The last thing a struggling child’s parent wants is more guilt triggers that compound their sense of helplessness. I notice that messaging for parents increasingly says that your child’s anxiety and related issues, such as school refusal, have nothing to do with your parenting. Parents are assured that the problem resides in the stress response of the individual child. Hence, the solution focuses on treating the child, with parents on the sidelines, supporting prescribed stress management strategies.
This helps avoid parent blaming, but underneath the stress of parenting an anxious child is a parent’s intuition that they have unwittingly compounded their child’s struggles. Parents want to be part of the solution for their child’s recovery of well-being, but this also means understanding the part they have played in the emergence of the child’s problem.
In the recent Australian senate report on school refusal (an increasingly severe problem), the following is conveyed:
“Parliamentarians who sat on the Senate committee made it clear school refusal was not a parenting failure. “It’s really important to understand that school refusal … is not a behaviour issue. It’s not caused by poor parenting. It’s a stress response that’s triggered by something in a young person’s environment,” 1
The focus has shifted to holding schools responsible for the lack of inclusivity and understanding of school-induced stress. Children are offered more stress management group support. Of course, the problem is complex, with multiple contributors from the family and the wider environment. Is absolving parents and shifting responsibility to schools the helpful path to improved outcomes for our increasingly fragile children?
Regularly, the messages in the media about children’s anxiety – and the related symptoms of depression, acting out and avoidance – show that the problem is within an individual child’s biology.
Yes, the symptoms are physiologically expressed and hugely challenging for a child to deal with; however, the parenting factors of over-accommodating, over-protecting or over-controlling are crucial to addressing to help children grow in resilience. This is important for parents to be supported to consider even if the problem is primarily biological, such as high-level autism. These expressions of intensive parenting are well backed up by research as significant contributing factors in the development of symptoms in children. 2 The media dialogue often conveys that because the family is stable, with parents providing all the support a child could want, the parents can’t be part of the child’s problem. This conveys to parents and mental health workers that these symptoms are genetic and will happen. This message leaves parents without an active pathway to make a difference to their struggling child, retrieving their child’s capacities to cope with the ever-increasing stresses and strains of modern life.
In my research interviewing parents with an adolescent with chronic mental health problems, I heard that parents are sensitive to being judged and blamed, but they do want to be able to help their child recover.3 When parents experienced agency as a central resource to their child’s improved functioning, they could let their guilt go. Agency cancelled out their guilt and helplessness.
The path for parents to move from guilt, stress and helplessness to confidence and hope is for them to be assisted in discovering how they get caught up in intense parenting with a child they sense is particularly needy (Note: it is not the same parenting worry triggers for all siblings). To be helped to see the vicious cycles they are part of as they try their best but find that they keep reacting in ways that fuel patterns of worry or conflict with their child.
It’s one thing to tell parents that various forms of helicopter parenting are unhelpful – but it is an entirely different offering to walk with parents on a journey of self-discovery of what they can adjust in themselves and their reactions that can begin to turn around the trajectory of a child becoming overwhelmed by their big emotions, unable to build their coping capacity. With less intense family dynamics – that a child plays a big part in – the family environment can move from being a cultivator of symptoms to being the garden for the growth of resilience.
Jenny Brown, PhD
2.Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (Eds.). (2005). Psychopathology and the family. Elsevier Science.
3. Brown J, 2023, Facilitating Parents’ Agency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health: Helplessness to Hope. Cambridge Scholars.
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