Parents: How to Look After Your Own Mental Health When Your Child is Struggling

I think it’s safe to say that most parents want to do whatever they can to support their child.

Now, imagine that your child has been diagnosed with a learning difficulty, with Aspergers Syndrome or Autism, maybe they are experiencing bullying at school, have anxiety or depression or another mental health issue.

Whatever the case, it is instinct to want to give your child a big cuddle and then get straight onto calling up the school, confronting the bully, researching interventions and generally doing whatever you can to rectify the situation or at least ease their struggles a bit.

You can be racked with guilt about “where” and “how” the problem came about in the first place and why you didn’t notice it sooner.

You may lie awake at night trying to figure out how your darling angel must be feeling and spend hours analysing everything they did and said that day…

Not to mention worrying about the future and how the situation will affect them in the long-term.

Recent research has found that over two-thirds of parents stated that they were likely or very likely to look for assistance on the internet if their child was going through a difficult time.

Among other kinds of information parents requested, many of them were also looking for resources that would help them manage the stress involved with helping a child experiencing mental health, learning or other issues.

It is not uncommon for parents trying to support a child to put their own health and emotional wellbeing on the backburner.

Some common problems experienced by parents whose child is experiencing difficulty may be:

  • Having to take time off work to care for the child or take them to appointments.
  • Lack of sleep: being woken up in the night by a child experiencing nightmares or wetting the bed; hearing an adolescent coming in and out at all hours of the night; having a child that takes a long time to get to sleep; or a tendency to stay awake worrying.
  • Financial pressure. You may find you’re shorter on cash than usual and this may be because of the aforementioned reduced work hours or because of the cost of assessments, medical appointments, tools to support the child (books, special pillows, or other equipment), moving schools and a range of other expenses.
  • Reduced social life and time to exercise. Again, this may be due to financial issues, because you need to spend more time looking after your child, or are simply too exhausted to go out.
  • Changes to the co-parenting relationship. Whether you are together or not, it is not uncommon for co-parents to disagree about the problem at hand as well as the best ways to manage your child’s issue. You may find you are more likely to take stress out on each other, especially if you are tired, and you may have less time to spend enjoying each other’s company. Every conversation may seem to revolve around your child and what you can do to help (or who is to blame).
  • Changes in your relationship with your child. Once you became aware of the problem your child was experiencing, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for you to suddenly change the way you respond to them. If you have an adolescent experiencing depression, you may find yourself carefully evaluating the words you use when you are around them, watching their every mood very closely or frequently asking how they are feeling. If you have a child that has been diagnosed with a learning difficulty, you may find that much of the time you spend with them is now taken up by implementing strategies to help them learn and you no longer have time to just hang out and be silly together.

Do any of these sound familiar?

It may sound like common sense but you really do need to ensure you are looking after yourself as best you can if you want to be of assistance to your child. This doesn’t mean nicking off for a spa day once a week but you can try to do little things every once in a while and these may make the world of difference.

Among other benefits, looking after yourself may mean:

  • You can think more clearly and look at the situation with some objectivity.
  • You provide an excellent role-model for your child. Showing them useful ways to deal with stress can often help them find their own ways to manage their situation better, even if your stress-reduction strategies are not explicitly discussed.
  • You may be more likely to gain support from your child’s school and other professionals. If you are able to request support from others in a calm and clear manner, you might find you are much less likely to be written off as a “hysterical mother” who doesn’t know what she wants.
  • When you are with your child, you can be more actively engaged with them and more aware of the way you are responding – you may be able to notice whether your behaviour is being helpful or unhelpful.

Everybody’s situation is different and some people may have more access to support than others but here are some ideas that might help you reduce your stress levels and ensure you are looking after yourself better.

1. Make time to talk to friends

On the phone, out for coffee, however you can – even if it is only for five minutes. It’s understandable that some parents may feel disconnected from friends who have seemingly “perfect” children or that they may be worried about how friends will judge them and their child, but oftentimes they find these concerns are unfounded.

Once you begin talking to friends, you may find they have been through something similar or are able to offer some useful advice. Of course, pick and choose who you talk to wisely – it might be easier to just open up to one friend than to share your news at a dinner party in front of a large group.

2. Be clear with others what it is that you need from them

A lot of people may offer you help but this can be vague and the support might never arrive because others are really not sure what you would like them to do.

Talking to a friend and just want them to listen? Let them know by saying, “Hey, I just need to get this off my chest.”

Want someone to look after your other kids when you are attending appointments? Ask family, friends or neighbours to pitch in with some babysitting.

It might be useful to start by making a list of little things you could use support with and then allocating each bit of a help to a different person.

3. Discuss things WITH your child

Asking your child how you can manage some situations together might help reduce some of the anxiety you are feeling and all those QUESTIONS in your head.

Not sure what to tell other kids in the family about the situation? Ask your child in crisis what they would like their brothers or sisters to understand.

Not sure if your child wants some time to themselves or if they would prefer to get out of the house? Ask them.

Try to have solution-focused conversations with your child where you are talking about ideas to help rather than focusing on the problem.

4. Get out of the house

Okay, this one can be tricky in the depths of winter but even five minutes here and there can help. Try sitting outside for breakfast or a cup of tea. Going for a quick walk on your lunchbreak, or choosing to walk to the milkbar for the newspaper.

Silence is also, as they say, golden. Try to find some time where your mind can be quiet – no TV, no radio, no children – just you and your breathing. Watching the clouds go by or counting the number of bugs crawling across the path can be ways of silencing your mind as well!

5. Consider counselling for yourself

A counsellor or psychologist may be able to help you find new perspectives on the situation or different ways of coping that can fit into your lifestyle.

6. Prioritise!

This is probably not the best time to be taking on new things in your life and remember, you are allowed to say “no” to requests from others.

This may mean asking someone else to cover for you when it’s your turn to help out in the classroom, turning up to a friend’s BBQ without four plates full of home-cooked food, telling others you are unable to help out with painting the set for the school play this year and having a careful think about which social invitations you accept.

Ask yourself: Does this activity fulfil you and leave you feeling energised, or, does it drain your energy and stress you out? Is it really something you HAVE to do, or will others cope without you? Your priorities right now should be about yourself and your family.

7. Lastly, admit to yourself that you are not superwoman or superman

Putting unrealistic expectations on yourself only increases the level of stress you might feel. Try to remind yourself of all the great things you have done for your child and all the fantastic qualities they have.

Looking after yourself when your child is struggling is not selfish and it will more than likely help your child in the long run. Unfortunately, their struggle may be long-term and wearing yourself out at the first hurdle can be a real concern.

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