Advice From The Most Heroic Parents We Know: Put Your Mask On First.

mask

This is what you do in an emergency: take care of your primary needs so you can help others who aren’t as capable. Put your oxygen mask on before helping your child. The concept seems contrary to what we know as parents. For many, parenting can be defined as a willingness to sacrifice everything to benefit your offspring.  Save the child first!

But rationally, how can you save your child if you’ve passed out?

Such is the advice from the most heroic parents I have ever encountered. These parents have children diagnosed with serious mental illness and provided the stories for our collection entitled, Behind The Wall: The True Story of Mental Illness as Told by Parents. The analogy to “save oneself first” gets much play, but hearing this advice from parents of high need children (nearing adulthood or young adults) who weather unpredictable events layers an authentic sheen to the concept. Their advice to take care of oneself so you can be present for your child is fundamental for all parents.

Parenting at its easiest is still a marathon not a sprint. A high-need child is like adding twelve miles of hills. The question becomes, “How does a parent take care of oneself when the child requires constant attention, and a crisis can erupt without notice at any time?”

Dan (no real names used), a father of a daughter who lives with schizophrenia, advises to avoid making your child’s needs (or illness) the sole focus of your life. Of course, when a child is in crisis and/or going through a complicated process toward finding effective treatment, a parent needs (and wants) to be all in. But when the crisis lifts, Dan enjoys a hobby, riding his motorcycle. Sometimes Dan must put aside his needs to address his daughter’s, but when possible, he’s riding. He insists his hobbies, in turn, benefit his daughter. Says Dan, “Because if the child starts feeling like everything is about them and what they’re going through and their problem, you end up with guilt and a sense of responsibility and that’s not positive.” If a parent doesn’t live his own life, it can send a message to their child that they are incompetent, that there is no hope, no expectation that they can function on their own. And they won’t. And this goes for all parent-child dynamics.

For parents of high-need children approaching adulthood, there are often difficult logistical decisions to be made, the result of which impacts the whole family. In our recent blog, Society’s Way or Best Way, we wrote about ignoring societal pressure to “launch” a child, or make him live on his own before he is ready. A person living with mental illness requires time for the brain to heal after a psychotic episode or while recovering from severe depression, for example. After publishing our post, one of our contributors astutely commented that there are times when having a person with mental illness live in your home is disruptive to family members—the marriage, other siblings—and in those cases group homes are a best option. Parents sometimes feel guilty about admitting that when their child is in a treatment facility—hospital or group home—that their own home is calm and other family members are happier. It may appear to outsiders that sending a family member “away” is cruel, or selfish. It is never an easy decision to send a child away though ometimes doing so best serves the family’s well being.

Aside from hobbies, other parents cited that getting away for a weekend when possible, yoga, or even going out with friends was rejuvenating. Dan’s wife, Rebecca, spends time with friends. Maika, whose son Riley lives with schizoaffective disorder, walks her dogs. Sometimes her son’s behaviors, like binge drinking or deciding to go off medication, make her furious so she screams into pillows. Our contributors often recommended seeking therapy to cope with a challenging parenting journey —simply having a person with whom they can talk without being judged.

Most all of our contributors suggested support groups through organizations such as AL-ANON (Alcoholics Anonymous, http://www.al-anon.org/) or NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness: http://www.nami.org/). NAMI reports studies that show sharing one’s story and hearing others tell of similar experiences helps one feel less isolated. Simply, knowing you are not alone with whatever challenges you face is psychologically beneficial. That is the magic of support groups, and perhaps that is why at the completion of nearly every one of our interviews contributors commented they felt better by sharing their whole story. We often heard, “Whew! That felt good,” to finally unload the long and courageous journey of parenting a child living with mental illness. The act of sharing, and, potentially helping others was healing. Meanwhile, there we sat, in awe.

Whatever your method, put your mask on first.

As always, we love to hear from our reader / followers.

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