Parenting Blog

The official blog for Ann Douglas, parenting book author and weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio. Ann is the creator of The Mother of All Books series and the author of Parenting Through the Storm. Her most recent book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids, was published by HarperCollins Canada in February 2019.

It Takes a Village to Raise a Parent

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child’s parent. Here’s how to be that village….

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to support that child’s parent. Here’s how to be that village….

Parenting can feel like an exercise in endurance: much more marathon than sprint. But many parents today are left feeling like they are being asked to run an entire relay race on their own, without the much-needed support of any teammates.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work. We were never meant to raise children on our own. And doing so makes parenting so much more difficult and more stressful.

I think we need to talk about this more. I think we need to talk about why so many parents are hungering for support from “the village” and why that support can be so hard to find.

Because here’s the thing: Parents needs support and they need it at every stage of parenting.

13 million calories and counting

Parenting requires a huge investment: an investment that is much bigger than what any individual parent or set of parents is capable of providing on their own. Anthropologists estimate that 13 million calories are required to raise a child from birth to the point of nutritional self-sufficiency (the point at which they are capable of buying their own groceries). And that’s just talking groceries! As every parent on the planet will tell you, parenting is about so much more than buying groceries….

So where is “the village”?

These days, it can be challenging for any parent to find and connect with “the village.” Families are increasingly isolated and cut off from one another. Whether you blame it on the geography of our neighbourhoods or the relentlessness of our work schedules or the exhaustion of the combined work-life load, we’re increasingly squirrelled away in our own homes. Parents have to make a conscious effort to find and connect with other parents in their communities—and that can be hard.

And, of course, it’s important to acknowledge that it is more difficult for some parents to tap into support than others. I’m thinking about parents who may be new to a particular community; parents who are raising a child with some sort of mental health or behavioural challenge or health concern; parents who are barely scrapping by from pay cheque to pay cheque and who may not have the financial resources to sign their kids up for extra-curricular activities that might otherwise bring them into the orbit of other families; parents who are working unpredictable schedules that make it hard to make plans. All those factors can make it extra challenging to find let alone connect with your “village.”

On finding or rebuilding “the village”

If you’re a parent who is finding it hard to find support in your community, start out by looking for that support online. And then, once you’ve tapped into that support online, look for opportunities to carry those relationships into the community as well. Maybe you can find an online group for parents and kids in your neighbourhood that offers the best of both worlds: instantly accessible online support when you’re looking for support and advice in the midst of a really bad day (or even longer night!) of parenting plus offline neighbourhood get-togethers that provide opportunities for the face-to-face conversations that you may be craving.

And, while you’re at it, lose the guilt. Don’t feel like you’re imposing on other people when you accept – or even ask for – this kind of support. Think about times in your life when you were able to offer hands-on help to another person. What you no doubt discovered is that it doesn’t just feel great to be on the receiving end of such support. It feels just as great to be on the giving side of that equation. So don’t deprive your fellow villagers of the opportunity to experience the joy that comes from providing that kind of support to you.

Finally, recognize what the village stands to gain by supporting parents and kids. It can be hard to keep this big-picture in mind in our fiercely individualistic culture. Too often, parents who ask for support are rebuffed by harsh and judgmental messages that are anything but supportive (“Hey, parents. You made the decision to have kids. Stop asking the village for help in raising them!”) This is because we have a tendency in the broader culture to treat parenting as a personal problem that every family needs to solve on its own. But here’s the thing: the village has a vested interest in the health and wellbeing of its children because they represent the next generation of citizens and workers.

That’s how things are supposed to work. Parents are supposed to feel supported by their fellow villagers. There are, after all, so many things the village can do to make things easier and better for parents and kids—and it’s actually in the village’s best interest to do so. Because when parents and kids are healthier, “the village” is healthier, too. Talk about the ultimate win-win!

Want to read more about the importance of tapping into support from “the village”? You might enjoy this book excerpt from Ann Douglas’ latest book, Happy Parents, Happy Kids.

How to Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed by Your Newsfeed

emotional-storms

This past week has been brutal, in terms of what has been coming across my newsfeed. And 2016 wasn't exactly a picnic either. So lately I've been thinking a lot about the mental health impact of a steady avalanche of Really Bad News. Many of us (myself included) deal with mental health challenges on a daily basis and being fed a steady diet of devastating world events only serves to make that harder. So I've decided to share a few strategies I'm using to avoid being completely crushed by my newsfeed right now. (I'm writing this post as much for myself as for anyone else. But I'm also hoping that this post will be helpful to some other sensitive soul who is having an extra tough time right now.)

Here's my best advice....

Recognize that there's a difference between being immersed and being informed

Sure, you want to be aware of what's happening in the world, but that doesn't mean that you have to be plugged into your Twitter or Facebook feed 24/7. Give yourself permission to take breaks. And aim for a balanced media diet. Don't just focus on the really bad news. Gravitate toward the good, too.

Stick to your usual routines as much as possible

We humans are creatures of habit and we find comfort in the familiar. And make sure that you're giving your body what it needs to function at its best: healthy food, regular physical activity, time for fun, and adequate sleep. (I don't know about you, but I find that sleep is the glue that holds everything else together. I've learned to recognize it for what it is: a necessity, not a luxury.) 

Look for opportunities to take action

It doesn't have to be something huge. Frankly, it will feel a whole lot less overwhelming if it's not. But by carrying through on sort of positive action, however small (writing a letter, making a donation, attending a face-to-face get-together in your town), you'll be engaging the rational-logical part of your brain. And that will help to put the brakes on what can otherwise quickly escalate into paralyzing feelings of anxiety and sadness. Feeling powerless fuels anxiety; taking action brings it down. 

Allow yourself to feel all the feelings

Allow painful emotions to flow through you as opposed to avoiding them (which suppresses positive as well as negative emotions, leaving you feeling emotionally "flat") or dwelling on them (which ties up cognitive resources, leaving you less equipped to solve problems or connect with other people). Remind yourself that feelings come and feelings go -- and you are not your feelings. 

Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so.
— Noam Chomsky

Maintain your sense of optimism

Focus on what you can control as opposed to fixating on what you can't. You'll find it easier to make this mental mindshift if you make a conscious effort to boost your level of positive emotion by doing things you enjoy and spending time with people you love. Positive emotions leave the door open to possibility while negative emotions slam the door shut. You want to keep the door open right now.

Reach out -- don't crumble inward

Connect with other caring citizens who share your concern about what's happening in our country and our world. Talk to other people you know who may be going through an especially difficult time right now -- especially members of vulnerable or marginalized communities. Let them know that you will be there to support them and that you care. Smile at strangers. (Assume their good intentions unless proven otherwise.) Look for opportunities to build bridges, not walls. Finally, reach out for other types of support if you feel like you're really struggling. Self-care isn't selfish; it's self-preservation. You need to take extra good care of yourself right now.

Talk to your children

Address their fears and spark their compassion. Do everything in your power to nurture their caring and to encourage them to dream of a better world. Then support those brave dreamers. They offer the best path forward for our deeply troubled world.

Mental Health Advocacy Award: Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere

mental-health-award.jpg

It's been a pretty exciting week for me.

On Tuesday night, the Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere (FAME) inducted me into their mental health advocacy Hall of Fame in recognition of my "contributions to the community's understanding of mental illness" and "untiring advocacy around mental health issues." Past inductees into the FAME Hall of Fame include former Ontario Lieutenant Governor James Bartleman, journalist and author Scott Simmie, mental health advocate Karen Lieberman, mental health advocate Lembi Buchanan, mental health advocate Al Birney, and filmmaker Stuart Clarefield

The Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere offers support to families who have a loved one who is struggling with a mental health challenge. They serve families across the Greater Toronto Area and Peel Region through their offices in Etobicoke, Scarborough, Brampton, and Mississauga. "We believe families make up the basic social structure of our society," the organization's website notes. "Family members provide ongoing support and connection for many of our life experiences. This is particularly true for persons who are vulnerable or ill....As an organization brought together by families, we have a thorough understanding of the challenges and emotions experienced in supporting a family member with a mental illness....[We] works hard to ensure that families have a strong voice within the communities. We are based on a self-help model which respects and supports the expertise that families have regarding their mentally ill relative and their experience in the system."

Thank you, FAME -- both for taking the time to recognize my mental health advocacy work and for the truly life-changing work you have been doing in support of families for over 25 years.

Photos from the event.

"Don't forget about the siblings"

It was a message scrawled on a flip chart in a hotel hallway -- and a message I very much took to heart: "Don't forget about the siblings."

I had spent the previous two days attending a child and youth mental health conference organized by the Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health. The focus of the conference was on redesigning the mental health care system in a way that supports families as they do the critical work of caring for a child or youth who is struggling with a mental illness. 

This particular message really hit home for me. Not only do I know what it feels like to be the parent of a child who is struggling with a mental illness, I know what it feels like to be a child who has a family member who is struggling with a mental illness.

You see, during my growing up years, my mom was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her illness was quite severe. She was repeatedly hospitalized for weeks or months at a time. As a teenager, I found it difficult to make sense of her mood swings (to say nothing of my own). I often found myself feeling angry -- and then feeling guilty for feeling angry. It was a very confusing time. 

When my daughter's mental health struggles began during her early teen years, I worried about the impact her illness was having on her three younger brothers -- whether they were feeling short-changed as she stumbled from crisis to crisis, demanding most of our parenting energies and attention. Once again, I found myself experiencing feelings of anger, guilt, and confusion. 

These types of feelings are not uncommon. The parents I interviewed for my new book, Parenting Through the Storm, talk about how challenging it can be to balance the needs of other family members with the needs of a family member who is struggling -- and how critical it is to ensure that all family members are able to tap into the support they need to cope with an extraordinarily challenging situation. 

A family-centered approach to care recognizes this reality. It ensures that all family members receive support so that they, in turn, can continue to provide support to the family member who is struggling. When the family is doing better, the family member who is struggling does better (and vice versa).

The Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health is leading the conversation in Canada about the type of support families need in order to thrive when a child or youth is struggling with a mental illness. You will find a number of helpful documents on their website spelling out the benefits of what they are calling a FamilySmart (TM) approach to care. It is a conversation that is long overdue and much needed -- and that has the potential to make a world of difference for children, youth, and families.

Related:

Jesse is a true-to-life and heart-wrenching short film by Toronto filmmaker Adam Goldhammer that deals with the joys and challenges of growing up with a sibling who is struggling. (Film description: "After her parents are killed in a car accident, twenty-two year old Kelly Turner finds herself in the overwhelming position of being the sole caregiver for her older brother Jesse who has autism.")


Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between (a guide to parenting a child with a mental health, neurodevelopmental, or behavioural challenge). She is also an engaging and inspiring speaker who sparks important conversations about parenting and mental health.