A Heart on the Outside of the Body
That is what it’s like having children. That’s what we’re told and we accept that as how it is. However, I am sitting here thinking, Uhm. Okay. But how in the world do I live my life if my heart is outside of my body? How do I go to work knowing I have this whole other heart just going to school, navigating the world, making friends, and having feelings? Shouldn’t someone tell me what to do with a heart on the outside of my body? It’s like the first day they discharge you from the hospital with a newborn and you think okay, but then what do I do?
So much of parenting is navigating life events without any experience in that area. Do you know what to do when your child, their teacher, or anyone comes to talk to you about your child having depression, anxiety, bullying, or self-esteem issues? Do you go back to the hospital and ask the nurse, or will you just instinctively know what to do?
The list of potential scenarios could honestly go on for days as we all know feelings do not discriminate. They do not care how old you are or how you identify, your size, skin color, or your socioeconomic status. Yet, parents are set out in this world to have a heart on the outside of their body, with minimal guidance on what to do when their child is in a mental health crisis.
“What do I do?”
I worked as a licensed therapist for the Department of Mental Health in South Carolina where we were placed in schools for increased mental health services within the school. Primarily, the population I worked with lived below the poverty line and experienced immense trauma, abuse, limited access to services, and high levels of depression, suicidal thoughts, and PTSD. There were multiple times when I was calling parents to discuss safety planning, having to be the one who told a parent or guardian “Your child is having suicidal thoughts and we need to talk about this.” Parents often looked angry and confused and would always ask– “what do I do?” They often felt lost, embarrassed, guilty, fearful, sad, and alone. I’ve had parents stay up all night in their child’s room to keep them safe, remove access to harmful items, monitor constantly, call, engage in their child’s therapy, and do all of the things they were told would help keep their child safe and improve their child’s mental well-being. But oftentimes, the parents and guardians are left with limited support.
As a licensed clinical professional counselor with my own private practice, I have found that the majority of adults have a hard time recognizing the ‘mental load’ and mental exhaustion that comes with being a parent. Constantly worrying and being present and hypervigilant for their child. Medically speaking, if you were to actually have your heart outside of your body, I can only imagine (based on my viewing of Grey’s Anatomy) that there would be a room of doctors offering support, different surgical options, communication, asking about your support system, etc. Why is this not the case when a parent has a child experiencing any type of mental health crisis or challenge?
One of the best things a parent can do especially when they are having a child struggling with mental health is to get themselves a therapist. Yes, I am a therapist so I think everyone should be in therapy no matter what is going on in someone’s life. However, therapy is proven to increase mood, challenge negative thoughts, and provide validation and support.
What We CAN Do
Therapy exposes you. It exposes you to talking about hard feelings and saying scary words like suicide. It makes it okay to say big dark and frightening feelings. Talking to a licensed mental health professional makes those big scary feeling words not so scary but potentially natural and comfortable within the discomfort. This will allow the parent to then bring up these questions, feelings, and words with their child on a daily basis where the family system then becomes comfortable talking about their mental health. They can potentially learn signs, symptoms, and their child’s triggers, and have a better understanding of how to bring up concerns with their child’s therapist if needed. Therapy is also for the parent and their own support system. The weight parents carry worrying about their children is not one to be ignored, but advocated for and recognized as part of self-care.
Mental health is all-encompassing and it is imperative that parents, guardians, and support systems educate themselves. It can ease worries and anxieties while also clarifying emotions within yourself or your child. Having the education and vocabulary about certain mental health diagnoses or feelings can empower you to better advocate, ask, and communicate your needs. If you are educated you can obtain more effective information from your child’s therapist, from your own therapist, and from the services provided. By being educated you expose yourself to different therapeutic techniques that are useful to you or your child, and you may have better insight into the frequency of services or what to expect. Education can come from an array of sources including Erika’s Lighthouse, NAMI, Mental Health America, or licensed therapists within your area. All of these organizations have resources regarding what dialogue to use, questions, answers, and guidelines on how to approach mental health.
Communication is one of the best tools we can use to obtain support in any situation. With communication comes vulnerability, which yes can be scary, but also necessary. If I communicate to someone “I am feeling excessive worry and fear that I may fail college,” it sounds very different than “I’m stressed about passing.” If we decide to be open and vulnerable with our emotions– all of our emotions– we can better communicate the reality of a situation. A parent may change their statement from “I’m worried about you” to “I am worried you feel lonely and unheard” providing the child permission to then discuss those emotions.
An easy template to implement within the home: “I feel____ when____” as a template for sharing feelings.
“I feel proud when you share your successes.”
“I feel scared when the lights go off.”
One of the most important points to take from this is that you are not alone. I know that you’ve heard it before, but it is true. Everyone has mental health and everyone has emotions. It is up to us to break that stigma by simply talking about it. Exposing us to mental health conversations, giving permission to recognize that the weight of parenthood is heavy and not meant to do alone.
Erika’s Lighthouse is a non-profit organization founded in 2004 that is dedicated to educating teens and raising awareness surrounding depression and mental health. Our programs are tailored to our mission of making sure no young person feels alone in their depression. Erika’s Lighthouse strives to help teens create an inclusive school culture and eliminate the stigma of mental health. Erika’s Lighthouse evidence-informed programs not only bring awareness to young people about depression and mental health; they build a structure for young people to thrive and survive, even when they might be experiencing depression.