By Jessica Geboers
Canadian parenting expert Ann Douglas spoke with BLOOM about her new book Parenting Through the Storm—a collection of strategies for raising children with mental health, behaviour or learning challenges, and maintaining your own health and happiness in the process. It’s Ann’s most personal book to date as each of Ann’s children has struggled with something, including bipolar disorder, depression, anorexia, Asperger syndrome and ADHD.
BLOOM: What made you want to write this book, particularly at this point in your career?
Ann Douglas: When my kids were going through difficult times, it seemed like a lot of mainstream parenting books just didn’t really speak to me. I used to get infuriated by magazine articles that would say something like: “Better behaviour from your child in 30 days.” That kind of article would make me crazy; it was unrealistic and didn’t apply to everyone.
I wanted to write a book that would help parents to feel a little less alone and a lot less judged. In terms of why I decided to write it now: when we were struggling, I was going through such a hard time I could hardly write a grocery list. I was not in a position to be able to look at things analytically and to be able to go into the problem-solving mode, because I was feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I also needed to have a bit of time so that I could see that my kids could come through the other side, they could make it through the storm, and that we could thrive as a family. Then I did the research to find out what worked for other families, and what strategies research was identifying as helpful.
BLOOM: One of the key themes is that in order to support your child who is struggling, parents need to take care of themselves. Is this a new idea?
Ann Douglas: No, but I think it’s a message that parents can’t hear often enough. Because you’ll say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know I really should be getting sleep or exercising or whatever, and I will once my child is doing this better, or my child gets past this milestone.” Then you keep postponing that time of self-care and you can’t do that indefinitely or you become totally depleted and burned out. I say this from personal experience. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about this stuff now is because I really did sort of hit the wall: I wasn’t sleeping well. I wasn’t eating well. I gained about 100 pounds and I had to really work hard to lose that weight.
BLOOM: For parents who feel overwhelmed with the demands of their child, how can they start to care for their own mental and physical health?
Ann Douglas: Sometimes it’s just little wee tiny things, like if somebody offers to help in some way letting that person help, as opposed to going “No, no, no, we’re okay. Don’t worry about it.” People want to help, so accept those offers because they can only help to make your life easier. We’re talking about lovely friends and family who do everything from fold laundry to run errands for you, or stay at your house with your child while you go for a walk around the block if that’s all you feel you can manage at first.
Looking for little ways to inject some self-nurturing or some fun into your day [is also important]. Even if it’s just, when you get a momentary lull, flipping through the pages of your favourite magazine, or having a cup of your favourite tea and connecting with people who support you.
BLOOM: In the writing of this book, you interviewed other parents and experts at length. How did you decide what to include?
Ann Douglas: I had about 50 families step forward. I interviewed them via a series of eight questionnaires that were sent out over about two to three months. I was surprised. They told me about very intimate, personal and painful times in their lives and they trusted me to portray their stories.
BLOOM: What do you hope parents will take away from the book?
Ann Douglas: I think it’s so important to remind parents to treat themselves with the same kindness they would extend to a friend who’s struggling. Self-compassion is life changing and if I can just spark that idea in people’s minds, of being a little kinder to themselves, they’ll find it so much easier to deal with it day-to-day.
BLOOM: And professionals—what do you hope they will take away?
Ann Douglas: I hope professionals who read the book get a sense of how hard it is for parents and the fact that parents really are doing the best they can. That way, professionals may be less inclined to judge or assume they know better, and recognize that the parent is the true expert when it comes to their child and their family situation. If parents and professionals can work collaboratively, sharing the same goal of helping the child, amazing change can happen.
BLOOM: There are many families mentioned in the book, including your own, who have several children with mental health, behavioural and neurodevelopmental challenges. Is this common?
Ann Douglas: It is. Often a lot of things have some kind of genetic basis and we know that there’s usually a mix between genetics and the environment.
BLOOM: Which can make it even more challenging?
Ann Douglas: It can, especially if the parents also share the diagnosis. You can be more understanding because you know that these challenges are for real, they’re not something made up and it’s not just a child trying to be difficult or act up for the sake of acting up.
BLOOM: Was there anything that you learned while working on the book that was particularly new, interesting or surprising, given your experience?
Ann Douglas: Self-regulation was something I hadn’t done a lot of reading about until I started doing the research for the book. The idea that we can both boost our positive emotion and reduce our negative emotion just by making choices in our daily life—that was mind blowing for me. Just learning how taking a couple of walks a day can help me to manage my anxiety.
Also, the piece about self-compassion: that it’s so important to change from the self-critical channel in your head, where you hear mean things being said to yourself about yourself, to a much more self-compassionate kind of stance, where you remind yourself that you’re doing the best you can in a difficult situation. Then, trying to think what you can do to make life better.
BLOOM: How did you decide what language to use to describe conditions?
Ann Douglas: I wanted to be as inclusive as possible, so I picked up on the language about calling things “a challenge” from attending a mental health conference last year that was hosted by the Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health. They asked the young people themselves, “What language do you prefer when people are talking about your mental health problems/difficulties/challenge?” And they said they would very much prefer the idea of using the word “challenge” because that left the door open to possibility and hope, because if it’s a challenge you can just keep working at it.
BLOOM: Was it challenging to write candidly about your own experiences?
Ann Douglas: I had to think hard about what I was prepared to share and what I wasn’t prepared to share, and I also needed to check things out with the kids because it’s not just my life, it’s their life too. So I made a lot of really conscious and deliberate choices about what I was going to write about.
A couple of years ago, I sent out a tweet on Bell Let’s Talk day saying that I lived with bipolar disorder and I thought it’s really important for people to know people out there who are dealing with a particular challenge or disability or whatever. Because if we don’t have some sort of role models then nobody will ever understand that it’s possible to have a diagnosis and an amazing life. I think that I feel a real responsibility as somebody who, yes, has bipolar disorder, but also has a pretty great life—that I should say, “I’m not going to be afraid to tell people I live with this.”
BLOOM: Was it difficult to choose what you were going to include?
Ann Douglas: I think I just wanted to be as honest as I could and talk about different experiences that my kids had had and that we’d had because, again, not wanting other parents to feel like they were doing it wrong if their child was having a hard time at school or if they were having a hard time navigating the children’s services or mental health care systems. The systems are complicated and schools don’t always have the resources they need to be able to respond to the needs of children. I think that if we all talk about these challenges then that’s the first step to getting these various systems funded, so that every child gets their needs met sooner rather than later.
This is excerpted from an article that originally appeared in BLOOM magazine, published by Holland-Bloorview. It is reprinted here with permission.