Monday, November 14, 2016

Q&A with Ann Douglas

Ann Douglas is the author of the new book Parenting Through the Storm: Find Help, Hope, and Strength When Your Child Has Psychological Problems. Her other books include The Mother of All Parenting Books and The Mother of All Baby Books. She is the weekend parenting columnist for CBC Radio, and she lives in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada.

Q: You write, "A decade ago, I desperately needed a book like this one." How did your own experiences inform the writing of this book?

A: I know what it feels like to be the parent of a child who is struggling.

I also know that it is possible to get through those difficult times as a family.

I set out to write a book that would offer hope and encouragement to other families who are going through a really hard time with their kids right now.

In addition to sharing my own family’s experiences, I interviewed more than 60 other parents who have faced similar struggles in their families, raising children with mental health challenges, learning and attention differences, and related issues.

I asked them to share their best advice on supporting a child who is struggling: to pass along the hard-earned wisdom and encouraging words that they would have benefited from knowing when things were at their worst for their child.

You can allow a difficult experience to destroy you or you can allow it to strengthen you. And one of the ways to find strength in the wake of a difficult experience is by helping other people. That’s what I tried to do in writing this book. (More about that here.)

Q: One of the topics you deal with in the book is advocating for your child. What are some of the most effective ways of doing that, and at what point can the child take on some of that responsibility as a self-advocate?

A: There are two really important things to keep in mind when you’re advocating for your child: (1) build bridges; and (2) keep records.

On building bridges: It’s easy to feel angry or frustrated with the person on the other side of the desk (the principal at your child’s school, your child’s therapist, and so on), but it’s so important to remind yourself that you’ll get better results for your child if you focus on finding solutions rather than on assigning blame.

I find it helpful to keep in mind that the vast majority of people who embark on careers in health or education do so with the intention of making things better, not worse, for children and families.

So if you’re finding it frustrating to deal with system delays and red tape, just imagine how much more frustrating it must be for them. They have to deal with system roadblocks multiple times each day.

On keeping records: Keeping records is also critically important. Each time you make contact with a different service provider, you will be asked to provide detailed information about your child’s developmental history, his physical health, and his treatment record.

You might be tempted to try to keep track of all this information in your head, but this task can quickly become overwhelming. It’s much less stressful to simply track this information yourself in a resource binder (paper-based or electronic) for your child.

That way, you’ll have a written record to draw upon whenever you need it. These tools from my book can help to get you started. 

It’s also important to look for opportunities to encourage your child to advocate for himself (or, if that’s not yet possible, to do your best to represent his needs and wishes when you advocate on his behalf).

Help your child to figure out how to advocate in a way that encourages other people to want to help him—by taking a solutions-oriented approach and by assuming the best intentions on the part of the other person, for example.

Give him the chance to practice asking for help so that you can coach him on wording, tone, and body language. This skill doesn’t always come automatically or easily for every child.

Q: In the book, you write, "There might be times when you will feel utterly useless--like nothing you do or say is doing your child any good at all." How did you deal with those times, and what do you suggest for other parents?

A: I reached out for support from other parents. I was lucky enough to have three close friends who had been through similar struggles with their kids.

They were able to support and encourage me by reminding me that I was doing the best that I could in a really difficult situation. They also expressed their faith that my hard work and best efforts would pay off over time (and, as it turned out, they were right).

I would encourage other parents to do the same—to tap into support from others who truly understand. It could be someone in your own friendship circle or a parent you connect with at a parent support group. (The detailed resource guide at the back of the book is a good starting point for anyone seeking community-based or online support.)

Q: How have readers responded to the book?

A: The response has been really positive. Parents appreciate the key themes of the book, namely “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” and “Families are strong and resilient. You and your child can weather the storm together.”

They also appreciate the practical information provided in the book: parenting strategies that make things better, not worse, for your child; self-care strategies for all family members; the advocacy guides (how to advocate for your child at school and/or within the mental health care system); and so on.

That’s the book in a nutshell: a mix of practical advice and reassurance from someone who has been there and lived through that. (All four of my children struggled when they were younger—and all four of them are currently thriving as young adults.)

Q: What are you working on now?

A: These days, I am doing a lot of travel and speaking in support of the book and participating in a lot of online events as well. See the book’s website for details on recent and upcoming events. 

I am also updating one of my earlier books, The Mother of All Toddler Books; and I am starting work on a brand new parenting book, which is scheduled to be published in 2018.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: You don’t have to be afraid to obtain a diagnosis. A diagnosis is just a piece of information about your child. It doesn’t even begin to describe the unique and complex person that your child is.

But it can make life easier for you and your child, by providing you with valuable information that allows you to choose appropriate parenting strategies and to zero in on the treatment options that are most likely to be helpful to your child.

Most of the parents that I interviewed reported feeling a sense of relief once they obtained their child’s diagnosis. Finally, they had answers. Finally, they had a path forward.

A diagnosis, after all, opens the door to all kinds of treatments and supports, including in-school supports that might not otherwise be available to your child. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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