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.
In 2007, during the course of my journey as a parent, I also formally entered the field of mental health when I started my outward journey to become a counsellor, and my inward journey of discovering new meaning for myself. I have since worn several hats and played several roles in the area of mental health. I have been a school counsellor for five years, and have also been helping adults, couples and families discover new meaning for themselves. I write a regular column in a national daily addressing concerns from adolescents and young adults around exams, stress, goals, and the like. 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.