“I failed.” These two words were uttered by a loving, consistent, and amazing parent who felt everything he had done was not enough. He dumped every ounce of energy and strength into the most important human in his world yet felt like he had come up short.
Not all parents or guardians get the joy of watching their children join an honor society or succeed academically. Not all parents feel they can beam with pride during community or school events because they wrestle with a sense of shame in their abilities to parent. Not all parents understand the anxiety that comes when the school’s number shows up on their phone and how they brace themselves to be told what their child did wrong, yet again.
The journey of raising a child with emotional needs, especially during adolescence, in a world that is slow to understand just how difficult it is can be arduous and at times downright painful. If you feel less than capable or swallowed up by anxiety and self-defeat, this is my letter to you.
Dear parents or guardians,
Provide yourself with grace. You will feel as if everyone is staring at you to fix your child, but allow yourself the grace to say “I do not have all the answers.” You will make wrong decisions. You may spend money and time on interventions that are ineffective. You may feel alone in your efforts even when surrounded by others hoping to help. Breathe. Rest in the courage that you are on a journey where progress is measured in increments. Chip away at the day and work towards a better (not perfect) tomorrow. Ask for help and seek out those who may not only be able to assist your child, but yourself as well.
There is freedom in self love. Free yourself from the bullshit whiplash of self-judgment. Often, we can’t see beyond the minute, thinking every single moment is the game changer in the outcome of our child. With so much out of our control, we anxiously hold on to a still frame of a bigger picture and place ourselves in a parental pressure cooker with two settings: create a perfect human or produce a screw up. Make the best decisions you can with the information you have and then have the peace to reflect on that decision and move forward. As Maya Angelou always said, “Know better, do better.” Don’t strive to be the perfect parent for others, settle into being the perfect parent for your child.
Self love also requires us to know which noise to tune out and when to tune in to those who are sharing wisdom that serves you. Parenting a child with an emotional disability or with mental health concerns will bring a lot of critics out of the woodworks. Hear me say the following: If they are not the call you make when you are at your low point looking for support on how to help your baby, they have not earned the right to judge or disempower you. They are not there in your moments of pain. They do not feel the anger, despair, or sadness within the walls of your home as you relentlessly offer your love sometimes with little avail. When you look in the mirror and see a failure, or when you refuse to look in the mirror at all, recall this mantra; You are a warrior who refuses to give up on your child. Your strength and sacrifice now will be the gift of hope your child will need in years to come.
Peace is in the present. Saying don’t worry about the future is an unrealistic expectation for parents. However, when we let our thoughts stray into the fear of outcomes waiting for our children, we can lose track of what they need now. Whether you assume all is lost and your child will never see success or if you believe micromanaging life is the recipe for a future you have envisioned for them, release yourself from the burden of that which you cannot control. Tend to the moment and be present to the child you have in front of you, not the adult you think you see in a disillusioned crystal ball.
Hang on to hope. By the time your child reaches their teenage years you may have already been through countless therapists, psychiatrists, and hospitalizations. You have endured a collection of moments where you had hoped you would find people who were supposed to have the answers and did not. There are those moments where you feel all is lost. These are the moments few can truly understand. Many feel alone and afraid because, no matter how much hell your child can bring you, they are your heart, and it is breaking. I have been beside many families who have had to grapple with “what’s next” when their child is no longer thriving like their peers. It is a process that never gets easier. If there is anything I can say to families who may be dealing with this heartache, it is to please hang on to hope. When you feel like the hits keep coming, do not deem all your efforts wasted and give up. Instead anchor to your faith. Continue the work of planting the seeds of love, self-acceptance, compassion, understanding, and resilience in your child. Your love and consistency are a lifeline. It is your hope that will help your child believe the world is a better place with him or her in it. It is your hope that will be the door of opportunity kept ajar that your child might not even realize is open till they are grown.
I do not have all the right words, advice, or answers to take away the struggle and heaviness that your family experiences. I cannot erase your fears or make you believe there are better days ahead. I can say that after doing this job for 20 years, the one thing I have learned is this: Even though there is no way to predict the success of students after they leave my care, I can say with 100% certainty that without a consistent support network, students with mental health needs face bleak odds. You may not feel like enough for the moment now, but within you lies the grace, love, peace, and hope your child needs. Though it may not provide you with any comfort, know that you are not in this alone.
You have my utmost respect.
A loving educator