Experiencing a great deal of stress brought on by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in my eldest son and the arrival of a second child, I decided to seek help from a mental health professional. Here are the top 10 things I have learned about myself, parenting and relationships from just over a year of psychotherapy.
1. Don't give it back
Kids are hardwired to annoy you. My psychiatrist's theory is that back in pre-historic times, agitating their parents was one of the best and most efficient ways children had of gaining attention, thus protection from nasty beasts. When your children deliberately annoy you or yell at you, don't give it back – just ignore it for the attention-seeking behaviour that it likely is. Of course, if a Jurassic beast is indeed involved, you may want to look into it.
If you do lose your cool and snap at your kids - which is bound to happen – wait till everyone has calmed down and discuss with them what happened and why you may have lost your temper. Even if they are too young to understand what you are saying, research suggests that the tone of your voice can be effective in mending any rifts with your young ones and help reaffirm that you are there for them.
2. Building resilience in your kids starts with love
The issue of building resilience in children is a vast one, too difficult to simplify under a single dot-point, but I'll give it a try. What I've learned from interacting with my own children and speaking with my psychiatrist, is that resilience and confidence needs to start with love. Always remind them that you love them, and never leave them wondering.
3. Understanding your own emotions makes you a better husband and father
Talking about feelings does not come naturally to me, nor to many men in general. Faced with conflict or perceived disrespect, I would often shut down and go into "the cave". Speaking to someone about the things that were making me frustrated helped me begin to recognise and describe them, thereby allowing me to express them more assertively. Although this may ultimately lead to a greater number of mini arguments, I have come to understand that …
4. Conflict is inevitable and even desirable
When you and your partner can more freely express your feelings with each other, mini conflicts are likely to surface more often. These little ruptures are actually healthy as they can provide you with important conflict resolution skills. The alternative is that feelings and emotions get suppressed, leading to wilder conflicts flaring up where neither of you have the skills to resolve the issue.
5. Time for yourself and your partner is crucial
When my eldest boy was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, his paediatrician told us to make sure we made time for ourselves and each other. We didn't really listen to her advice, however, feeling guilty that every minute not spent researching his condition and possible treatments would consign him to a life of misery. That and we had a relatively new baby at the time who also demanded a lot of attention. Our relationship suffered as a result of this and while time for ourselves and each other is not back to pre-kid levels (and probably won't be until they move out!), at least we're more conscious of it now. I for one know that if I am able to get a round of golf in, which is a favourite activity of mine, this is not a purely selfish act – I actually come back refreshed, rejuvenated and ultimately a better husband and father.
The often used analogy of the oxygen masks in an airline emergency is an apt one. Before you get the mask on your child, get it on yourself, otherwise you run the risk of both of you suffocating.
6. Ask your partner to come along to a therapy session
I cannot emphasise enough the importance of taking your partner along to therapy sessions. When talking to an independent therapist, you and your partner will often say things that will provide great insight for the other that cannot be gained when it is just the two of you talking (or not talking, as is more often the case). Hopefully your partner is amenable to attending. Mine took a little convincing, but when she finally agreed she immediately saw the value in the exercise.
7. The importance of connectedness
When experiencing significant stress or anxiety, a natural tendency is to isolate yourself for fear of burdening others. You may lack the confidence to engage and/or you may feel guilty spending time away from your family. This is certainly how I felt. Seeing a psychiatrist provided clarity about my thoughts and the confidence to articulate what my family was going through to significant people in my life with whom I’d become distant.
The opposite of feeling connected to others is feeling isolated, and at times I felt isolated even within my own family unit. Isolation can wreak havoc because when left alone with unpleasant thoughts, they can morph into something ugly and out of control. And ain't nobody got time for that.
8. Whatever doesn't kill you ...
Many families will undergo significant hardship, stress and grief over their journeys. While it is going too far to say that this should be embraced, the old adage "whatever doesn't kill you can only make you stronger", certainly applies.
My psychiatrist uses the analogy of a boat. You as a couple are in the boat sailing in calm, pleasant seas and everything seems okay on the surface. In the back of your mind, however, you might be wondering what would happen if a storm came. Would your boat be strong enough to withstand the pressure?
Well, for us a storm did come. It rocked us, made us seasick and we came pretty close to capsizing, but ultimately we weathered it and made it through to the other side. Now, back in calm, pleasant seas, we know our boat is strong. Very strong in fact, and in some ways we're glad we faced the storm in the first place because we don't have any nagging doubts about the strength of our boat and its storm-weathering capabilities.
At least I think that's what he meant.
9. Seek help from someone you trust
As is being discussed more openly nowadays, culturally we do not seek help with our mental health as this can be seen as a sign of weakness. Hopefully by now people understand this is utter rubbish. The first port of call in most instances should be your GP, who will refer you to the appropriate services. In many cases, it may take a little effort to find someone whom you trust and respect.
The first person I saw spent the first twenty minutes or so talking about possible naturopathic treatments for my son's autism, and not really my mental health issues as an individual. While this approach may have been suitable for someone else, it certainly wasn't for me and I didn't go back to see her. The next person I saw listened to the grief and hardship my family were undergoing and simply said, “heartbreaking” - a word that hadn't come to my mind yet but summed it all up perfectly. That one word showed me in an instant that he got it and was here to help.
10. Keep seeking help, even after you are "fixed"
Although my family and I are no longer in "crisis", and the problems I originally presented with have largely been resolved, I continue to see my psychiatrist on a monthly basis. To paraphrase him, the traditional approach is to treat mental health issues like a broken leg – heal the break then send the patient on their way. A better approach to improving and maintaining mental health in an individual, however, is to keep seeing them once they have been "healed". For it is during this period that you can really capitalise on what you have learned through psychotherapy, thereby achieving long-term, sustained, positive mental health outcomes.