Parenting Through Difficult Times

By Sue Cowan

Did you hear the collective sigh when the buses left their stops on Monday? While back-to-school time can be a relief for many parents seeking structure for restless kids and exciting for kids ready for a new year, it also can be stressful.

Even in the most stable of times, parenting is hard work; when families are already burdened, with finances, relationships, illness, death of a loved one, or other stressors, the change of routines and the added pressures of the school year can seem overwhelming.

According to Susan McCormick, licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of The Wellness Connection in Ashburn, Leesburg, and Stone Ridge, the change of seasons is one of the most common times for people to seek support. She lost her own husband in 2002 when she was a new parent.

She emphasized three strategies that can help parents cope:

Self Care

Because parents’ primary job is to care for others, many are unaccustomed to making themselves a priority.

“We need to put our own oxygen mask on first,” McCormick stressed, summoning the metaphor of airline attendants’ pre-flight message to caregivers.  “The fuller our tank is, the more capable we are to care for our kids.”

Good nutrition, hydration, exercise, and sleep are crucial, she explains, as is releasing one’s feelings and talking about one’s situation.

“Having someone with whom to vent, but not overwhelm, can be so helpful,” she said. “Hiding emotion actually takes more energy from us than does releasing it appropriately.”

Ellyn Miller, whose daughter Gabriella died in 2013 at age 10, and whose son Jake will be 9 this fall, knows well the balance parents need to find between work, self and family care. The Smashing Walnuts Foundation was formed in honor of Gabriella to help fight childhood cancer.

“When I need to give a speech [for the Smashing Walnuts Foundation], I keep a tight grip on myself, yet when I’m alone, I feel whatever I need to feel,” she said.

For her, it is crucial to release what she needs so that she can be there for her son. “Jake deserves his childhood and he deserves happy parents; even if I can devote one hour to just having fun with him, it helps me, too.”
Connecting with Others

“All it takes is one other person who has been through what you are going through to lessen the load,” said McCormick, remembering a fellow widow who helped normalize her experience for her.

For Miller and many others, support groups can be pivotal in caring for oneself and one’s family and finding happiness even with sorrow.  She attends the monthly Compassionate Friends’ group in Leesburg for families who have had a child that died, and her family travels to Maine twice a year for Camp Sunshine, which helps families cope with the illness or loss of a child to cancer.  There, in addition to swimming, boating, arts and crafts, and sports, participants meet in age-similar groups to talk with others in the same situation.

Miller said that not only does it help her family to grieve, but it helps them to have fun. “On the way home from the last session, Jake said ‘Mommy, I like Camp Sunshine better than my birthday.’”

It is so healthy for kids and adults to know they are not the only one to gain strength from one another, and to combat the isolation and devastation that often accompanies grief and pain, offered McCormick.

Asking for Help

It is often difficult, though, for parents to reach out for help, not wanting to take time away from other priorities or bring attention to the issues troubling them. Tracy, a Leesburg mother of two who was married for 29 years to an active alcoholic, struggled for years with her husband’s drinking before finding help and support in Al-Anon, an organization that promises “strength and hope for friends and families of problem drinkers.”

It was the fear of admitting there was a problem and fear of what others might suggest that kept her from reaching out.

“I thought they would make me divorce him or tell me I was doing things wrong,” she said.

Instead, what she found was acceptance, support, compassion, and a shift in attitude that helped her live and parent her two children happily, despite her husband’s behavior.

“I learned to separate his behavior from who he was as a person so that I could still feel, act, and speak lovingly toward and about him,” she said.

Whatever parents are dealing with, there is help out there: in the community, from family, friends, websites, and hotlines. Often by reaching out and tapping into the greater strength of common experience, meaning can be found from the struggle, joy can be found within hardship, and children can learn and thrive. As McCormick encouraged, “We are stronger than we give ourselves credit for.”

Five Signs to Get Help for Self or a Loved One

  1. More often than not, a person is not able to act as they want to.
  2. Mood swings, isolation, sadness, anger and anxiety are more prevalent than not.
  3. The individual cannot shake the impact of a recent loss or event; preoccupation with struggles.
  4. Use of unhealthy means to cope with emotions (alcohol, drugs, pornography, violence, rage, over- or under-reacting).
  5. Loss of hope, contemplating suicide, thoughts or statements such as “life just isn’t worth living.”

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