“Yeah, but…”

In http://shannonfreudcounselling.com/challenges-for-families-with-children-with-mental-health-concerns/, I mentioned maintaining regular family contact through family dinners, and doing enjoyable things together. This can help to strengthen family bonds, and provide an opportunity for families to check in with each other about how they’re all doing. How can you help to keep the lines of communication open in your family? How can you demonstrate to your family that you want to be supportive of them, their choices, and to talk, if they need to? Paying attention, and responding to your children’s needs is key to providing support. In this log, I will discuss one of the challenges that may surface as you provide support, and how to manage it. Over the next couple of months, I will introduce new challenges in providing support.

Does this conversation sound familiar?

Kid: Hey Dad… can I talk to you about a problem I’ve been having in math class?

Dad: Sure, what’s going on?

Kid: I’ve been feeling really frustrated because we have assigned seating, and I sit next to someone who I find really distracting. He asks me questions throughout the class, when the teacher is talking. I’ve told him politely that I need to concentrate when the teacher is talking, and he won’t listen. I’ve even spoken to the teacher after class, and she doesn’t do anything!

Dad: That sure DOES sound frustrating. Can you ask the teacher to move you because you can’t concentrate?

Kid: I’ve already asked her to do that, but she won’t.

Dad: Hmmm… I wonder if you’re allowed to wear earbuds or headphones while you’re doing your work… then, you can tune this kid out, right?

Kid: But he talks to me when the teacher is talking!

Dad: Oh no… yeah, how frustrating! How about telling him to stop right in the middle of class when he’s talking to you?

Kid: But then I’m disturbing the whole class! And I draw more attention to myself.

Dad: Well, now I’M getting frustrated! I don’t know what else to tell you. I’m all out of ideas.

In this scenario, a couple of things are clear: Kid is really frustrated with this issue, seems to have tried everything, and wants help from his dad. It is also clear that Dad wants to help. The breakdown is in what kind of help Kid wants.

What seems the most frustrating for Dad about this conversation is Kid shooting down all of Dad’s ideas. For Kid, it seems that he is not getting his needs met. But what ARE his needs? If he was shooting down ideas and suggestions, it is likely that he was not looking for a problem solver. Alternatively, he may have just needed to vent and let out all of the feelings. Thank goodness for active listening! Here is the perfect opportunity to give this a shot. The best response to venting is reflecting feelings.

How do you manage a situation like this? For starters, it could help to ask your kid what they might need from you. Do they want suggestions, or just someone to listen and validate their feelings? If you start off the conversation, offer suggestions, and they shoot them all down, at this point, it could help to ask if they need to talk it out, to clarify their needs. When they first start talking, they might want suggestions… and then realize that they are not ready for suggestions, and they need more validation.

People often tell me that it does not feel natural for them to ask their children to clarify their needs. It might feel this way at first, and after trying it out a few times, or asking in different ways, the response starts to feel more natural to them. Try practicing it with other people in your life; see what happens when someone comes to you with an issue, and the first thing you ask is, “how can I be most helpful?” or “I want to make sure that I’m helpful… what do you need from me?”

There might also be times when you clarify their needs from the start, they say that they want suggestions, and you still come up against them shooting them down. At this point, it might help to try brainstorming ideas with your kid. People are often more likely to follow their own suggestions, and it could be that your kid needs help to come up with ideas – or even encouragement, and suggestions for alternative perspectives.

After talking, using active listening skills to demonstrate that you understand, validating, brainstorming ideas, and you’re still both frustrated with the outcome (or lack thereof), try giving the conversation some space. You can use this opportunity to sum up what you have talked about, the ideas you have come up with so far… and suggest to your kid to think about it some more, and come back to the conversation again after sleeping on it. We make some of our best decisions after putting the idea to rest, and having a fresh look at it again.

Mental Health and the Family

For families who live with someone with a mental health challenge (or multiple diagnoses), there are a number of issues that surface, including dealing with stigma and loneliness, advocating for their child’s rights and needs, knowing how to handle crisis situations, and responding effectively and in a supportive way to their children. Considering all of these issues, no matter how much a parent loves and wants to support their children, the reality is that parents can feel worn down. They may feel helpless at times, and maxed out with trying to support their children. How do parents support them in these times, too? And how do these feelings affect their relationships with their children.

Cultivating a supportive family is a cornerstone in the support for a child with mental health challenges. Elgar, Craig & Trites (2013) note that “longitudinal studies have found that an authoritative parenting style and open and respectful communication between family members that engages youths in a rational, issue-oriented manner both contribute to adolescents’ social competence and reduce the likelihood of mental health problems and risky behaviours” (p. 433). The idea is that in providing structure and healthy boundaries, families can reduce the risk of mental health issues.

Additionally, family dinners help to provide structure and foster open communication in the family. Elgar, Craig & Trites also note that “from zero to seven family dinners per week, mental health was better with each additional dinner” (p. 436). Dinner time can be an opportunity for families to connect with each other throughout the week, and the more of these that they have, the more they can help to foster a sense of community and support in the family. They reiterate this idea by saying that “mealtimes are opportunities for families to socialize and for parents to encourage adaptive behaviours in youths and supervise problematic ones” (p. 437). Establishing a routine early is important, too, as it becomes easier for everyone to manage their lives around the routine. If you do not yet have a routine, keep in mind that it takes 3-4 weeks to develop one. If you need help developing one, or getting everyone on board with the routine, support is available (feel free to get in touch with me, and I can help with coaching and other support).

Aside from family dinners, what else can your family do together to have an enriching family experience? What does your family do to spend time together? Here are some ideas…

  • family bike ride, or some other kind of exercise together. It’s nice to challenge yourselves together, enjoy each others’ company, and do things that might take your minds off of the issues that may be within the family. A walk in the neighbourhood is another option.
  • see a movie together. That will give you something to talk about afterwards, and the memories you have of the movies can serve as points of connection among your family members. It can also take the pressure off having something to talk about.
  • learn something together. How about a new language, or a drawing class?