoir: “It was hard enough trying to stay in control of my feelings. I couldn’t handle worrying about hers, too. What strengthened our relationship most was when she dropped the facade of trying to be a perfect mother and could be open and vulnerable with me. That inspired me to take responsibility for my attitude and actions.”
I stopped reading how-to books and started listening to my teen
Self-help books typically offer lists of dos and don’ts without addressing the pressure mothers feel to be perfect. As a result, mothers often feel judged, confused, and isolated because they are not encouraged to trust their inner voice. When parents trust themselves, they are also modeling this behavior for teens to listen within and validate their own worth. (Read: Give Yourself Grace Mama, You’re Doing The Best That You Can)
Rather than give advice, I started asking my daughter how she might help a friend in trouble.
What did she think a teen needed to hear?
What did she need most from me?
How could I help?
By treating her as someone who could contribute to our family’s well-being, and by inviting her to offer her opinion, I was honoring her ability to believe in herself. Over time, our communication became more open and honest.
Compassion is contagious
Yes, some people will blame you for your child’s troubles, but the more you have compassion for yourself, the more you can extend that support to others who may feel isolated. (Read: Parenting Teens Means Dealing with Their Bad Choices)
In my experience, once I shared my story, so many parents related similar concerns about how they were struggling to survive their kids’ teen years.
Parents need compassion more than anything right now. The US surgeon general says that teen depression and anxiety has become a major crisis in our country. The overwhelming stigma around mental health is the main obstacle preventing families from getting the help they need. This is especially true regarding the destructive habit of mom-shaming in our culture.
It is vital that we change this.
It can begin with something as simple as smiling at another parent in the pick-up line, offering to drive their child to an activity occasionally, or sharing a cup of tea.
I know, because I was once that other struggling mother.
For more information on Ann’s story, read Craving Spring: A Mother’s Quest, a Daughter’s Depression, and the Greek Myth that Brought Them Together
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