What Should I Tell Others About My Child's Struggles?
This question often arises when a family is left to explain where their child is after they have been sent to therapy. Enrolling a child in treatment can temporarily leave a large hole in a family unit, and parents often struggle to explain this to the community, to extended family, or to the child’s school. And while many parents may not choose to or need to send their child to a residential treatment center, they may still experience feelings of loneliness and isolation because of dealing with a difficult child who is struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety, or any number of other common struggles.
The first thing I discuss with families after their child enters our program is their right to tell or not tell anyone about their decision. As the parent of your child, you are not obligated to tell anyone about the details of your child’s life and your family’s struggles. However, I do make sure to point out that there is no shame in having these struggles and that the mere fact they are dealing with those struggles head on is admirable and should not be considered shameful. “Is not our attempt to hide our struggles part of an implicit message that suggests something is wrong with it?” I might ask. “We don't consider cancer or heart disease shameful. Why, then, should disorders like bipolar, alcoholism, Asperger syndrome, or depression be any different?” I realize that I grew up in Southern California, and attendance in therapy was a sort-of rite of passage for the Yuppie generation of parents that raised our generation. So perhaps that’s why I see no shame in therapy and issues that require therapy. However, the fact of the matter is that these issues directly affect everyone either personally or in the life of a loved one.
It is also important to work through your own shame. Many parents suggest they are protecting their child and the child wonders, “What are you protecting me from?” Discuss your fears of judgment with your therapist or your child’s therapist. Discuss these issues with your child. Clarify who you are protecting, and in many cases I discourage parents to protect their child from something they are not asking to be protected from. In some instances, having some community members and family members know about your child’s struggle leads to more support.
Many parents who are initially reluctant to share any of their struggles with friends or family are later surprised by the large amount of support that they get from others when they eventually do open up. Still, there are those who will inevitably react negatively, and that’s okay. There are no guarantees about how others will react when you tell them about your decision. Some may not understand and may judge, disapprove, and/or offer their unwelcome assessment of the cause and cure for your problems. While most parents I have spoken to over the years feel validated and more connected with me when I describe the struggles I had as a child, a parent, and a person, others have reacted by saying, “You don’t have any credibility then because you have and still struggle so much yourself.” However, I have never pretended to showcase myself as the ideal—I have had some really great moments as a man and a dad, but I have also had some truly low moments—I would suggest that any wisdom I do have, I acquired through those very struggles which some believe can prevent wisdom from forming.
You can’t learn from a mistake if you never make one. And like the famous author C.S. Lewis explained in the preface of Mere Christianity,
No man, I suppose, is tempted by every sin. It so happens the impulse which makes men gamble has been left out of my make-up; and, no doubt, I pay for this by lacking some good impulse of which it is the excess or perversion.
Therefore, a consideration you may make when thinking about sharing your own struggles is how much energy you can or are willing to spend. Should you call other parents and share with them the knowledge you have about the marijuana that your children smoked together? It’s your call. You may want to be aware up front that the other parent may react in any number of ways, from gratitude to curiosity to defensiveness to anger.
Earlier this year, a parent contacted me who was considering placement for her child in our wilderness therapy program. One of the areas of concern she shared was the matter of her family’s reputation. “We live in a small community,” she said, “and gossip spreads like wildfire. And what about my son’s reputation?” I reminded her that her son was not worried about his reputation because he was already engaging in negative behaviors.
“It’s true,” she said. “He likes being known as the town drug dealer. He likes that he has a reputation and that his profits are tied to how many people know what he does.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing that everyone knows that about him,” I pointed out. “It might be helpful that adults, schools, and parents know of his history and consider him with a suspicious eye. Perhaps that will provide him with an extra kind of scrutiny that will prevent him from hiding from others, and thus from himself as well.”
When my own son was in wilderness therapy, I actually had that same concern. He was fourteen, and I didn't know if I wanted him to walk around under that cloud of stigma. But then I realized that I did want teachers and parents to know the truth. He was good at playing the part of the nice, sweet kid, and realized information about his general issues would allow others to see where he really was at and what his struggles were. Even if you choose not to divulge any details about your child and their history, please be cognizant that you are a part of this dynamic as well, and it may not be healthy for you to isolate yourself and your problems strictly for the sake of your child’s reputation. If you need help and support, and that support will come from sharing your story, then that is something that you may want to do for yourself.
Joseph Campbell stated that in order to find our bliss, we must put aside what others think of us. That applies here in that sometimes our unwillingness to share our stories, no matter how messy, suggests it is shameful to struggle and make mistakes. We hide our story from others for fear of judgment and what they will think. And when we do that, we cut ourselves off from many sources of support and connection. Some children are ashamed of their issues when they come to treatment, but I have just as many kids that sense that their parents are ashamed of them. They surmise this from their parents’ secrecy and unwillingness to share the issues that they and their children are dealing with.
Lastly, I want to point out that these struggles and these disorders are not labels of doom. My college entrance exam to a strict religious university (BYU) told the story of my difficult teen years, drugs and all. I was accepted, in part, not in spite of my struggles, but because I was able to demonstrate a certain kind of wisdom and maturity that comes from making mistakes and being able to learn from them.