How to help a kid who’s struggling—from a mom (and parenting expert) who’s been there
It’s not surprising to learn that Ann Douglas has four great kids. After all, she’s the author of Canada’s bestselling Mother of All parenting book series (The Mother of All Baby Books, The Mother of All Parenting Books) and a popular family educator. What’s perhaps less expected is the depth of her firsthand knowledge about what happens when the challenges of parenting plunge beyond sleep issues, toilet training, and temper tantrums.
Over the years, her now-thriving kids have been variously diagnosed with ADHD, depression, bulimia, oppositional defiant disorder, Asperger’s/autism, and several learning disorders. Muddling through, she felt as worried, helpless, and overwhelmed as any of us would be. Those experiences led to her first-of-its-kind new book—Parenting Through the Storm—in which she tackles the struggles that really keep parents up at night.
“What amazed me, after interviewing parents on both sides of the border, is just how much Canadian and American parents actually have in common when it comes to trying to put appropriate supports in place for their kids,” says Douglas, who lives in Ontario. “There’s a gap between the services and supports that kids are supposed to have access to—and what families are actually able to tap into in their communities. And stigma continues to be a problem, especially around ADHD.”
Her favorite insights, resources, and family tips:
The moment I knew I had to write this book was: When I realized how far we’d come as a family after many years of struggle. My children are doing so much better today than I ever could have imagined possible back when things were at their worst. This is ultimately a book about family resilience—about weathering the storm together.
The best thing to say to a parent whose child is struggling: Having a child who’s struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent, just as being a child who’s struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid.
The worst thing to say to a parent whose child is struggling: “I would never be able to handle it if my kid were diagnosed with that….” Or, “You’re so strong, saintly, brave!”
A red flag to watch for if you’re worried about your child: Your child starts talking about himself as if he were a burden. He’s practically apologizing for the fact that he exists—or he’s actually voicing the fact that he wishes he didn’t exist.
What “the experts” sometimes get wrong: They forget that kids (and parents) are doing the best that they can in a difficult situation given the knowledge and skills that they have at the time.
An often-overlooked way to help a kid who’s struggling: Ask yourself, “What does my child need from me right now?” This one simple question allows you to shift your focus from how you’re feeling to what you can do to help.
A common mistake parents make when a kid is struggling: Rushing in to try to solve a problem as opposed to simply validating your child’s feelings (in other words, letting her know that her feelings make sense). It’s a powerful strategy for calming a child who’s upset. Knowing that she’s been heard and that her feelings have been accepted will allow her to let go of some of the emotion and to then switch into problem-solving mode.
If I had to do it all over again, I’d…take better care of myself. Self-care isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity—especially when your child is going through a really hard time. After all, no one needs a happy and healthy parent more than a child who’s struggling.
Something parents always ask me: “Should I be worried about my child?” If you’re worried enough to ask the question, your parent radar is telling you to pay attention and to get a bit more information. That could mean having a conversation with your child or setting up an appointment with a specialist—or both.
One thing parents worry about when a child is struggling—but shouldn’t: People worry a lot about what others may be thinking—whether others are judging them and/or their child. I try to reassure them that anyone who has ever faced any kind of struggle with his or her own child is going to respond with empathy—because they know how difficult it is to be the parent of a child who’s going through a really hard time. And as for those who’ve never had to walk this walk? You can either do your best to educate them (assuming you have the time, energy, and patience to spare) or wait for them to gain the life experience that will allow them to respond with empathy, not judgment—and downgrade the value of their opinion in the meantime.
One thing parents don’t worry about when a child is struggling—but should: They assume that their child knows that they’re loved, that their life matters, and that they’re not a burden to the parent (even if dealing with the child’s struggles is exhausting and stressful at times). You can’t offer these reassurances too often to a child who’s struggling. They need to know that you’re in their court, that your love is unconditional, and that you continue to see them as a blessing, never a burden.
My take on meds: There’s no one-size-fits-all solution that applies to medication. Do your homework, make the best decision you can for your child right now, and resist the temptation to second-guess that decision. Also, understand that people will criticize you no matter what you decide to do about medication. It’s one of those no-win situations.
My take on tantrums: A tantrum is a child’s way of saying, “I can’t cope” or “I’m overwhelmed.” The best way you can help your child manage those overwhelming feelings is by remaining calm yourself. Tip: If you’re feeling more frustrated than empathetic (because, hey, parenting is hard!) try to put yourself in your child’s shoes for a moment. Remind yourself that while it’s hard to be the parent of a child having a total meltdown, it’s even harder—and it feels even worse—to be that child.
Most underrated family activity: Having dinner together. Think of mealtime as relationship glue. Of course, this assumes that everyone has parked their devices and is actually interacting with one another. And that includes the parents!
Family tradition I wish we’d started sooner: Actually, this is a family tradition I wished we’d continued longer. I used to write an end-of-year letter once a year—a really honest “this is the kind of year it was for better and for worse” kind of letter (as opposed to one of those obnoxious holiday letters that are infamous for a reason). Life got busy and I stopped writing the letters, which means that there are some chapters missing from the “book” that is my family’s life.
One resource I recommend to every parent I know: Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff. Because learning how to treat yourself and your child with compassion can be life-changing for everyone.An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: The 1987 cult classic Raising Arizona. It’s a movie about a couple who desperately want to have children—and who resort to desperate measures as a result. There’s a scene at the end of the movie (spoiler alert!) that shows an older couple sitting at the dinner table surrounded by their children and their grandchildren, reflecting on their good fortune. That scene implanted itself in my head decades ago. It represents my hopes and dreams for my family. I want us to be the kind of family where everyone looks forward to getting together with one another (as opposed to the kind of family that dreads family reunions and avoids them like the plague). The only way to make your kids want to come back to see you is by laying the groundwork for those future loving relationships today. I often give a presentation called Big Picture Parenting, which is all about parenting with your hopes and dreams for your child in mind.
The best parenting advice I ever got:
- Find your parenting village. Don’t be afraid to tap into support from other parents.
- Pace yourself. Parenting is a marathon event, not a sprint.
Best thing I do to take care of ME: I walk a lot, two to three short walks a day. It helps to keep my anxiety levels in check, which makes everything else that I’m dealing with work- or family-wise feel a whole lot less overwhelming.
Three things I really wish all parents knew:
- Everyone finds parenting hard. It’s not just you. (Anyone who says they find it easy is in denial.)
- There’s no such thing as “the perfect age” when it comes to kids. Every age comes with its own unique challenges and its own unique joys.
- You don’t have to be perfect to be a parent. You just have to keep trying. Think progress, not perfection.
My definition of a great kid: A caring kid; a creative kid; a kid who’s fueled by love and ready to make her mark on the world.
My motto as a mom: I have two: “I’m doing the best that I can in a difficult situation.” “Progress, not perfection.”