Parenting with Mental Health Issues
Hello Dr. Markham,
I get your daily emails and I cannot tell you how often I feel as if the topic is directly speaking to my current concerns or struggles with my daughters.
I have a 3 year old and a 1 year old. Both girls. I have struggled with mental health problems for the greater part of my life. About two and a half years ago I was formally diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In short, I have struggled with substance abuse, eating disorders, agoraphobia, severe anxiety and depression.
The good news for me is that after having my first daughter, I found a healthier way to live and have maintained a level of health that I am thankful for. And with the birth of my second daughter, I continued to manage my symptoms quite well. I have my ups and downs but have been able to manage my illness without drugs since I first became pregnant.
As my girls grow I am becoming more concerned about maintaining my own health in order to support them the best I can. I so strongly desire them to be emotionally intelligent people who are strong and self-reliant. I try to parent them in order to give them these skills. I have found greater mental health in my own life because I so badly want to teach them how to be loving to themselves and I believe they will learn that by how I treat myself, and not just how well I treat them and respect them and how much love I them.
My greatest concern is the potential they have for mental illness because of my problems, my mothers, her mother, etc. I think I am raising them much differently than my mother raised me. I often felt unheard and afraid. I try desperately to always give my girls empathy. I see a therapist weekly about my own troubles with my main focus being on my own mental well-being and how I can give them the best chance for emotional health.
Can you offer me any readings that you know of that may
address some of the issues and concerns I face? I respect your work, your
collection on your website and admire your opinions. Thank you for
doing what you do and offering me, as well as so many people, such
supportive and meaningful advice.
Thanks for writing. Your journey has been a courageous one. I am touched by your deep commitment to your daughters, and your fierce intention to heal yourself to give them the best start you can.
The book I would recommend to you is Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt. As you will see from reading her book, all of your symptoms could easily stem from your infancy. The good news is that your daughters are still quite young, at 1 and 3, and you can make a tremendous positive difference in their lives by parenting responsively. I would even go out on a limb and say that my understanding of the latest research is that your daughters are unlikely to "inherit" the mental health problems that run in your family, as long as you are offering them reasonably healthy parenting based in empathy.
I suspect that your main challenge as a parent is to keep yourself emotionally regulated. Therapy, stress reduction, a spiritual practice (for instance meditation), a healthy diet, exercise, etc will all help you to stay regulated. Ultimately, though, the work is about monitoring your own emotional reactions and learning to soothe yourself when you get upset. That includes learning to express your emotions in a healthy way, to look for the hurt and fear under your anger, and all the other work you are doing in therapy. But it also includes developing a repertoire of strategies that work just for you, to keep yourself emotionally regulated. That might include anything from the way you reassure yourself verbally when you're worried to a nightly ritual like a bath. I think of these strategies as a way of parenting ourselves, and I think they're particularly important when you've had parents who didn't always meet your needs.
As for parenting your girls, you might want to check out Patty Wipfler's website (Hand in Hand Parenting.) She's great on helping young children deal with emotion in a healthy way. As they get older, John Gottman's book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, will be terrific for you.
I salute you and wish you all blessings.