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CSN Parental support

Before counselling I worked as a tutor working with families whose child had been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum.  It was an honour to be welcomed into families that tirelessly worked to get every possible resource for their child. Particularly in Ireland this is not an easy task, reams of paperwork, endless phone calls,meetings and assessments and having to talk about your child in their worst possible terms in order to be deemed worthy of help. It’s exhausting physically and mentally. Often it is only when supports are in place that parents have a moment to actually sit down and reflect on how their lives have changed and how different things are going to be to compared to the dreams they had when they first held that little baby.

It occurred to me when I qualified that I was in a unique position to help these parents, I had a background that would allow parents to talk about their lives without having to stop and explain things every five minutes and I had the skills to support them in their work as parents of a special needs child. So I set up CSN Parental Support, a counselling service specifically aimed at helping parents of special needs children through one on one counselling.  This blog is based on my conversations with parents and the kind of issues that repeatedly came up.

Grieving

Grief is something that gets talked about a lot when it comes to parents of children with special needs. Grief typically comes in stages – denial, anger, hopelessness, bargaining, until finally coming to acceptance – it does not however always follow this set order, and for some, not all of these stages are experienced. Reaching a point of acceptance doesn’t guarantee that you will never feel anger or hopelessness again in the future but somehow knowing that you have got through it before gives you have the strength to cope when your hopes and dreams need to be readjusted yet again.

Acceptance

For our parents acceptance doesn’t mean that you accept autism or that you are giving up, it means accepting the reality of you and your child’s situation. What I noticed in the counselling room is that, often, that acceptance came in the form of a parent realising they didn’t need to force their child to fit into the world, instead they came away with ways to make the world better fit their child. That it was OK for their kids to need headphones to go to the supermarket or  that mainstream schooling was not the best way to help them learn. It’s an acceptance that there are other ways of doing things.

Social Pressure

Fears about what other people think is another issue that parents of children on the spectrum often struggle to cope with. For example, the stress of your child having a meltdown in public might be compounded by the concern that you are being judged by those who witness it. Because children with autism don’t look any different, parents worry that others will assume their child is bold or that they are bad parents. Two things I advise parents struggling with these concerns; Firstly, test the reality of that thought and second, consider why the opinion of that stranger matters to you. In terms of testing the reality – you may assume that people are judging when they may in fact be sympathetic, they could want to help but have no idea how to. They could know someone  on the spectrum so know exactly what is happening. They may be just glad that it’s not them!

Or they may well be judging. If they are then why should this persons opinion matter to you? They don’t have all the information and have no idea of what your life is like. So their opinion is not relevant and should not influence you.

Family and Friends

Of course the people whose opinions you’re worried about may not be strangers, they could be family and friends, what then? Again test the reality, don’t assume they are judging or lacking in compassion or understanding. People who are not around your child all the time may need to be educated about autism and your child specifically. They may be scared to say anything or to ask as they just don’t understand what’s happening.  Luckily there are plenty of other sources of information out there now that you can direct people to.

Accepting Support

Embracing support can make all the difference. If people offer to help, don’t instinctively dismiss it, instead think about ways they can help. Perhaps it’s just by letting you talk, or perhaps they could get to know your children so that at some point in the future you would feel comfortable with them minding them for an hour while you had some time for yourself?

There will always be people who just can’t get their heads around it  and with them you have a choice too, you can decide you don’t have room for them in your life or they can part of that bit of your life that is Autism free! A night out or a coffee  when you talk about politics, celebrity gossip, football, anything but autism.

Nurturing the Nurturer

Part of coping is creating the space to look after yourself. It’s  impossible to have the strength for the fight if you don’t find time for self care, we all need to recharge. So it’s time to think of self care as essential rather than a luxury.

So reach out, there is someone waiting to help.

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To the lady who admired my parenting

You were standing behind us in a queue to board a flight, my two boys were doing their usual jumping, lying on the ground, unable to keep still. I had given up trying to subdue them as this generally only leads to grumpiness and crying. So,within reason, I tried to facilitate it. I carried one child for a bit or became a human play centre for the other one to tumble off. You leaned forward and said ” I really admire how you parent, you’re so relaxed”. I wanted to say ” Ha you should have seen me half an hour ago at security with one child wrapped around my leg screaming crying and the other one setting off the metal detector and getting in trouble with the security guard!” But I managed to stop myself and just say “Thank you”.

The Trouble with Parenting

You see it’s not often someone says something positive about another’s parenting, often parents feel judged or criticised by others whether real or imagined.

It was a bit of a shock when I had kids to realise that becoming a parent seemed to give other people a right to have an opinion on what I did with them.  People I barely knew telling me what buggy I needed or that I shouldn’t give up so easily on breastfeeding( “easily” was three months with tubes sellotaped to my breasts with formula in them in an effort to convince my baby to breastfeed). I probably should have guessed how it would be given that during pregnancy I had strangers touching my belly or looking disapprovingly while I had my one glass of wine with a nice meal out.

None of this was helped by the barrage of articles,Facebook posts and ads telling me what I needed to do to be a good Mum.” You should co sleep so your baby feels secure” versus ” your baby needs to learn to fall asleep on its own” or trying to wrangle my baby into a sling even though he clearly hated it. There is a lot of pressure out there about how to parent and when you are new to it it’s hard to have the confidence to do it your way. You assume that others know better but trust me they don’t, they may know more about their own child but they don’t know about yours. Also remember they’re only seeing or hearing a snapshot of what life with your child is like.You’re the one with them most of the time.Take in what you think might work for you and ignore the rest. If something doesn’t work try something else. Babies are human beings and therefore no two babies (or days)are the same so anyone else’s opinion isn’t relevant.

And it doesn’t stop as your kids grow

In one way my son starting school was amazing, I at last found my village of Mum friends who understood and supported each other in this minefield of parenting. However it also meant a whole new group of people with well-meaning advice and stories! It meant going to people’s houses for play dates and wondering how the hell their house was so clean and there was no marker/ketchup/yogurt on the walls. It felt like there was a certain amount of competition about how many activities your child did, how they behaved or how they did in school. You end up comparing your kids progress to the mainly positive glimpses you get of other kids forgetting that most kids wait till they’re in the security of their own home with their own family to lose it. 

What we can do

It’s taken me a while to realise that a lot of it is in my head, our children are our weak spots, so any criticism of them implied or otherwise makes us feel like failures. I know that chances are those people I think have it all worked out crack up the minute they close the front door.

So I try, not always successfully, to remember that I’m not a mind reader and that person who I think is judging me may well be jealous or even admiring. I have to work hard at seeing that unwanted advice as well-meaning. The criticism I feel has more to do with my own lack of confidence in my parenting than anything the other person is saying. And of course my favourite saying “What other people think of you is none of your business”. People will and absolutely do judge but they don’t know you or your relationship with your kids so their opinion doesn’t count.

Support other Parents

Tell a parent today that they are doing great and wait to be asked for advice before dispensing it. Sometimes we just want to have a moan.

For the most part the only person whose opinion matters is your kids although, let’s be honest, even that becomes biased as they get older and their opinion changes daily based on whether or not they can get that toy they wanted or you tried to make them eat parsnip!

To the lady in the queue thank you for supporting me.

 

 

Panic Attacks

So the first thing to remember with a panic attack is that it is lying to you. You can feel like you are going to faint or even die. You are not. In fact when experiencing a panic attack your blood pressure rises while generally before you faint your blood pressure will lower. Also even though it is difficult to catch your breath and you may feel like you are going to suffocate this is impossible during a panic attack. That’s important, it’s impossible.

Be your own Detective

Those of you who have read my previous blogs are probably starting to see a pattern in what you need to do when faced with mental health problems. You have to become your own detective, you have to look for evidence and find the truth behind those thoughts and feelings. Feelings are sneaky, they can be so overwhelming it seems obvious that they must be trying to tell us something important. With Panic attacks these feelings are reinforced by those intense physical sensations like shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, chest pain and nausea to name but a few. That’s why it’s important to remember the previous points, even though your body is telling you you’re going to faint or die it’s not true.

Watch out for the Safety Behaviours

Panic attacks are scary so it’s only natural that we would seek out ways to avoid them. Sometimes we come to associate certain behaviours with not having a panic attack. So for instance because one time we had a bottle of water and we took a sip out of it when we thought a panic attack was coming and the panic attack didn’t happen we credit that to the bottle of water. We begin to bring a bottle of water with us everywhere as a sort of talisman. That’s great, until the day you forget the bottle of water. By not having it your anxiety is increased and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as that increased anxiety may well lead to a panic attack. Which of course only reinforces the notion that the bottle of water was what was stopping you having the panic attack in the first place. In reality this is called a safety behaviour and they are dangerous because we become dependent on them instead of figuring out how to manage our panic attacks. Other safety behaviours could be avoiding places where you think a panic attack might occur or rehearsing for social situations. By using our safety behaviours we get short term relief but never learn that the situations we are worried about aren’t as scary as we believe and panic attacks are not life threatening.

Brave it out

So here’s the tricky part, your best bet is to brave it out. When you’re in the middle of a panic attack it can feel like its never going to end. In reality an average time for an attack is ten minutes but they can often be shorter. It will be scary but keep reminding yourself that it will pass, stay where you are, try to breathe deeply to help your body relax. If you can, challenge those thoughts that something is wrong, remember that this is a false alarm and you are going to be ok.

“Easier said than done!”

Yep you’re right it is easier said than done, that’s why it’s always important to give yourself credit when you even attempt it. Even if after a few minutes you resort to one of your safety behaviours give yourself a pat on the back that you approached it differently this time. Hopefully next time will be easier and soon you will get back the power over your panic attacks.

 

My Mission Statement 

When I first heard about counselling I was in awe, a whole hour to talk about myself and what I was feeling! How amazing would that be? Not to feel guilty for “burdening” my friends and family with my worries. I was a teenager then but the more I have learnt about counselling the more I believe that pretty much everyone can benefit from that kind of attention. 

Everyone struggles 

We all struggle at some point in life, for some of us it’s an ongoing problem but for others it may be as a result of a particular situation like a bereavement, a break up or a traumatic experience such as a car accident. 

Similarly what we need from counselling is different for everyone. For some it is just needing someone to talk to but others may need help with changing their thinking or perspective.

Changing our thinking 

For many of us our problem actually lies in how we approach life. How we think, feel and behave are all connected so if we can change one of them it will affect the other two. For me this is one of the most important things I was ever taught because it meant we can have control. How we feel,think and behave is all up to us.

Making myself redundant 

My mission as a counsellor is to make myself redundant. By that I mean that when you feel you have come to the end of your counselling experience that you have all the knowledge you need to be your own counsellor. In fact in my perfect world we would all get counselling as teenagers and go into the big bad world with all the knowledge and skills we need to be resilient in the face of those obstacles that life throws at us.

Blogging

So my hope is with these blogs, with articles I share on my Facebook and twitter and with my counselling services that people will find some useful information or insights to maintain their mental health. So let the mission begin!

Depression

 

Depression is a funny thing, not funny haha but funny peculiar. It exists on a spectrum, it can be a lifelong battle or it can be reactive after a traumatic incident like a bereavement or an accident. It can make you angry and irritable or sad and lonely. Everyone’s experience is different. One end of the spectrum requires psychiatric help and medication but the other end may well be managed by trying to get some exercise, eating better, getting a good nights sleep and having a good support network to talk to. So I’m just going to talk about the basics, the foundations of helping yourself.

 

Fake it till you make it 

The other not so funny thing about depression is that it’s s vicious circle. The things that might help like exercising, seeing friends, eating better or getting a good nights sleep are the last thing you feel like doing.

So for me it’s a case of fake it till you make it. Start small, don’t set yourself up for failure. If it’s going for a walk take it one step at a time, coat on, open the door and walk down the road. If you manage one of these give yourself a pat on the back. Organise for someone to come see you if you can’t face going out. Then notice how you feel after you do it. Particularly notice if you feel in any way better.

Compassion for yourself

The vicious cycle I mentioned before is not helped by the tendency to berate ourselves when we think we have failed at something. Think about if a friend came to you and spoke about feeling useless and a failure, what would you do? Probably look for the positives, point out the evidence to them of what they have achieved. We need to start doing that for ourselves. So instead of thinking ” I never even left the house today” turn it around and think what you did do. ” Well I got showered and dressed”.

Medication 

Medication can be really useful in just lifting you up to a level that you can start to do those other things that seemed impossible before.  There is a worry about becoming dependent or what other people think. So first of all your GP does not want you to become dependent either, they will only prescribe the dosage you need and when you are feeling better they will gradually reduce the dosage until you are able to manage without medication.

What other people think of you is none of your business

We as a human beings have a tendency to mind read. We assume we know what other people think of us. So here’s the truth, our assumptions are probably based more on what we think of ourselves, that Mum at the school you think is judging you might not have even noticed you. In fact chances are she is totally preoccupied with her own worries to have time to worry about you. Also if they are thinking about you it is just as likely they are sympathetic to what you are going through. Even if someone IS judging you, you need to ask yourself why does their opinion matter?

It’s not that easy

Depression is a complicated thing, figuring out what works for you can take a while. What I have outlined above is just the beginning and even with these I would advise taking one at a time. These aren’t solutions just suggestions, the aim is to try and to practice. This is a way of helping you to help yourself. You are in control.

 

Postnatal Depression

I am probably a bit too honest with people when they announce their pregnancies. I go into the gory details of pregnancy , discuss in detail my attempts at breastfeeding and bemoan what sleep deprivation does to you.

I’m sure it’s not always appreciated but I wish someone had prepared me a bit better for what being pregnant and having a newborn would really be like. So for me it’s important to talk about what happens when it’s not all it’s cracked up to be and what factors to look out for to help avoid postnatal depression.

Postnatal Depression 

I find when women come to me with postnatal depression there is generally three factors at play.  Isolation,control and societal expectation.

Isolation 

Often they are living somewhere where they do not have family or friends, they may have lived there for years but because they were working elsewhere they never found a social  network in the town where they lived. Or because of the impending new arrival they moved to a new house just before the birth. This means that once their partner returns to work they are on their own, with only a helpless newborn who depends on them for everything to keep them company. Some find a good support group but often postnatal depression like other depressions stops you wanting to go out and meet people and when you’re sleep deprived trying to find the energy to fight that urge can be impossible. Often women went from speaking to a lot of other adults throughout the day to being lucky if they can manage conversation with their husband or partner at the end of the day.

Control 

Most of the women I worked with had had busy jobs before having a baby, they had been doing it for a while and were pretty confident in what they were doing. They knew how to handle any problems that came along, they could make decisions and know what the likely outcome would be. Then they became pregnant. Suddenly their body was not their own, maybe they had morning sickness or had to watch as their body became one they no longer recognised. They could no longer choose whatever they wanted to eat or drink, it became harder to sleep and therefore harder to function.

Then there is the birth which often does not go to plan and decisions can be taken out of your hands by midwives or doctors. These doctors and midwives may have you and your babies best interests at heart but for some women this ends in them feeling like they have failed in some way. What is important to remember is that the only job you have is to bring your baby into this world, if you ask your children later in life they probably won’t know (or care!) how they got here.

Newborn babies don’t give a lot of feedback so trying to figure out what is wrong with them and what is the magic thing that is going to stop them crying is a minefield, never mind that something that worked yesterday may not work today! It destroys your confidence, you start to feel like you can do nothing right.

Societal Expectations 

None of this is helped by the attitude that this should all come naturally. The magazines,TV shows and Movies have all set us up for failure. In recent years I have been relieved to see, mainly through social media, a more realistic view of motherhood begin to appear. But in the main we are still given the impression that we will just know what to do when that baby appears. There will be a rush of love and our maternal instinct will kick in. If breastfeeding is so natural why is it so difficult and painful. If my mothering instinct is so spot on why can’t I get this baby to sleep for more than 20 minutes at a time! I don’t know about you but I am still winging it most of the time, 7 years and two kids later.

So if you have had a baby and you are feeling low and thinking that this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, reach out. Chances are it won’t take long to find someone who feels exactly the same. Motherhood is amazing, we keep little people alive! But let’s not pretend that it’s always that way.Hopefully being more honest about that would make the not so awesome bits easier to deal with.

Anxiety

I wake up most mornings feeling a little scared, but to be honest this is a big improvement from my late teens and twenties when I woke up feeling terrified every morning. Terrified that I would be asked to speak in class, terrified to buy my train ticket, terrified to ask for help doing my thesis, terrified to call and organise insurance for my car. 

THE PROBLEM WITH ANXIETY 

These are just a handful of the daily battles some of us with anxiety have to get through a normal day.For many people like me, the emergence of the online world has been a lifesaver, helping reduce the number of interactions with strangers.
For us anxiety sufferers, it can create obstacles to many things whether that’s being in a school musical, volunteering for solos in the choir, joining a sports team, asking for help with studies or DIY, or even applying for the dream job. For many, it’s easier to seek solace in the familiar comfort zone and avoid the awkwardness that these things would bring.

HELPING MYSELF 

Of course at the time I didn’t know it was anxiety, I presumed everybody felt like this, it was beyond my comprehension that not everyone rehearsed what they needed to say to the checkout lady and counted their money over and over again to make sure they had enough. It was only when I began my training as a counsellor and had to go to counselling myself that I discovered that this feeling had a name,anxiety, and that most people didn’t go through these feelings of terror with every interaction in their day.

My counsellor got me to journal about those events that I was worried about, a hen party or a presentation in college for example. I would write about what I imagined happening and then ,after the fact, I wrote about what actually happened which was never as bad as I imagined. I did some social experiments where I didn’t rehearse before going into the post office and again the world did not come crashing down. I learnt to look for evidence that my worst case scenario would happen. By looking at my previous experiences I learnt that it rarely did. Then I learnt to work through that worst case scenario and what I would do if it did happen. I realised that I hadn’t thought this far ahead before, the tightening in my chest or feeling of nausea would normally have got so bad at this point that I would do anything to distract myself. So instead I did the opposite, I battled through the physical sensations and realised that I would still not die if the customer service lady got annoyed with me, I might feel a bit embarrassed but I definitely wouldn’t die.

So with that I began self talk, talking to yourself in counselling terms. Whenever I could feel the anxiety rising I would talk myself through it. “What am I worried about?” “What’s the worst that can happen?” “What will I do if that happens?”

NOT A CURE BUT A LIFELINE

This kind of help opens up a whole new world, you can still be scared but it doesn’t have to stop you anymore. Now when I wake up in the morning I have a little chat to myself about what lies ahead, I go through whats worrying me and what I can do to help myself through it. Generally once I start looking at the facts instead of giving all that attention to the feeling it is a lot easier to get out of bed and get started.

Anxiety is not something you can get rid of, in fact it is necessary, it is an alarm that reminds us that there is something we need to do or something we need to be wary of. The problem is when it’s a false alarm but I know now there are ways to know the difference, I’m always looking for the evidence!