Ann Douglas is the author of the bestselling Mother of All parenting books and has written for top parenting publications in Canada and the U.S. The Peterborough-based Douglas leads parenting workshops and advises parents and educators across Canada.
Her latest book, Parenting Through the Storm: How to Handle the Highs, the Lows, and Everything in Between, is an honest and indispensable compendium of advice for parents living with children who have mental illnesses.
In this Q&A with Parenting Times, Douglas explains why she wrote the book and what she hopes parents take away from it.
1 Your book is titled Parenting Through the Storm. It’s an intriguing title that suggests this is far from a typical parenting book. What exactly is “the storm”?
I used the storm as a metaphor to describe the challenging times we went through as a family when my kids were struggling. I also wanted to leave the door open to the possibility of hope: storms can pass through.
I used two storm-related quotes in the book’s epigraph because I wanted to acknowledge the importance of family resilience in the wake of the storm. Right now, I’m even wearing a storm-related T-shirt. The quote on my T-shirt reads, “Storms make trees take deeper roots.”
2 For readers who may not be familiar, can you provide an overview of your family’s experience, and explain what inspired you to write this book?
Sure. Back in around 2003 (the starting point for this book), all four of my children were struggling. My oldest (14) was struggling with depression and an eating disorder. The two middle boys (12 and 11) were struggling with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. And the youngest (who was six at the time) was having a terrible time at school. He was suspended six times in Grade 1.
It would be four more years before we finally obtained a diagnosis that explained his behaviour: Asperger’s syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder). When things were at their worst, I felt scared and alone and overwhelmed and sad that life was so difficult for my kids.
If we fast-forward to the present (as I do at the end of the book), I can tell you that, despite their earlier challenges, all four of my kids are thriving today as young adults. (They range in age from 17 to 27.) They are doing much better than I would have thought possible a decade ago.
I wrote this book in order to offer a mixture of hope (that things can get better) and practical advice (strategies for making life better, starting right now) to parents who are facing the same types of struggles my family faced. I wanted to write a book that would let other parents know that things can get a lot better for your child and your family.
I wanted to write the book that would have been helpful to me when things were most difficult and my kids were really struggling. This is easily the most personal book I have ever written. I talk about my children’s struggles, my family’s struggles, and my own struggles.
But this book is about so much more than that. It is about hope and healing and resilience – and about practical things you can do, starting right now, to start making life better for your child and your family, even while you are waiting for your child’s name to move to the top of the waiting list for diagnosis and treatment.
The book is for any parent who has a child who is struggling – especially if they don’t quite understand why that child is struggling and they want to learn more. They might have a preschooler who is extremely anxious or they might have a teenager who is angry or depressed. The book covers a range of ages and addresses a number of different types of challenges – everything from mental health challenges to neurodevelopmental conditions to behavioural difficulties.
3 In the book, you write that you hope you can help parents avoid spiralling downward to the same extent that you did. Can you explain what you went though, what was your lowest point and how you found the strength to recover and keep going?
I experienced a really devastating three-year-long clinical depression. I gained a lot of weight which I have subsequently had to work very hard to lose. (I’ve lost 135 lbs.) Things were pretty grim.
In terms of finding the strength to recover and keep going, a combination of medication and stress management allowed me to experience a dramatic improvement in my mental health. At the same time, my kids were starting to do a lot better, which brought down my stress levels tremendously.
Once I started feeling better and they started doing better, I was able to start focusing on my physical health: making sleep a priority, exercising daily, portion control re: eating (I keep a daily food diary), and making a conscious effort to have more fun. (More about this below.)
4 Do you feel there are misconceptions about children, mental health and parenting that need to be clarified, and that you try to clarify in your book? If so, can you explain?
- It is possible to be a loving and committed parent and still have a child who struggles. Having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent, just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid. Parents are often unfairly blamed for the difficulties their children are experiencing – something that only serves to make a painful situation even worse.
- A diagnosis doesn’t define your child. It simply provides you with information that can be helpful to you as you try to make life better for your child. A diagnosis can provide you with access to support at school and in the community and it can allow you to zero in on parenting strategies that are most likely to bring out your child’s strengths.
5 In the book, you also write that you’re a “passionate convert” when it comes to the importance of self-care, something most if not all parents tend to neglect. Can you elaborate on that?
It is so easy to put your own health and happiness on the back burner when your child is struggling.
If I had to do it all again, I would do a better job of taking care of myself. I hadn’t realized, until the past two years, when I started to become physically active on a daily basis, just how key regular exercise is to helping me when it comes to managing anxiety and boosting my mood.
When I think back to the years when the kids were really struggling, I remember how often I felt paralyzed with anxiety and exhausted at the same time.
Part of the problem was that I was so busy trying to get them the help that they needed to thrive that I forgot to take good care of myself. I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I was using food as a tool to cope with my emotions. And I was almost completely sedentary. It is hardly surprising that I eventually hit the wall, experiencing physical and emotional burnout. I’ve had to work really hard to come back from that.
Now I understand how crucial exercise is to maintaining my emotional equilibrium. I walk every day. Sometimes I walk two or three times in the same day. Walking helps to calm me. A situation that seems overwhelming when I set out on my walk feels much more manageable by the time I arrive back home.
I have also learned to make sleep a priority. I no longer treat it like an unnecessary frill. I understand that the sleep I clock tonight is an investment in how I’m going to feel (and how I’m going to cope) tomorrow.
Healthy nutrition is key, too. Going too long between meals or overindulging in simple carbohydrates can lead to dips in blood sugar, something that makes mood swings, irritability, and fatigue worse. I’ve learned how to team up protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats in ways that are energy boosting rather than energy zapping. I’ve severely cut back on my consumption of caffeine. And I’ve pretty much stopped drinking alcohol.
I make fun a priority. Fun falls off our to-do lists pretty quickly when our kids are struggling, and yet it is incredibly soul-nourishing. It’s important to reach out to other people who will help you to remember to have fun, even when your child is struggling, as opposed to waiting for some unknown date in the future to give yourself permission to start having fun.
6 Generally speaking, what are the most important messages you hope readers/parents take away from your book?
- You and your child are not alone.
- Having a child who is struggling doesn’t make you a bad parent — just as being a child who is struggling doesn’t make your child a bad kid.
- It is important to reach out for help as soon as you begin to suspect that there could be a problem. Waiting lists are long. You want to get your child’s name on the waiting list for diagnosis and treatment sooner rather than later.
- You don’t have to wait until your child has a definitive diagnosis before you start trying to make things better for your child and your family.
- You don’t have to be afraid of obtaining a diagnosis for you child. Understand that a diagnosis simply provides you with a snapshot of information about your child. It doesn’t define or limit your child.
- It is important to give yourself permission to experience joy in your life — even when your child is going through a hard time. You can’t put your life and your happiness on hold until some magical future time when your child will no longer be struggling. You have to do the hard work of finding happiness in your life right now, even while your child is going through a really tough time. A child who is struggling needs the strongest, happiest, healthiest parent possible. Self-care isn’t an indulgence. It’s a necessity.
7 You have made it through the storm, and as you write, so have your children, who have grown into healthy, happy adults. As you look back on your experiences from the other side, what have you learned?
I have learned that families are incredibly resilient and that weathering a storm like what my family experienced can leave us even stronger and more connected than what we were before.
8 And what words of advice and/or comfort would you offer to other parents who are struggling?
It is so important to reach out for help and support from other parents who have walked this walk. They can help you to make sense of the mental health and educational systems so that you can find the support your child and your family need to thrive. And they can encourage you to treat yourself with self-compassion – to keep telling yourself that you’re doing the best that you can in a difficult situation; and that it’s not fair or reasonable to demand perfection of yourself.
Two organizations that are doing really great work in providing support to families are The Institute of Families for Child and Youth Mental Health (www.familysmart.ca) and Parents for Children’s Mental Health (www.pcmh.ca).
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