Ann Douglas is an award-winning parenting author. Her latest book is Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between. It’s a guide for parents who are raising kids with mental health and behavioral challenges.
The book hits close to home for Ann, whose four children all have multiple issues. Her eldest daughter struggled with depression and an eating disorder as a teen, and was recently diagnosed with ADHD. Her three sons have learning and attention issues, including ADHD and learning disabilities. One also has autism.
In this interview, Ann shares her advice for parents.
1. What do you mean by “Parenting Through the Storm”?
There are periods of struggle when families may encounter a child having a difficult time. If your child has a learning or attention issue, you’re probably going to face these storms.
The good news is you can weather this struggle together with your child and emerge stronger and more connected than ever. It’s more than possible.
I have two favorite quotes about finding strength in the middle of struggle. This theme comes up time and time again when I talk to parents.
“The oak fought the wind and was broken, the willow bent when it must and survived.” —Robert Jordan, The Fires of Heaven
“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” —Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
The second quote in particular really speaks to me. The first time I read it, I felt a shiver run down my spine because it captured the experience of my family and other families so perfectly. We’ve been forever changed, but also immeasurably strengthened, as a result of the storm.
2. What’s a big storm you hit as a parent, and what did you learn?
When my daughter was 15, she slipped out of the house and went missing in the middle of the night. I was panicked and worried to death. Thankfully, a police officer helped us track her down. Afterwards, he and I had a heart-to-heart conversation about my daughter’s risky behavior.
“You can’t wait for someone else to step in to save your daughter,” he told me. “You have to save your daughter yourself.”
His words were both terrifying and liberating. I suddenly had a sense of our power as parents. Instead of waiting for someone else to step in and solve the problem for us, we needed to start trying to make things better ourselves. No one knew our daughter as well as we did—and no one loved her even a fraction as much.
Up to that night, we’d been holding out hope for some miracle to solve things for us. But we realized we needed to commit to doing the hard work of advocating for our daughter. And we did. It was a long journey, but one that had a happy ending. Our daughter is currently thriving as a young adult.
3. How much should a child’s diagnosis affect parenting decisions?
You don’t want to overlook the value and importance of obtaining an accurate diagnosis. A diagnosis is a valuable piece of information that allows your child to tap into supports that might not otherwise be available. It can also help him gain insight into his own strengths and struggles.
But, at the same time, it’s important to remind yourself (and your child!) that a diagnosis simply can’t capture all the things that are unique and wonderful about him. It’s just a starting point.
Instead of becoming fixated on the diagnoses, I suggest focusing your attention on the nature of your child’s struggles and what you can do to help with those struggles. You may find it useful to ask yourself this simple question: “What does my child need from me right now?”
There are all kinds of practical things you can do today to begin to make things better for your child and your family. For instance, you can zero in on parenting strategies that bring out the best in your child. You can teach your child stress management techniques. You can help him build a support network.
4. How can parents manage feelings of guilt over the challenges their kids face?
First, remind yourself that you did the best that you could with the knowledge and skills you had at the time. You wouldn’t ask any more of a friend, so don’t hold the bar unreasonably high for yourself. Practice self-compassion, in other words.
Steer clear of the temptation to play the blame game when it comes to genetics. You wouldn’t blame yourself for the fact that your child inherited a genetic vulnerability to a medical condition like diabetes. So why should you beat yourself up for potentially passing along any other type of gene?
Here’s something else to consider. Let’s say learning and attention issues do happen to run in your family. Instead of beating yourself up, take comfort in the fact that you have firsthand experience and understand what it takes to thrive with these issues. Instead of seeing this as a liability, recognize what a gift it can be to your child.
5. Where can stressed-out parents find peace of mind?
Vincent van Gogh once said: “There is peace even in the storm.” As parents, we can find peace by savoring the moments of calm, however fleeting they may be.
Give yourself permission to feel joy in your life right now. You don’t have to postpone your happiness until some mythical future day when everything in your life is perfect and your child is no longer struggling. You deserve to feel joy in your life right now.
Make self-care a priority. Don’t feel guilty for allowing yourself to take a break from the hard work and worry. No one deserves a happy and healthy parent more than a child who is struggling. Understand that taking the best possible care of yourself is actually an act of kindness toward your child.
Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out for support from others who truly understand. There are many other parents who’ve weathered (or who are weathering) similar storms. Peer support is magical. Tap into some of that magic. You don’t have to do this alone.
Looking for a supportive community of parents like you? Consider joining one of our online groups, where parents who’ve been there trade stories, tips and encouragement.