Dealing with family stress while parenting teens.
Parenting is as stressful as it is joyful. It is the best job anyone can be blessed with and also the most challenging. We cry as parents for various reasons, when we are happy and proud and when we are sad or disappointed. Parenting can be nerve-racking to say the least but have you ever thought the children you parent could also be going through stress? It’s true, even our littlest kids can get stressed out. It is extremely difficult for parents to accept that symptoms of a physical illness in their children, could be borne from stress.
Years ago, I had this lovely teenage patient who was constantly in my office for various ailments related to her gastrointestinal tract. This young lady was the product of a divorced couple and was being raised by her dad. Her dad adored her and yet could not see that she was going through a stressful time. I did all the work up I could but all the tests came back normal. I called up the GI doctor (gastroenterologist) and explained my predicament and that I was referring the child to her. She wisely told me, “Dr. Pobee, I think your patient needs a psychiatrist more than they need me.” This gave me courage to talk to dad. I advised him to consider referral for counseling since there was clearly something amiss. Dad thanked me profusely. That was the last I saw of the family. You see, dad was not prepared to accept that his lovely daughter could have a psychiatric problem. Unfortunately, dad’s denial meant that this poor teen would go on being stressed out and not get the help she needs.
This brings me to my first point.
1. Admitting that the family needs help is part of recovery from stress
As a pediatrician, I’ve watched parents bring in their children dutifully for many different ailments. Parents are quick to respond to their children’s physical symptoms and want everything done to relieve the pain. Unfortunately, providers immediately become the enemy when they as much as hint that these physical symptoms could be the result of an underlying stressor or psychological problem. Sometimes your child is better served by admitting that there may be an underlying issue that your child may not be able to talk to you about. In fact there are times when they may not even understand what the stress is and getting professional help when advised to do so helps the whole family heal.
2. Stress is real in children
As hard as it is for parents to realize that their kids get stressed out, this is a very real fact. Children from babies to teens can feel the effects of stress. Babies who are unloved or abused present with symptoms of failure to thrive, a real diagnosis. Younger kids present with various ailments from abdominal pain to chest pain to obesity. Teenagers tend to act out in school or at home. I’ve had teens who were being forced into sports present with leg pain or head injuries or other unwitnessed injuries. I totally agree that a physical treatable illness should always be ruled out first, and most caregivers do their utmost best to do that. But, it doesn’t help the situation to go from one doctor to another insisting on a “physical illness, when you’ve been advised to seek counseling. A colleague of mine, once had a very obese teen, the only one out of a family of very slender individuals. As you can imagine the entire family was really concerned about this as was the provider. The care giver tried to explain to mom that she thought the teen was depressed but mom was not having it, stating her daughter was very happy and well cared for and was very popular in class. The topic was never discussed again till about a year later when mom brought in her child for treatment because the child was now depressed, almost to the point of being suicidal. A lot of pain and heartache would have been prevented if the parents had had their child evaluated when they were first advised to do so.
Here are just a few statistics confirming this number: A study by the American Medical Association found that stress is a factor in 75% of all illnesses and diseases that people suffer from today. The association between stress and disease is a colossal 85% (Dr Brian Luke Seaward).
3. Your child’s stress is not a reflection of your parenting skills.
Sometimes parents are offended when you sense a problem in the family dynamic and offer them help. A diagnosis of a psychological problem or stress induced illness in your child is not a reflection of your parenting skills, just as your child having a physical illness does not make you a bad parent. There are no perfect parents and the sooner we parents accept the fact, the more relaxed we’ll feel about this whole parenting journey. Pediatricians, nurse practitioners and other providers always want to do what is right for your children and we really are all on the same team. Don’t take it personally. Psychological problem, mental illness and stress induced illnesses are as real as a physical illness. You should provide your children with the appropriate help they need without feeling like you failed. You didn’t. You are doing what is right for your child.
As much as parenting is a very stressful but rewarding job, recognize that your children also go through periods of stress. Don’t blow your children off when they find the courage to talk to you about their concerns. What may appear as minor to you may be very real in your child’s life and if you blow them off, you lose the opportunity to connect now and perhaps in future as well. It erodes trust. Be open and admit when your kids need help. Give them the necessary help they need just as you take them to the doctor for physical healing, take them to the counselor for their psychologic needs. There is no shame in diligent care. It’s a good parent who recognizes that you cannot parent alone and there are many people along the way to help us nurture our kids to well-adjusted healthy adults.