Emma Rawlins found herself in a position that a lot of parents are finding themselves in today. She had a teenage daughter that she loved dearly who was experiencing issues which not only affected her but the whole of the family. Emma's story is for all the parents that are just embarking on this journey & feel helpless to reassure them that there is support out there and you will come out the other side.
I would like to share our perspective as parents of a young person that had a lot of problems. One of the things that we really struggled with was the lack of support anywhere for parents or being able to talk to parents who were going through the same sort of things as us.
When things are going wrong for whatever reason the obvious and appropriate focus is the child but the effect on the parent or parents and indeed the rest of the family should not be underestimated. It can be quite a roller coaster ride.
I am writing as someone who’s daughter had some quite significant problems during her teenage years – this included cutting, anorexia, bulimia, anxiety and depression. Lucie knows that I am writing this, and has in fact commented on what I am saying. I am not speaking to you because I have any special knowledge or insight but we did all survive and have, to some extent come out the other side, although I think it would be unrealistic to expect such depth of trauma to just go away – for any of us. I should also add that this is all written with the benefit of post rationalization and a lot of talking with Lucie about what happened – I could not have thought so coherently whilst we were in the midst of it.
In order to help me write this my husband and I sat down and thought about what we would like to have known at the start of our journey. The most obvious thing is that we would like to have known for sure that we would all come out the other side……the fear that lurks all of the time is that the child reaches a point where they can not cope with the suffering any more and take their own life. I am really not qualified to talk about suicide but I think it is really important to know what warning signs to look out for and what to do if they are there. It can be the ‘elephant in the room’ that is just not mentioned, at is almost as though we fear that saying the word will invoke the act, but advice that I have seen suggests that we should be much more upfront about discussing it if we are concerned. At the same time it is important to know that ‘cutting’ is a very different matter and whilst it can be very distressing for us it is often actually a coping mechanism and a way of helping the child carry on.
So….what else would we have liked to know…..
We should have know sooner that it was happening! Lucie is our eldest daughter and for the first three years we just thought – blimey, so this is what teenagers are like. We just had no idea what was going on and to some extent Lucie thought we knew just how much she was struggling and were just in some way ignoring it. It wasn’t until we discovered the cutting that we understood how badly wrong things were for her.
We would like to have known that cutting is a way of coping so it is not possible to just stop because it is ‘wrong’. I think that many parents are horrified when they discover that their children are self harming – as all they see is the damage that is happening to their beautiful son or daughter. Lucie explained to me that she prefers to call it cutting rather than self harm, precisely because it is not about harming yourself, but about finding a way of coping. So I think that we should be less alarmed by the cutting itself and more concerned about the underlying reasons and why they are feeling the need for this coping mechanism. Lucie added a comment here that the reason she felt she had to hide what she was doing was that she was ashamed of it because she knew it was considered ‘wrong’ – even though for her it felt like the right thing to do. She also said that for high achieving children she feels it is also associated with a sense of failure, or letting people down.
I think that society is broken and it is failing our children. The high levels of stress and measurement in the school system are feeding through to our children who are being put under unacceptable levels of pressure. Social media seems to make everything 10 times worse (although it must be recognized that it can also provide important support). When we wanted to turn the internet off at night Lucie was devastated as she explained that at 2.30 in the morning when she was feeling desperate – there would be people out there who would support her.
Our children need to know that it is OK to fail, that their whole life will not fall apart because they make the wrong GCSE choices, or not come top in a SATS test, or fail their exams or do not go to university. Lucie is extremely bright and capable but was constantly made to feel that she was failing or not working hard enough as she was swept up in the messages that they were all going to fail.
I think that as parents we did not help. (Lucie says that is unfair – Lucie says we didn’t know how to help because we didn’t know what to do – but she did not know what we should be doing either either!) Of course Tim and I have spent a great deal of time considering all the ways in which we must have messed up….only to realize that we gave our children a lot of love and did the best that we could for them…and there is no point berating oneself with lots of ‘what if’ discussions. We liked to think that we did not put pressure on about exam results and achievement but when I look back I do realize that we nevertheless helped to drive a very performance based approval system.
So, what would I say to parents who are concerned about their children or going through similar problems.
Keep on loving them unconditionally and make sure they know that. We thought that was taken as read but Lucie has since told us that when we left her alone or gave her space that she assumed that we hated her and did not want to be with her. We could have made it clearer that whatever her behavior we still loved her and valued her and did want to be with her.
Keep any possible channels of communication open. Again – not always easy but so very important.
School can be a big part of the problem, especially where your child is being bullied or just simply isolated. I do not know the answer to that but there is increasing recognition of the issue and some initiatives to try and help.
Eating….I am only just going to touch on this but I think that you should do whatever you can to try to ensure that you sit down and eat meals together….and eat roughly the same food. For us this meant cooking without fat or dairy products or always ensuring that there was a version of the meal that Lucie might manage to eat.
What about seeking help? I think that is a very difficult area and it depends a lot on who your child gets to see and whether or not they help. For us it did not go well and Lucie’s experience with CAMHs was not very positive. She said that they all spoke to her with a ‘special very well meaning’ voice and in a very patronizing way, unfortunately she never found it helpful. Finally she did speak to a mental health specialist at our GP surgery and when she came out from seeing her she said ‘that is the first person that has actually listened to me, and discussed what my options are’. Following that Lucie did go onto Prozac which I think did help, but she took herself of it 8 months later as she hated how it made her feel.
As things have improved Lucie has been incredibly frank with us about what happened and how she felt. She has explained things to us, and we have explained things to her, although I still feel slightly nervous about sending this to her for her comments. She said she found it OK reading this.
Despite everything Lucie achieved good A level results and got a place at Durham to read biomedical science, and then the following year a place at Bristol to read neuroscience. Despite the strong societal (and possibly parental) expectations that she felt weighed quite heavily on her she decided both times not to go to university. She is now living in Bristol and working at Asda and leading an independent adult life – without any expectations or pressures (other than earning enough money to pay her rent and feed herself). We admire Lucie hugely for this and think that she has made a really sensible decision and is taking the chance to rebuild herself for the future.
Finally, in order to be able to help our children we need to try and ensure that we are in a good place ourselves, and that is not always possible when we are watching our children unravel. The quote – who’s source I can not find but has certainly been true for me ‘you can only be as happy as your unhappiest child’ – but that does not always leave you in a good place.
What can we do to change things going forwards…and this comment is from my husband. We spend a lot of time measuring schools but no one seems to be measuring the well being or mental health of the children, despite the fact that there are instruments out there that would allow us to do that. How would you feel if you looked round a lovely school for your child and were told that 60% of the children get three As at A level, Oh and by the way 45% are anorexic and 72% self harm. I think that most of us would settle for slightly lower A level results and less damaged children.
The other thing that I would like to add, and this is really important, keep an eye on any other children in the family. The fact that they seem to be independent and self sufficient and coping fine may not really be the case. That is just their response to what has been going on…so keep checking in with them.
I hope that there maybe something in here that has helped you.
Photo: Emma Rawlins