Parenting for Mental Health – Start Ending Stigma

by Sarah Myles

It is a parent’s natural instinct to protect their children. We want them to have a carefree childhood, where they are free to wonder at beauty, enjoy the world around them and develop in their own unique, awesome way. We want to keep them from harm, negativity and the dark side in general. We want them to feel safe.

As a parent with Borderline Personality Disorder, I don’t want them to have to worry about mood swings, depression, mania, paranoia, control and excessive hand-washing. As their parent, it is my natural instinct to try to hide all that from them and pretend that I don’t have a mental illness at all. At the same time, I don’t want them to grow up to have BPD, and I don’t want them to grow up adding to the stigma surrounding mental illness.

So, let’s compare these contradictory parenting desires. Any attempt to hide my illness from my children is firstly, futile, and secondly, really for my benefit, not theirs. It only makes me feel better to think that I am projecting strength and stability to them, while in reality they are left to wonder why Mummy is washing her hands for the millionth time while struggling to not bounce off the walls with extreme emotional states. On the other hand, with so little concrete medical evidence to hand, is it really going to be possible to prevent my children developing BPD? How can I teach them not to stigmatise mental illness, if I am simultaneously trying to hide my own disorder from them?

The answers, as always, lie in the middle ground, and we find them by being honest. Honesty is what our children deserve, and we can’t teach them anything without it. It helps them understand us, themselves and the world around them. It’s not easy, because it goes entirely against those basic natural instincts, but it allows you to accept yourself, and promotes acceptance in the space you live in. It also teaches the valuable lesson that 'strength' and 'stability' are not comprised solely of stoicism and a stiff upper-lip. It can also be the acceptance and acknowledgement of what is, and the work that is needed to improve.

After I had begun treatment, I sat down with my eldest child – who was five years old at the time – and asked him if he had noticed that Mummy was poorly. He said that he had, but didn’t know what was wrong. I explained to him that my brain wasn’t working very well – that sometimes, it gets full of all sorts of things, and then it all goes a bit wonky. Sometimes it makes me very loud, and sometimes it makes me very quiet. But, I explained, the important thing was that some very nice doctors were helping me learn how to fix my own brain when it starts going wonky again. He was happy with that.

That conversation achieved three things: Firstly, for him, it made the unknown known, which is then not scary at all. Secondly, it let him know that sometimes, people’s brains don’t work properly, and that’s OK – nobody is perfect and everybody has bad days. Thirdly, it let him know that sometimes, my brain doesn’t work properly, and that’s OK too, which took the pressure off me to hide everything from my children at a time when I was trying to recover.

My eldest child is now nearly nine years old, and has, on occasion, displayed quite anxious behaviour. He’s a worrier. That’s his nature. Now, this could well be learned behaviour that he has picked up from me, or there could be genetic factors. Or perhaps, it’s a combination of the two. I’m no expert, so I can’t say for sure. However, having already opened this background communication about our mental and emotional health, it means that, as parents, we have easily been able to provide him with the tools he needs to manage his own anxiety. His anxiety is never dismissed, nor is it indulged. He has the space to acknowledge and express it, and we work through it together, arriving at the appropriate rationalisation. Hopefully, with practice, this rationalisation process will become automatic. We don’t always get it right, but that’s part of the learning process too. The trick is to keep trying. We deal with my anxiety (and that of anyone else in the family) in exactly the same way.

So, what’s my point? My two children live in a space where mental and emotional health are open subjects. It began with that conversation with my eldest, aged five, and my youngest has never known anything different. This openness is their ‘norm’, and this is the attitude they carry with them into the world every day. We came to this approach as a result of my experience and my mental illness, but how different would society look if this were the default setting? If, each and every child were taught that mental and emotional health could be discussed as openly as what was on TV last night? Just as many mental health organisations are now focussing on ending stigma among adults, that message must also be carried through to the very youngest generation, because they will be forming the societies of the future.

I’m not really one for cheesy motivational quotes and sayings, but in this case it really is about being the change you want to see in the world, and leading by example.

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