By Karen Copeland
Reprinted with permission from the Okanagan Family Magazine 2016
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I’ve ended up where I needed to be.” Douglas Adams
If there is one guarantee in life it is that it will throw things at you that are unexpected, that challenge you and make you re-think everything you have ever believed in. This often happens when you become a parent. You welcome this tiny, precious being into your world and almost instantly learn life as you know it will never be the same.
I have two children. They are fifteen months apart. I often joke that I do not remember the first two years with both of them; truth be told, it was a very overwhelming time for us. When he was a toddler, we noticed our son doing some unexpected things. We pursued medical appointments and were reassured that all was well, that he was simply a sensitive boy. I was captivated by this child who would often retreat into a world that I could not envision, but from the outside looked incredibly fascinating.
School started and that was when our world underwent some pretty dramatic changes. This was an incredibly difficult time. We saw our child begin to respond in ways that were very unexpected; I started getting ‘the look’ on the playground from some of the other parents. My son’s teachers recommended an appointment with a pediatrician, but didn’t know of any other resources to refer us to. This was the starting point to a maze of services and systems in which we would first have to source out and then become entrenched in for the next several years.
I was recently asked the question “Do you think parents focus too much on their child’s struggles?” I thought back to those early school years and what we experienced. You see, it was very difficult NOT to focus on the struggles because they were regularly drawn to our attention. When the school called, it wasn’t to share ‘good news’. Rather it was to let me know about the difficulties that have been experienced that day, or worse to request my child go home early. School meetings made brief mention of my child’s strengths before launching into the challenges.
My son would try desperately to show us he was struggling through his behaviour, and it wasn’t behaviour that we necessarily appreciated or even understood. We were told to access services, but were put on waitlists with no alternative supports; or we were told we did not qualify because our son did not have a diagnosis.
Meanwhile, programs and services in the community (such as parks and recreation) were not accessible due to staff not having the training or understanding on how to support kids who behave in unexpected ways. Stigma also persisted in our community, with sideways glances or outright hurtful comments sent our way.
It is commonly assumed that services and supports are readily available to families and that if things aren’t improving, it must be something the parents are (or aren’t) doing. Read any online newspaper article about “that” child or youth who is struggling and you will see exactly what I mean. The reality is, parents are often trying their best to find services and supports, but are faced with fragmented systems of care, waitlists, or the service simply isn’t available in their community.
In those early years, I found it incredibly easy to get caught up in all the negative emotions I was experiencing. I lived my life full of frustration and anger, isolation and avoidance. I felt like I was to blame for the challenges my child was experiencing. I was the proverbial “angry” parent. It was exhausting. At some point, I became tired of feeling like this. There had to be a better way to live. I wanted to be able to accept my child for who he was, embrace and celebrate him and my family!
Through counselling and a lot of personal reflection, I discovered that my default was to look for the bad, the worst outcome. With a great deal of effort, I have been able to shift away from pessimism towards optimism and hope. I wasn’t able to do this on my own though. Our family has been incredibly fortunate to have found a number of ‘champions’ on our journey. Our champions come from all walks of life – they can be family members, friends, doctors, teachers, and sometimes they can be the people you least expect.
Champions are the people who come alongside instead of pushing you away. They show you that your thoughts and opinions matter. They don’t just listen. They ask questions, they are curious. They know when you are venting or in a place of overwhelm. Instead of judging you for that, they offer empathy, support and assistance. They guide you forward instead of closing you down.
A few interesting things started to happen for me when my champions came alongside. I began to see my own strengths; as a result, my confidence in myself as a parent became stronger. I became better able to see my child’s strengths and not get so caught up with the challenges. I started to listen to my child more… really listen… to what he was trying to tell me, and then take the time to acknowledge and honour his voice. It changed our relationship with each other for the better. We are now in a place where my child is doing really well, and I know it is in part because of the many people who chose not to give up on us in those moments when we were not at our best.
Instead of being ashamed of my anger, I have allowed it to be my catalyst to start exploring ways that I can make a difference for other families, as well as the professionals who support them. I regularly collaborate and connect with other parents, educators and service providers, all with a vision of creating the space for conversations that allow youth and parents to be seen as whole beings – with strengths, gifts and talents; not just their challenges or struggles.
I have learned that it doesn’t take much to be a champion for someone. All it takes is kindness, curiosity and a desire to learn more about mental health and wellness, and a fundamental belief that we ALL belong.
I have become a champion, and I am right where I need to be.
Note: You might notice I use the phrase “unexpected behavior” a lot. This is for two reasons. First, my son’s story is his to tell, not mine. I am respecting his privacy by not sharing specific details of the challenges we experience.
Second, I was introduced to “unexpected” through reading about the Social Thinking Model by Michelle Garcia Winner. I like the word “unexpected” because it promotes curiosity. Too many behavioral descriptors elicit a negative emotional response which then leads to judgement (i.e. manipulative, violent, lazy). All behavior is communication, and it is up to us, as adults to be curious and learn more about what is driving the behavior.
Karen Copeland is the Founder of Champions for Community Mental Wellness, an online resource where she shares personal experiences, mental health and wellness resources, tip sheets and more. You can find Champions on the web: championsforcommunitywellness.com and on Facebook: Champions for Community Mental Wellness.