This Isn't What I Signed Up For: 5 Ways to Address Parental Despair
“This isn’t what I signed up for when I became a parent.”
“I definitely feel a responsibility for my child, but I don’t feel love for them.”
“I feel like I’m trapped. It’s a claustrophobic feeling, like I’m suffocating and there’s no escape.”
“I’m in an abusive relationship by anyone’s definition, but when it’s my child abusing me, I can’t leave. I have no options.”
“When my co-worker told me the other day that she couldn’t wait to be a parent, I literally had a physical reaction. I had to keep myself from blurting out, ‘Don’t do it! You’ll ruin your life.’”
It sometimes takes a while for a parent to share with me what they’re truly feeling in their role as the parent of a child with significant behavioral challenges. I understand why this takes time, why there is often some initial hesitancy. The thoughts they have about their experience, and their child, are ones that most people, especially other parents, might hear and judge harshly, much less understand.
Maybe you’ve imagined, at times, a friend's reaction if you were honest about how it feels to be your child’s parent. You picture the awkward silence, the person looking at the ground, trying to process what you’ve just told them, unable to make eye contact as they do.
Or maybe you have shared these thoughts with someone before, and it’s left you feeling exposed without the reaction you'd hoped for, an all-too-familiar feeling of shame washing over you. It’s what I call experiencing an emotional hangover — allowing yourself to be vulnerable in that moment, but then not feeling seen, heard, or understood. It’s an awful feeling, one that can take days or even weeks to shake, and typically leaves us thinking, “I will never do that again.”
Or maybe you’ve shared your experience, and found the other parent responding: “Oh, I know. My kiddo has her moments too…” And you know deep in your gut that they’ve missed your point completely, that they will never truly understand. And you know you’ll never mention your struggles to them again.
And so, we keep silent.
We bottle up the feelings that accompany these private thoughts we have about being a parent, and about our particular child, and those thoughts remain in our own head, leaving us feeling detached, ashamed, unworthy, hopeless. Perhaps even like we’re an uncaring and bad person.
Brené Brown, author and researcher, tells us: “When we deny our emotions, they don’t just go away. Instead they own us, they define us.” And so we find ourselves consumed by these emotions that live on in our head, falling deeper into a dark hole that we cannot escape. We may find that they own us by impacting other relationships, where we often have a tendency to offload our hurt onto others around us. They may dim our experience of the joys we do have, knowing that when we try to numb ourselves to the darkness we’re experiencing, it in turn diminishes our ability to experience the light. The two go hand-in-hand.
These very real feelings, which have developed over time as a result of profoundly difficult and sometimes traumatic parenting experiences, are neither good nor bad, despite our own ingrained opinions and judgements that might say otherwise. They are what they are, which is a decidedly normal reaction to a stream of trying and challenging experiences that, for many, occur on a daily basis.
What we need are ways of safely expressing these feelings we hold, and of sharing them so we can feel seen and heard without judgement. Slowly and gently moving through them to find ourselves in a better place on the other side. This might sound simple or straightforward, but in practice it is hard internal work that requires us to slow down and really sit and tolerate uncomfortable feelings, feelings we’ve been taught we’re not permitted to experience. When staying busy is the exact way in which many of us numb difficult feelings, finding the space and strength to be quiet with our own thoughts is made all the more challenging. Brown emphasizes how research shows that when we do not process the hurt we’re experiencing, it leads to anxiety and depression, and that depression and anxiety are two of the body’s first reactions to stockpiles of hurt and shame. The bottling of these emotions has a snowball effect with massive ramifications for our spiritual, physical and emotional well-being. It keeps us stuck in a place of misery and suffering even when we desire to move forward. It has negative consequences on our relationships, leading to disconnection with those we most care about at the very moment we need connection with others.
So, what can a parent do when this is their experience of parenting their child?
The first step is to practice self-compassion. Recognize that your thoughts and feelings are a valid response to an extraordinarily difficult situation. Those feelings don’t make you a bad person or a bad parent; they make you human, and you are not alone in feeling this way.
The next step is to recognize the emotions we’re experiencing for what they are; that the anger might actually be a response to grief and loss; that the irritability might be a response to hopelessness and sadness. It is then that we can start to move through these tough emotions, so they don’t have the full power over us they once did. It requires dedication to the process, self-compassion, and patience. For some, it is made easier by finding a trusted person skilled at helping people — specifically assisting parents of children with extraordinary needs — who can walk side-by-side through this process.
It may also begin with finding a group of people with your same lived experience who understand what your day-to-day really looks like, and is committed to helping you work through the emotions experienced as a result. This second piece (helping you do the hard work of moving through it) is critical because of what research tells us: burnout and compassion fatigue is a contagious syndrome. There are plenty of groups where one can go to vent and be heard, but which have no real support for moving to a more positive place. Likewise, there are groups where the majority of members do not have the desire to do the hard work of changing their circumstance, and are instead waiting for it to happen for them or to them. Please, choose your support wisely.
It also begins with centering ourselves every day in a neurobehavioral, brain-based mindset, so we can remain curious about our child’s challenging behaviors and truly understand the “why” behind it. When we can link behavior to lagging skills, we then feel empowered, because we know how to support our child differently. Empathy and compassion move to the forefront. When this happens, we see their frustration— and ours — diminish, and we see greater calm in our homes. This is also when we see new ways of being in relationship with our child emerge. It involves a process of acceptance, knowing that for the remainder of our lives we will be growing in our understanding of our child through this lens; there is no finish line.
Finally, moving past parental shame or despair begins with taking seriously the toll this parenting experience can have on our nervous system and physical health. Our emotional well-being cannot be fully addressed without understanding that it’s always connected to our bodies. Our bodies respond to emotion before our minds, and therefore carry the bulk of the burden that emotional distress delivers. Our physical-self is depending on us to help facilitate the slow unburdening of that load over time. If we do not have regular practices that facilitate this release, we’ll see the dramatic impact of this over time, on all aspects of our well-being.
This parenting experience may never be what you imagined, and that can be hard to reconcile. The process of accepting this is one that many parents continue to work through, to one degree or another, over the course of a lifetime. While it’s possible there will always be a level of challenge present, it doesn’t have to be constantly overwhelming. It can be equal parts trying and joyful. And I truly believe there is more hope than we’re initially led to believe in this unique parenting experience. Peace is possible, and getting there is easier with a community of people to support you in getting there. We were never meant to go it alone.
Eileen Devine, LCSW works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit eileendevine.com.