Written for Queensland Mental Health Week 2020
At some point you will get it wrong.
It will be well intentioned. It may come from a place of not wanting to replicate your own upbringing or the mistakes you think other parents are making. And it will probably be informed by your experiences and biases.
I’ve always known this…in theory.
But the other day my fourteen-year-old daughter courteously yet clearly served my imperfections in this area up to me. This was no teenage tantrum. It wasn’t even an argument. It was simply a conversation in which I was presented with unpalatable information about myself, and then had to choose what I did with it.
It started simply:
‘Mum, can I please get TikTok? Remember I asked you about it a month ago, and you said you’d think about it.?’
For context – she gained Snapchat and Instagram over the last few months, to my knowledge has not abused any of her privileges, and right now appears to be in good mental health.
So, we talk about how she’d manage seeing distressing content if it popped up. I probe her with her worst-case scenario.
‘What about animal cruelty?’ I say and follow it with a graphic example.
‘I’d talk to someone about it.’ She answers calmly.
‘Who would you talk to?’
She doesn’t hesitate: ‘Well definitely not you! Probably Dad.’
‘Why not me?’ I ask,
‘You and your mental health stuff – you’d blow it all out of proportion, take me to a psychiatrist, have me medicated and force me into years of therapy.’
I did ask.
And while she is wrong about the imagined consequences of telling me she saw some distressing social media content, she is right about something else.
I am hypersensitised, filled with knowledge of the very worst mental illness has to offer. And not just my own. Every time I go into hospital, I share that space with others who are going through their own worsts.
When I see young inpatients often only four or five years older than my eldest child with bandaged wrists or cutting scars, bolts of fear shoot through me. Fear that one day my children could hurt like that.
Every time after my Bipolar 1 Disorder has put me through hell I am frozen by the threat that I will have given this illness to my children. I know that (beyond not introducing significant trauma to their lives and warning them of the dangers of drugs that can trigger the genetic component of this illness) there is nothing I can do to outparent it. But I still try.
After I got sick I was determined my children would grow up in a family that was open about mental illness. There would be no shame and no stigma. They would know from a young age where I was going when I went into hospital and why.
The knowledge that sometimes mental illness sprouts in childhood and adolescence is heavy and made heavier by the fact that sometimes it is fertilised (even in the absence of major trauma) by parents unwittingly invalidating their children’s’ feelings or experiences.
I never wanted to be that parent. And I am not. But I may have made the opposite mistake.
By unintentionally force feeding my children my concerns around mental health, could it cause them to turn away from the very tools that could help them should they run into a mental health crisis?
Mental health is stitched into the fabric of our family’s conversations partly due to my lived experience, but also because of what I do. My children have never known a time when I haven’t been a vocal mental health advocate. I write about it. I talk about it frequently – sometimes quite publicly.
And if I dig deep into my motivation for wanting to change the way mental illness is perceived and treated, my children are at the core of it. That motivation is as simple as it is unrealistic:
I want to fix our mental health system so that it can help rather than harm my children should they ever experience mental illness.
I am loathe to admit it but yes sometimes all my motivation, knowledge and focus, can morph into hypervigilance, ready to pounce on the very whisper of something not being right with my children’s thought patterns. And in my futile efforts to protect them from my worst nightmares, at times I probably veer dangerously close to pathologizing their emotions, which can be as damaging as not acknowledging them at all.
I do this reflexively even as I know that parenting out of the fear of what could happen is even worse than living your own life ruled by fear.
And yet, deep down I know that if either of my children get sick it won’t be my fault or TikTok’s. If that happens, hopefully their father’s less informed love will be the perfect counterweight to remind me that while my knowledge might be useful in some situations, at other times applying the full weight of it can be like attempting to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. Ineffective and potentially damaging.
It was a yes to TikTok.
While I am deeply grateful that right now neither of my children require psychiatric care, my advocacy work will continue, because it is grim out there. I caught up with a friend recently whose child does need a child psychiatrist urgently. The waiting time to get an appointment with a private child psychiatrist is currently twelve months.
Or there’s the public hospital Emergency Room if symptoms become life threatening while you wait…
Published with full permission from the fourteen year old who also helpfully pointed out I’d misspelt TikTok in the previous draft.
You may also like to check out:
Talking About Mental Illness With Children