My tryst with mental health started in 1997 when I became a parent, and decided to take time off from my full-time, demanding, corporate career to be just that – a parent. Becoming a parent changed my perspective on everything – on life in general and my life in particular, on relationships in general and my relationships in particular, on values and beliefs in general and my values and beliefs in particular; on how others were parenting and what I was doing, right or wrong, or whether I was even being able to be the perfect parent that I aspired to be.
As a young parent, I often felt time came to a standstill, as nothing changed on a daily basis for me, and I moved from one chore of parenting to another. Yet, on the other hand, there was this constant joyous reminder of time moving on, maybe a little too fast, as the baby grew from milestone to milestone. She is now well into her teens and will soon fly the coop. Children grow fast, and in their growth lies our growth, in amazing and unimaginable ways.
Parenting is all about challenges and confusion, frustration and anxiety, joy and pain, love and anguish, thankless ‘doing’, endless ‘being’ and unconditional ‘loving’. And the manner in which each one of us handles the demands and pleasures of parenting has an impact on not only the mental health and well-being of our children, but also our own.
Many of my clients have been parents dealing with the challenges of parenting. Many others have been children and adults struggling to cope with dysfunctional parenting. I have run workshops for parents and teachers on different aspects of mental health and well-being, with the aim of helping them facilitate the mental health of those in their charge, while being mindful about their own mental health.
The most recent illustration of the link between our children’s mental health and our style of parenting that I encountered was with a client who was referred to me recently. The young man had been suicidal just a couple of days before seeing me and so after the initial emergency care, the psychiatrist had sent him to me for help. He was a young man who had not been allowed to complete even his school education because his parents thought, obviously in their best judgment, that it would be great for their son to start working with a relative overseas in their family business. A lot transpired, and this young man eventually flew back home as he concluded that the uncle was involved in an illegal activity of enormous proportion. But the client’s traditional joint family systems put the sanctity of family relationships above all else and kept pushing the young man to go back and work with the uncle.
My client eventually ran away from home to start afresh and cut off ties with his family. This is the point at which he came to me. His parents’ style of parenting would not allow him to question their decisions, or express his own opinions or feelings. The pressure of what was expected of him by his entire joint family support system, vs. what he believed was good for him was so intense that he found no escape other than to end it all. He did not, after all, have permission to challenge or even question what his parents wanted him to do. He was just expected to comply. He said he felt like he was in a jail with strong metal bars all around, and all he wanted to do was to break them and run away. Our work together was short, but very simple and meaningful. All it did was to give him the suggestion that it was okay to ‘not obey’ and break free from his mental jail. He felt freed and relaxed, and ready to live again, but on his own terms.
This column is an endeavor to explore the connection between our children’s mental health and our styles of parenting. It will also explore the impact our parents had on shaping who we are today, and our mental health as adults. While as parents we do our best and do what we believe is in our children’s best interests, we may not always be promoting, encouraging and even allowing them to live a mentally healthy life and become mentally healthy adults. Yet, we must at all times believe that we are ‘good enough’ parents and feel a sense of confidence in our ability to bring up confident, healthy, productive and fully functional individuals. In our ability to strike this balance between confidence and self-doubt, between knowing and not having a clue, between hanging on and letting go, between teaching and being willing to learn, between accepting and challenging, between being in the present and worrying about the future (our own and that of our children) lies the key to our mental health, and that of our children.
A lot of what I write about will be based on my experiences (what worked and didn’t work) as a child, as a parent, and as a counselor. However, in the interest of maintaining confidentiality and anonymity, I may never specify which is which.
As we explore this topic together, I would like to hear any questions you may want to pose to me. I endeavor to address at least one of your questions with every instalment. So join me on a journey of learning and discovery for all of us.
Maullika Sharma is a Bangalore-based counselor who quit her corporate career to work in the mental health space. Maullika practices at the Reach Clinic, Bangalore. If you have any questions pertaining to this column please write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions will be answered with the publication of this column every fortnight.
We are a not-for-profit organization that relies on donations to deliver knowledge solutions in mental health. We urge you to donate to White Swan Foundation. Your donation, however small, will enable us to further enhance the richness of our portal and serve many more people. Please click here to support us.