Do you ever feel isolated, like you’re the only one whose child has challenges? I remember walking through the halls of my son’s elementary school, imagining that nobody else had to worry about having a tough drop off, or that they might get a call from a flustered administrator later in the day. I was talking with a mom whose teen was recently hospitalized for mental health reasons. She told me she feels so alone because her usual group of friends just doesn’t understand.
A lot of us tend to batten down the hatches when life gets stormy. We retract from the world and try to “solve” things by ourselves. But that’s exactly the opposite of what we need!
It might take a village to raise a child, but sometimes we need a village, too.
Menu Planning and the Importance of ‘Emotionships’
I would bet many of us spend more time menu planning than considering our own support systems. When you think about your dinner repertoire, you probably rotate through different meals, depending on the day. Sometimes you rely on comfort food and good-old standbys the whole family will eat. Other days you try to change it up, add a little spice. Busy days require convenience, while holidays might include something special. You need a bit of each.
In the same way we develop a mix of meals, we need to think about creating a mix of supportive relationships. These are the people who can help you navigate the challenges – and celebrate the good times. Most of us rely on certain people who can help us in specific situations: to joke when we need levity, calm us when we’re upset, celebrate when we’re happy, or comfort us when we’re down. Researchers call this ‘interpersonal emotional regulation’.
A recent article in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye because it mentioned this village concept and stated that “research into ‘emotionships’ – the relationships we have with others that help us manage our moods – show that we function best mentally when we create a village, or portfolio, of supportive people.” According to studies conducted in 2014 by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of California, Santa Barbara, people who have different friends (which they refer to as ‘emotional specialists’) to help them moderate specific moods report better well-being and greater satisfaction in life.
Your supportive village might not materialize by itself, but you can build it.
Here are 5 suggestions:
1. Think About What Kind of Support You Need
Thinking in terms of a village or portfolio can help you identify the roles different friends and other supportive resources play, and consider unmet needs in your life.
Support comes in many forms. It can mean a shoulder to cry on, or a source of information. It can mean having an advocate to fight for you, or a helping hand to lift you. It can be acceptance and non-judgement – or a knowing sense of humor. It can come from your family, a caring neighbor, or a wonderful friend. It can also come from an understanding teacher or specialist, a support group, or other professional.
This is personal. Your mix should cover your own specific needs. For example, you might rely on a friend who has a child with similar issues for empathy and insights, another friend for a good laugh, a trusted teacher for practical suggestions, and a community organization for camaraderie and information.
2. Focus on the Long Term
You might feel like you don’t have enough time to cultivate friendships. If you can meet up with a friend every couple of weeks, and maybe go to a presentation or a support group once a month, it will help you stay connected.
3. Find Another Parent Who Gets It
Finding other parents who understand your experience can be a lifeline. A parent who has been there has the trifecta of experience, perspective and empathy. Sharing the story of your latest challenges with a person who understands, who won’t judge, or gasp in horror, or offer useless advice – but who will instead give a nod, offer a hug, and maybe even provide a helpful suggestion or point out the humor in it all – is priceless.
- Tap resources in your community. Find a peer or mentor by networking through your school’s special education parent’s association.
- Look for a parent in your orbit. Keep your eyes peeled for someone who seems to be on a parallel path, and start up a conversation. Take a risk and open up the door a crack; share a little bit about your situation with someone you think you could trust or who could relate, and you’ll be amazed how many people will say “me too”. I met one of my go-to friends sitting through our kids’ swimming lessons (we were the only two who needed to stay).
- Go online. You can’t hug your laptop, but the online world offers a myriad of opportunities to find community, resources, inspiration and ideas – all conveniently accessible at any time of day, from the privacy of home. You can look for forums or Facebook groups related to almost any issue; or search for a “parent mentor / peer matching program” in your area.
4. Join a Support Group
Local support groups that are moderated by a professional are often organized by hospitals and other healthcare providers. Several parents I know found support groups through local organizations that focused on the same kind of challenges their child had (for example, ADHD or autism). One mom said said being in the group helped her realize she was not alone, and that she wasn’t a bad parent. For several years, I was in an informal group that a local parent put together. She connected with a few parents and it grew organically from there. We helped each other problem solve, shared resources, and just enjoyed the camaraderie.
5. Seek Professional Guidance
Sometimes you need professional support to help manage the emotional upheaval and complexity of parenting a child who struggles – not to mention life in general. If you wish you had someone who could help you come up with strategies for coping, or you’re feeling like this is more than you can handle, don’t hesitate to look for a professional
(And 1 more). Remember Your Whole Self
Having a child who struggles is only part of who you are. Try to connect with people on multiple levels. Some family members and good old friends can still provide support and fulfillment, even if they don’t understand every aspect of your life.
Reaching out to others is simple self-care. It will give you strength.
Have you ever thought about building a support village for yourself? I’m interested to hear what strategies worked best for you.