What do you do when the best parenting advice can’t help you?
*Editor’s note: Jennifer’s name has been changed to protect the privacy of the family.
In what’s become a monthly mental health conversation among service providers, a group of local professionals met last month to talk about the ways parents can stay attuned to their child’s mental health during the pandemic.
It was an hour-long conversation with individuals who have seen the highs and lows of local youth’s struggles during COVID-19 and are concerned about how young people are coping. In it, we talked about their struggles, their resilience, and how families can best support them during these stressful times.
Some of the tips raised included trying to focus on the positive by taking time to acknowledge all the small ways that your children are doing it right, and using your daily routines to engage kids in conversations about how they are doing.
In other words, connect as often as you can.
But one professional in the group pushed back against the advice, not because it was wrong she said, but because it’s not always that simple.
Jennifer*, a manager for a local service provider, said we can tell parents to connect over and over again, but if their child has behavioral health issues then there needs to be some acknowledgement that the advice won’t always work. If you don’t acknowledge that, she suggested, you risk setting parents up to feel ineffective or inadequate in their role.
Jennifer spoke from personal experience after a difficult year trying to connect with her daughter and getting no response.
It hurt every day, she said, but she didn’t quit.
“I have a daughter who struggles with behavioral health issues and every single night at dinner we say, ‘What was the best part of your day?’ That's one of the questions we ask.
“And without fail for over a year my daughter has refused to say anything...Nothing.”
Jennifer talked about how hard it was to keep asking the question, to keep trying, in the face of her daughter’s silence.
“It hurts when they push you away and when they push you away 50 times, it hurts,” she said.
Then one day, her perseverance paid off.
“(My daughter) said, ‘Playing Uno together was the best part of my day,’ when we had all played Uno,” said Jennifer. “But I had to push through like over a year … to hear nothing and at times that is a really lonely road when you have a child struggling.”
Making that road less lonely means being willing to talk openly about the struggles parents have and offering parents more support and understanding.
“There needs to be some sort of support for the parent that says, ‘You know what? It's not your fault,’ said Jennifer. “‘You are doing the best you can. You are doing a good job. Keep trying. Don't stop trying to connect with them.’”
Through the worst of her own struggles, Jennifer said, the verbal and emotional support she received from others helped her stay strong as a parent.
“One time things got really sticky with my daughter and my brother had just gotten back in the country...and he said, ‘I'm going to meet you for a cup off coffee...I know you have to work today, but meet me at Dunkin at 6:30 in the morning because I know you just need to have a cup of coffee with me.’”
“So I think those are the little things (that help),” she said.
Another time, Jennifer was bringing her daughter to the True Course program she participates in at the Bristol County Sheriff’s office and the staff there acknowledged her and her dedication, telling her, ‘You’re a good mom.’
“Just out of the blue when I dropped her off they were like, ‘Jennifer, you're a really good mom.’” she said. “And … I needed to hear that. Because sometimes you just don't know.”
They were small acknowledgements but they made a big difference.
“I think it's one thing to say try this, this, this, and this (to parents), but we also need to be really open with (acknowledging) it's really hard to do … and let parents know that they're supported.”