Meanwhile in the kitchen, your nearly-10-year-old, who has limited vision due to an incurable eye condition, as well as complex additional needs, tries to make her own breakfast but misses the bowl with the milk and knocks the whole lot onto the floor. The bowl is in pieces, there’s milk and cereal everywhere and she’s crying loudly enough for the neighbour at the end of the street to hear.
Your eldest son is angry because he lost the game he was playing on his phone and your youngest son can’t find the socks you left out for him last night. You’re exhausted from working late into the night and you can’t find the car keys.
Everything feels like it’s falling apart. It’s like the 80s game Tetris. You can cope with the blocks when they fall down at a reasonable pace. You enjoy being able to make neat patterns and relish the ability to keep on top of the ever-falling blocks. But then the pace steadily increases and soon there’s no time to think about how to situate the current block before another one falls. And then suddenly, boom! It’s game over.
With four children (and two dogs) our life can get chaotic, frantic and very noisy. However, we intentionally create a space that accommodates this, and we have always been a team when it comes to running our home.
Aspirations versus reality
For many of us, the moment that blue line appears on the pregnancy test we have a mental picture of the rest of our and our child’s future. This vision never predicts a child with additional needs or disabilities. It doesn’t allow (particularly if you’re a Christian leader) for your children not to go to church with you, and it definitely doesn’t factor in a child “going off the rails”.
The pressure on young people today is immense. According to Public Health England, 50 per cent of those with lifetime mental illness will experience symptoms by 14, with 75 per cent experiencing symptoms by 24.
A large proportion of this research includes information about the negative as well as the positive factors that influence children and young people’s mental health. Effective caregiving and parenting play a huge role in helping a child and young person build resilience, as does the belief that life offers meaning and faith, hope and spirituality.
Children’s needs and parenting skills change from generation to generation. We live in an era in which everything can be instantly available, but our Father’s wisdom is the same today as it was at the beginning of time: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). Our most important job as parents, in terms of resilience, is to teach (and demonstrate) the benefits of stopping, unplugging and ‘being’: being thankful and grateful; being in the moment, present and together; being honest and open with each other in a safe and supportive environment where disappointments and triumphs can be shared, knowing we are loved – not just by our families, but by a loving Father.
Running on empty
How do we teach our children to be kind and considerate, and discipline them lovingly, when we’re so exhausted we can’t even talk? How do we keep a perfectly tidy house within a child-friendly, stimulating environment when we’ve had no sleep and our teammate is out of action, away or non-existent? How can we be calm and loving, and plan fun times and healthy meals when our heads are filled with fog and anxiety is stopping us from thinking about how to cope with the next five minutes, let alone planning the next meal or trip out?
Simple answer: you can’t. When we have nothing to give, we can’t give. When we’re struggling emotionally, mentally and probably every other way we can’t function properly.
When we have nothing to give, we can’t give
We know we can pray, but sometimes if we get to that place where we feel totally alone, forgotten about and unworthy we can feel too ashamed and guilty to turn to God. We feel like it’s our fault because we’re not good or capable enough. In these times we must:
- Stop and take a moment out.
- Be honest with ourselves and accept where we’re at.
- Put in place the support and help that we, as parents, need.
Not only will this bring us to a place where we are able to function and flourish, it will also model to our children and those around us the essential skill of self-compassion and the importance of building resilience.
We need to let go of our plans for perfection, our high standards and the huge amount of guilt attached when we don’t achieve these standards, giving it all to God. It’s too big for us to carry. At the end of the day we can’t control what happens in life, either for ourselves or for our children. However, we need to take responsibility and do our best to model self-compassion and resilience.
Self-compassion is not self-indulgence or self-pity. Everyone’s needs are different; however, self-compassion essentially means being kind to your body, soul and spirit, and nourishing it with what it needs so we can cope with what life throws at us. It means keeping our bodies physically healthy with exercise, walking in nature, eating ‘happy’ foods (such as bananas rather than chocolate) or having an early night. For some parents it will mean connecting with the outside world: volunteering for a charity, talking to friends more regularly or helping a neighbour. For some it may mean lowering our standards. For example, do we need to empty the washing basket every night?
We can’t control what happens in life, either for ourselves or for our children. However, we need to take responsibility and do our best to model self-compassion and resilience
A list like the one above can seem daunting to some of us, particularly if we’re really struggling, but just one positive step can make a real difference. Consider the saying: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” The same is true for our ability to step into good mental and emotional health and well-being. Even one positive step is a step in the right direction.
Teaching self-compassion to children is easier if we’re modelling it ourselves. We had promised our youngest, Caleb, that part of his sixth birthday celebration would involve a trip to Legoland. The day finally arrived and he was beyond excited. We had our voucher from the latest chocolate packet promotion. The three-hour journey was straightforward, but when we finally got to the entrance our hopes and dreams were smashed apart. The park was full. We were not allowed to enter and Caleb was distraught. It was hard enough feeling guilty that we hadn’t paid for the full-price ticket online in advance, but we now had to get Caleb through this difficult time. He naturally felt angry and disappointed. These feelings were valid, and I was angry myself.
We talked a lot and found ways to channel these feelings in a positive way. We created in our minds an alien made of jelly that we could punch our frustrations into, who made funny noises while it reassembled. The disappointment was still there, but we had lots of fun and laughter about where all the bits of the jelly alien were in the car and around us. We will never forget our journey back from Legoland. It ended up being a special time, but not for reasons we had originally anticipated. Caleb was still disappointed and angry, but the experience hopefully taught him some important life lessons.
Developing in the dark
As a Christian it’s difficult to imagine how parents survive without having a loving father constantly there. Christine Caine, who had a very difficult childhood, uses the illustration of how photographs were developed before digital cameras. The pictures would only develop over a period of time, and through a complicated process in a darkroom. If the negatives were exposed to light during the process the photographs would be permanently damaged. Christine likens this to our lives and how sometimes we feel like we’re in a dark, difficult place. Yet life is being developed and, in time, the hard time will pass. Our capacity and ability to cope will have increased and will continue to be stretched.
The launch of our new charity, Kintsugi Hope, follows a really difficult few years. We love what God is doing, and it is so exciting to be part of something that is bringing hope to so many people, but would we have chosen the journey we had to take to get where we are now if we’d had the choice? We’re not sure of the answer to this one, to be honest. Has our family suffered along the way? Yes, for sure. But we have also learned about crying out to God, asking for help from others, loving and receiving love, and looking after ourselves and each other.
Life is hard, and being a parent is difficult. But it’s so much harder without God. We must learn to be honest rather than silent, and accept that it’s OK not to be OK.
The verses in the Bible that are speaking to both of us at the moment are Isaiah 43:18-19: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.”
God is all about doing new things. It is hard to not look back and dwell, particularly if we struggle with negative thinking habits. But it’s a promise that, no matter what is happening, and how difficult or dark some seasons in our life may be, God is still present and in control. It is in the dark and difficult times that we have to choose to trust God rather than depend upon the feeling that he’s there. In the same way as parents, we have to let go and choose to trust God with our children, particularly when they become teenagers. Many times we have tried to play God in certain scenarios, thinking: “If they speak to this person, if they go to this event, they will have a dramatic Christian encounter.” In our experience this never turns out how we plan. However, when we do let go and trust God the most amazing things we could never have dreamt of happen.