The best book about parenting kids with mental health challenges
I found Parenting Through the Storm by Ann Douglas after my daughter reached the recovery stage, but I wish I had found it sooner.
If you’re unfamiliar with Ann Douglas, get ready to rejoice because this lady has been through the wringer and has lived to tell the tale. She knows of what she speaks!
She has four kids, all with mental health challenges—biopolar disorder, depression, anorexia, Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD.
She’s also a parenting expert, the author of The Mother of All Parenting book series, Parenting Through the Storm and most recently, Happy Parents, Happy Kids. And she’s Canadian so she knows our systems intimately.
“The Queen once famously declared that 1992 was her annus horribilis (horrible year). For us, it was 2003.”— Ann Douglas
Why I love Ann Douglas’ Parenting Through the Storm
It’s like What to Expect When Expecting, only for parents with kids with mental health challenges of all shapes and sizes, and much more compassion.
It covers everything from what to do when you suspect there might be an issue, and how to get a diagnosis and treatment to how you might think and feel at any given time.
The back contains a glossary of terms and a solid index so you can look up specific concerns as they arise. It’s been on my bedside table since I bought it. Just last week, I looked up discipline.
Best of all it’s peppered with stories from other parents who are in it. Don’t be alarmed if you find yourself thinking, “I just said those exact same words!”
Here are my top takeaways from the book on a variety of subjects:
On How to Effectively Advocate for Your Child
- “I think we thought that the professionals would tell us what was wrong and how to fix it. Ultimately, we decided what worked best for our son and then enlightened the professionals.” (Mara, Page 89) The message here: treatments often need tweaking. Don’t be afraid to push back or stray from the recommended path. You know your child best. Your input matters.
- “The teacher has a whole different class next year. The doctor has five hundred patients. Your child only has you.” (Michelle, Page 95) Closely related, use your spidey sense and speak up. Before big meetings with schools or health professionals, think about what you want for your child so you can work towards that goal in the meeting.
- Maintain meticulous records. (p 99) I did not do this, but I wish I had. I’ve lost a ton of information over the years. Ann recommends a binder divided into categories such as contracts, treatment notes, symptom notes, Individual Education Plans, crisis plans and so on. Brilliant.
On Changing your Mindset
- “If anyone tells you it’s your fault, go somewhere else for a real conversation about your child’s mental health.” (Mara, Page 60) I love this. Parenting a child with mental health challenges is hard enough, and blaming yourself or letting others blame you, won’t help. Shut it down and move on. It’s not your fault. It’s not your child’s fault.
- “I am doing the best that I can in a difficult situation.” (Ann Douglas, page 115) I am obsessed with learning to manage my own mind and to steer it away from negative thought loops. This simple sentence is golden for me. I mutter it regularly, not just while parenting, but also at work.
On Communication with Your Child
- “Learn to be comfortable with silence.” (Ann Douglas, page 131) I remember hearing an episode on The Hilarious World of Depression. The guest was recounting the words of another woman in a psychiatric hospital – it was something to the effect of “I can’t make the words match my mind.” Give your child a chance to collect their thoughts, before you jump in. They may be searching for the right words, and if you speak too soon, you might kill the moment.
- “Parents of teenagers who struggle with depression tend to make more negative comments about their teenagers’ behaviour than parents of teenagers who are not depressed.” (Ann Douglas, Page 141) This was an eye-opener for me. My son, age 13, gets into a fair bit of trouble, and I realized that 90% of our conversations these days are negative in nature. I’m actively trying to flip the script and focus on the things that I love and admire about him. And also, to get him to focus on the things that make him feel good about himself.
- “Most children who struggle to manage intense emotions do so because they have underdeveloped skills.” (Ann Douglas, page 169) The skills Ann is referring to are executive-functioning, language-processing, emotion-processing, cognitive flexibility, and social skills. If you’re not sure what’s at the root of your child’s behaviour, the chart in the book might help. It includes common symptoms, the related skill, and suggestions on how to help your child manage the deficit.
On Understanding the Impact of Diet
- “The way we eat today is very different from the way our grandparents ate …What hasn’t changed, of course, is what our brains need in order to function at their best.” (Ann Douglas, page 201) I’m increasingly interested in diet and how it affects how we think and feel, so I loved Chapter 9, which is all about lifestyle. There you’ll also find handy charts showing how the four key neurotransmitters are affected by the food we eat, as well as how deficiencies of certain nutrients affect our mental health.
On Navigating the School System
- “An IEP is a living document rather than a static, unchanging document. It is meant to evolve and change along with your child’s circumstances and needs.” (Ann Douglas, Page 222) Chapter 10 is all about navigating the school system and how to work with teachers and administrators to best support your child. It walks you through the Individual Education Plan (IEP) process and provides plenty of ideas for accommodations that might help.
- “It’s ok if your child ends up taking a little longer to graduate, especially if it means experiencing mental health along the way.” (Ann Douglas, Page 233) I’m 100% with Ann on this one. We need to rid ourselves of the notion that our socially accepted timeline – 12 years of school followed by four years of university – is fixed in stone. I spend a lot of time these days asking myself, will this matter in twenty-five years? Or what will matter more if there’s a choice to be made?
On Changing the System
- “It’s not you, it’s the system, or rather systems that have the problem.” (Ann Douglas, page 283, Creating a better system). Ann ends the book where I think a lot of parents, once they’ve weathered the worst of the storm, land: our mental health care system is F#@!ed! That’s not to say there aren’t amazing people working in the system doing amazing things. There are. But it needs a lot of work and proper funding. And it needs your input. You know what’s wrong with our system better than anyone.
“Talk to friends and co-workers about your family’s experiences and ask them to raise their voices, too. There is strength in numbers.”—Ann Douglas
I would really love to hear how you would change the system. Where do you struggle most with getting help for your child? What would make the biggest difference to you and your family? If you had a magic wand and could fix things, what would you do?
And if you have any book recommendations, please share!