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.

Sure, Let's Talk -- But Let's Invest, Too!

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Today is Bell Let's Talk Day in Canada -- a day devoted to having frank and open conversations about mental health. It's a day when people share stories of their own experiences with mental illness: the triumphs and the struggles. 

I've been a passionate supporter of Bell Let's Talk Day over the years because I think the campaign has done an amazing job of getting people talking about mental health.

#BellLetsTalk conversations on Twitter were what inspired me to first speak openly about my own struggles with bipolar disorder. 

And, this year, I'm hoping we can ramp up the impact of these all-important conversations by using #BellLetsTalk Day as an excuse to broaden the conversation. Specifically, I am hoping that we can use it as an opportunity to reach out to our elected officials -- the very people responsible for ensuring that there are adequate services in place in our communities to support people in need of mental health diagnosis and treatment.

Because here's the thing: it's not okay to encourage people to talk about mental health -- and then leave them in the lurch when it comes to actually accessing treatment. And yet that's happening far too often across this country -- because government investment has failed to keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for services.

This past year, I have watched a member of my own family struggle to obtain access to mental health care. What I've learned is that

  1. You have to be incredibly persistent to obtain access to care. You have to be willing to be the squeaky wheel which, if you think about it, is a pretty major burden to put on a person who is already struggling. 
  2. You have to be incredibly lucky -- lucky enough to live in a community where timely access to mental health treatment is available. I don't think it should come down to luck. (There have been times when I thought my family's luck was going to run out: that it wouldn't be possible to help a family member in trouble to access care soon enough. And that's a terrible feeling.) 

So here's my plea to you on Bell Let's Talk Day, 2018.

Please take a moment to write to your MPP to urge them to make mental health funding a priority this year. Or, if you prefer, call his/her office and ask for a face-to-face meeting to discuss the issue. And, while you're making a plea for more mental health investment in general, please take a moment to spotlight the chronic underfunding of child/youth mental health services and the terrible cost of such shortsightedness. 

As I have learned through my volunteer work with Children's Mental Health Ontario's #kidscantwait campaign, we're actually losing ground when it comes to investing in the mental health of children and youth -- this despite the fact that requests for services are skyrocketing and the impact on families is immeasurable. 

Bottom line? We can do better and we must do better. 

So, sure. Let's keep talking.

But let's start investing, too -- in mental health care for every Canadian who needs it.
 

Ann Douglas is the author of Parenting Through the Storm and the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio.

Parenting Through the Storm (American + International Edition) Has Just Been Published by Guilford Press

The US and International edition of Parenting Through the Storm by Ann Douglas has just been published by Guilford Press.

The US and International edition of Parenting Through the Storm by Ann Douglas has just been published by Guilford Press.

Over the past year, I've heard from a lot of parents in countries outside of Canada, wondering how they could get their hands on a copy of my book Parenting Through the Storm.

One American parent who really wanted to read the book went so far as to have a Canadian friend purchase and mail her a copy of the Canadian edition. Now that's persistence and dedication!

Well, as of this week, parents outside of Canada will no longer have to resort to such extreme measures to get their hands on a copy of the book.

The US and International Edition of Parenting Through the Storm has just been published by Guilford Press, a respected publisher of books about mental health, education, and parenting.

About the book

This is easily the most personal book I’ve ever written.

I talk about my children’s struggles, my family’s struggles, and my own struggles.

But this book is so much more than a book about struggle.

It is also a book about hope and healing and resilience—about practical things you can to do to make life better for your child and your family, starting right now, even before you have a definitive diagnosis or treatment plan in place.

A lot of that wisdom is based on the best advice of the 60 other parents I interviewed for the book—parents who bravely opened up about their families’ struggles in an effort to make things better for other parents and kids. These parents offered practical advice on everything from making sense of a child’s diagnosis to dealing with bullying to advocating for a child at school. And they offered messages of encouragement and support, like the fact that having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent, just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid. It’s just the particular challenge your family is dealing with.

What people are saying about the book

The book attracted some very positive pre-publication reviews and it has already been featured in a few media stories, too:

How the American edition is different from the Canadian edition (and vice versa)

I've had a few people ask me how the Canadian and American/International editions of the book are different, so I figured I should answer that question here, too. The Canadian edition of the book is, well, very Canadian. It talked a lot about the mental health and education systems in Canada, featured Canadian experts, spotlighted Canadian research and resources, and suggested some uniquely Canadian solutions to our uniquely Canadian challenges. (Hey, I told you it was very Canadian.) That book wouldn't have been particularly helpful for an American parent who was trying to make sense of American laws (think ADA, IDEA, and 504) or to figure out what supports were available to their family and their child -- and what supports should be available to their family and their child (the advocacy piece of the puzzle). That's why I had to research and rewrite large sections of the American and International edition of the book from scratch. I figure that about 75% of the content is the same for the two editions of the book and about 25% is different. 

The good news is that I didn't have to tackle these far-reaching book revisions on my own. 

As I noted in the acknowledgments for the book, it's impossible to write a book of this kind without the help of a great many people:

So there you have it -- the book publishing news from here! 

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If you know someone who would benefit from this book (perhaps the parent of a child who is struggling, a teacher who wants to learn how to better support parents and kids who are going through a difficult time, or a clinician who would like to have a book of this kind to recommend to parents), it would be great if you would tell them about it. 

Any questions? Ask away! I'd love to hear from you.

It's Okay to Say No -- or "Not Right Now"

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Feeling maxed out? Wish someone would write you a permission note that you could politely present to anyone who even dares to think about demanding anything more of you right now?

Consider this blog post that note of permission: confirmation that it's okay to say no or (at a minimum) "not right now."

You're not being selfish.

You're engaging in self-preservation.

And that's one of the least selfish things you can do as the parent of a child who is struggling

I got to thinking about these things after speaking to a friend this morning -- a friend who is having a really hard time. The load she is carrying at the best of times is a heavy one -- and her load just got a whole lot heavier. The only way she's going to get through the next few weeks is by saying "no" vehemently and often.

But, here's the thing: sometimes we default to saying yes even though we need to say no, both for our own sakes and for the sakes of other people we love.

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I recently had the opportunity to discuss the how and why of saying no with another friend of mine, Susan Newman, psychologist and author of The Book of No.

I asked her to talk about why it's so important to master the art of saying no when you have a child who is struggling. 

Here are the highlights of that conversation.

Why is it so critical that parents who have a child who is struggling master the art of saying no?

So much of your time, worry, and emotional energy automatically focus on a child who is struggling with an illness of any sort—be it physical or mental. Saying no for a parent is a form of self-protection and psychological survival…and ultimately a boon to your child’s wellbeing. 

There are times when even you need a break—a few hours to spend with friends, to connect with your partner, or to be with yourself quietly. A no to whatever the demand or request often gives you that time to decompress, think through problems and essentially shore up the inner resources you need to handle whatever comes next and make good decisions for your child. 

A further benefit of saying no specifically to your child is that you gain the child’s respect and eventually his trust. A no tells him, especially when the outcome is positive, that you have his or her best interests at heart.

What happens when we don’t say no often enough — or we talk ourselves into saying yes, even though our heart is telling us we really need to be saying no?

When you don’t say no as frequently as you should or would like, you begin to feel as if you have no control over events or your child. That can begin to feel overwhelming and all consuming. More often than not a parent’s instincts are correct. If you feel you should be saying no, then you probably should.

By avoiding nos you run the risk of losing yourself and feeling trapped, at the mercy of your child who is dealing with her own problems. You could find yourself unable to cope and being out of control yourself can leave you unable to manage the situation, be sympathetic, or clear-headed enough to find the resources you need or make good choices for your son or daughter

What are our biggest fears about saying no — and what can we do to address those fears?

One of the biggest fears is that a no will make the situation of the moment worse or that your child will be upset and resort to the very behaviors or feelings we are trying to avoid. When your nos are used judiciously and couched in terms of what might be a solution or comfort or empathy, the nos will likely be more accepted without a long lasting downside.

Perhaps the biggest fear for all parents is that our child will not like or love us. When you factor in that most parents don’t want to disappoint their children—common thinking today—refusing a child becomes all the more difficult. The reality is that whatever you say no to will probably be forgotten in next hour or so—even a few minutes later with younger children. Nos said kindly while acknowledging a child’s disappointment or anger, will not jeopardize your relationship with your child. 

In what ways is saying no an act of kindness to yourself — and to others, too?

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Each of us had only so much physical and emotional energy. Well-placed, strategic nos help to conserve energy so it’s available when you need it. Saying no to a request or conduct you disapprove of will hopefully keep you calm and better able to address and cope with your child’s issues. 

Amazingly, the word no is freeing: it “buys” you precious time and keeps the boundaries you set for yourself, for your child and others secure; it teaches children, especially those with a mental challenge that there are rules that need to be followed, conduct that is expected. No is powerful in the positive developments it often helps to create, allowing you to work toward the solutions you seek. That can only feel good. Being kind to yourself is in the end the same as being kind to and supportive of your child.

Looking for additional insights into the joys and challenges of a parenting a child who is struggling? Find out more about my book Parenting Through the Storm.  

Mindful Parenting

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Ann Douglas, author of Parenting Through the Storm, explores the mental health benefits (to you and your child) of making conscious and deliberate parenting choices.

Your four year old is having a meltdown in the cereal aisle at the grocery store. You’re feeling frustrated and embarrassed. If only there were an escape key you could hit to remove yourself from this situation just long enough to regain your cool….

Guess what? There is a way to hit the parenting pause button before you say or do something you might regret later on. It’s called mindful parenting and it is one of the most powerful and effective techniques I know for dealing with the day-to-day frustrations of parenting.

Mindful parenting is all about making conscious and deliberate parenting choices—as opposed to reacting without thinking (something that can happen pretty easily when your mind is being flooded with emotion). 

According to a group of psychologists from the University of California, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania State University who have researched mindful parenting extensively, mindful parenting involves listening with full attention; practicing non-judgmental acceptance of yourself and your child; being aware of your emotions and your child’s emotions in the moment; and having compassion for yourself and your child. 

Let’s consider how each of these four pieces fits into the mindful parenting puzzle and what this means to you, in practical terms, as you’re trying to make peace with your child in the cereal aisle.

  1. Listening with full attention. Listening with full attention means really tuning into what your child is saying: listening to what she is saying and how she is saying it. Tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language are key. What you want to do is figure out what your child is trying to tell you and what she needs from you so that you can figure out what to do to help her to manage her out-of-control emotions. It’s important to look beyond the obvious. Your child may be asking for a particular brand of cereal, but she may actually be telling you something else entirely: perhaps that she’s had it up to here with running errands this morning. (That long line at the bank may have maxed out her patience an hour ago. Likely, yours, too.)
  2. Practicing non-judgmental acceptance. What you’re trying to do here is resist the urge to judge yourself and your child harshly—something that only serves to ramp up the amount of negative emotion you’re experiencing (making it even more difficult for you to respond rationally to an already tough situation). So, instead of telling yourself that you’re the worst parent in the world or that your kid is a spoiled brat, simply observe (non-judgmentally!) what’s going on: “We’ve had a busy morning. My child needs a break and so do I.”
  3. Acknowledging what you and your child are feeling. It’s important to acknowledge and accept your child’s emotions as well as your own. You may find it works well to work through this process with your child, if only to verify that you’ve read her emotions correctly. For example, you might say to your child, “It looks like you need a break. Know what? Me, too! We’ve been running around all morning and we’ve both tired and hungry.” Your child is likely to respond well to what you’re saying. Having your emotions validated by another human being always feels great—and, if it turns out that you’ve misread what she’s feeling, no worries: you’ve given her the chance to set the record straight.
  4. Treating yourself and your child with compassion. Treating yourself with self-compassion basically means treating yourself with the same kindness that you would extend to a friend who was struggling. You wouldn’t tell a friend that she was a bad parent because her child was having a meltdown in the cereal aisle. You would acknowledge that she’s doing the best that she can in a difficult situation—and then you would encourage her to take action to make the situation better. So be your own best friend and cut yourself some slack. Not only will you feel less stressed and less judged (that critical voice in our own heads can be pretty nasty): you’ll feel greater compassion toward your child, something that makes parenting immeasurably easier.

So what are the benefits of taking a mindful approach to parenting? 

There are plenty, for both you and your child.

You’ll feel like a more competent and in-control parent. Because you’re making conscious and deliberate parenting decisions (decisions that support your big-picture parenting goals), you will tend to make better parenting decisions and to feel better about those decisions after the fact.

Your child will feel cared for and heard. She will feel reassured that her feelings make sense, she will be encouraged her to turn to you for support the next time she’s feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, and she will learn to treat herself and others with self-compassion (a powerful lesson with far-reaching consequences).

It’s important to know upfront that mindful parenting can take a bit of practice. When you first start to implement these principles, you may find yourself becoming acutely aware of those times when your parenting efforts miss the mark. You’ll hear yourself saying something harsh and judgmental about yourself or your child in your own head—and then you’ll have to remind yourself that you’re trying to remember to suspend judgment and to treat yourself and your child with self-compassion. This is a good thing (although it can feel kind of rotten in the moment). Recognizing where there’s room for improvement means that you’re well on your way to understanding and implementing this new approach to parenting—and that it won’t be long at all before mindfulness becomes second nature.

This article originally appeared in Local Parent magazine.

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Mental Health Advocacy Award: Family Association for Mental Health Everywhere

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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.