Parenting itself is full of joy and fraught with peril. The mirror neurons in our prefrontal cortex capture our own infancy and childhood – the ways in which we, ourselves, were parented – and exist largely outside of our conscious memory. Subsequently, whether we have fond memories of our own childhoods or not, in parenting our children, we will often default to the ways in which we were parented unless we work diligently and vigilantly to do something different. For parents who feel respected and valued by their own parents, this can be a wonderful legacy to hand down. But for parents who do not feel loved and respected, who have emotional injuries that have not yet been fully processed and grieved, parenting can present a series of unexpected and triggering landmines.
Often relentlessly demanding, being a parent requires a significant amount of emotional regulation, impulse control, planning and persistence for things to run smoothly. For parents who struggle with anxiety, depression, shame or low self-esteem, common stressors can feel overwhelming and deepen difficulty. Resulting feelings of isolation and powerlessness can exacerbate shame and anger.
It is important for parents and guardians to know that caring for children is intrinsically stressful, triggering by design. Raising a child can provide a sense of meaning, connection, playfulness, and joy, but even pleasurable moments can intensify the challenging feelings when they occur. When parents have intentionally developed their own coping skills, have good information about child development and strong social connections, overall parental contentment tends to substantially increase. Likewise, well-used humor, anticipation, planning, strategizing and connection can bolster parents’ self-efficacy and confidence. When these helpful skills and behaviors are effectively modeled for children, parents plant seeds about how their children can tend to their own mindcare as they grow up.
Three of the most common mindcare disorders—depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety—can all increase irritability and decrease patience, mute moments of pride and diminish moments of peace. They can create a running narrative of the various failures and fears while interfering with the parent’s ability to absorb and appreciate the things their children say and do that may bring peace, joy, meaning and connection.
Distorting views of family, life and the world, these mindcare disorders can warp the experience of parenting so that it is dominated by unpleasant feelings like irritation, guilt, shame, sadness, anger, defensiveness, powerlessness, hopelessness or numbness. Specifically, depression can make us exhausted and distracted while anxiety can make us preoccupied with threat and a general sense of dread. Both sets of symptoms tend to leave parents feeling disconnected from their children. They can both lead to behaviors towards children like unhelpful yelling, threatening or punishing. Unmanaged depression and anxiety symptoms can create a cascade of negative interactions that can feel impossible to reverse or shift. Thankfully, the consequences are rarely irreversible, and the sooner a parent seeks treatment, the better.
When a parent is feeling inadequate or overwhelmed, it is imperative that they seek assistance from trusted family, friends, mentors or medical personnel. Often, the sense of overwhelm can lead to feelings of inadequacy. Being an adult is a series of small successes that happen every day – one successfully met goal after another. We tend to underestimate how much adults do. When a person is struggling with mindcare issues, they tend to use energy reserves and work less efficiently, running out of fuel for the relentless demands of parenting. This sense of overwhelm can be treated effectively, restoring confidence and a sense of control.
Substance use disorder, another prevalent mindcare condition can severely impair the reality of a parent, deeply inhibiting or rendering impossible emotional regulation, executive functioning, impulse control and persistence. Parenting can become unstructured, inconsistent and variable in intensity. These qualities often evoke stress in infants and children, setting the child up for further parent child conflicts.
Unmanaged symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar and substance use disorder can have a lifetime of impact on children. For example, it has been studied and documented that a teen’s ability to successfully navigate their adolescence is largely reliant upon a connected, attentive, concerned parent. Mindcare issues such as depression, anxiety and substance use can all negatively impact a parent’s ability to connect with, see and attend to their child.
It is important to note that mental health struggles do not diminish the value or lifelong impact of a parent. Children are attached to their imperfect parents. Children love their parents and, despite what they might say when they are in the throes of a tantrum or fit, children almost never wish to replace their parents. The children who do genuinely wish to replace their parents have often experienced such betrayal of trust and such profound disconnection that they have grieved their losses. To lose a parent, even a profoundly flawed parent, is a trauma tantamount to the ground opening up beneath us.
Anxiety, depression, ADHD and substance use disorders can evoke such shame in parents that they can start to question whether their children would be better off without them. There are very few scenarios in which the answer to that question is yes. Statistically, the answer is going to be no: objectively, children need their parents and subjectively, children love and want their parents. Mindcare conditions are highly treatable, and there are multiple paths that parents can use to cultivate inner and outer peace.
Maureen Gomeringer, MSW, LCSW earned her BS from Appalachian State University and her MSW from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She has previously worked as a social worker at New Leaf Behavioral Health and Visions Counseling Studio. She currently practices in Durham where she treats all ages and specializes in ADHD, ODD, PTSD, parenting skills, and mood disorders. She is also trained in Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). More info at mindpathcare.com/staff/maureen-gomeringer-msw-lcsw/.
Ms. Gomeringer is now offering Parent Child Interaction Therapy. Click HERE to find out more.