Experiencing a great deal of stress brought on by a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder in my eldest son, I decided to seek help from a mental health professional. Here are the top 10 things I’ve learned about myself, parenting and relationships from just over a year of psychotherapy.
1. Don’t give it back.
It seems like kids are hardwired to annoy you. My psychiatrist’s theory is that back in pre-historic times, agitating their parents was one of the best and most efficient ways children had of gaining attention, thus protection from nasty beasts. When your children deliberately annoy you or yell at you, I learned I shouldn’t give it back. Of course, if a Jurassic beast is indeed involved, you may want to look into it.
2. Building resilience in your kids starts with love.
What I’ve learned from interacting with my own children and speaking with my psychiatrist is that building resilience and confidence needs to start with love. Always remind them you love them, and never leave them wondering.
3. Understanding your own emotions makes you a better husband and father.
Talking about feelings doesn’t come naturally to me, or to many men in general. Faced with conflict or perceived disrespect, I would often shut down and go into “the cave.” Talking to someone about my frustrations helped me recognize and express them more assertively. Although this may ultimately lead to a greater number of mini-arguments, I’ve come to understand that…
4. Conflict is inevitable and even desirable.
When you and your partner can more freely express your feelings with each other, mini-conflicts are likely to surface more often. These little ruptures can actually be healthy because they teach you important conflict resolution skills. The alternative is suppressing feelings and emotions, leading to wilder conflicts.
5. Time for yourself and your partner is crucial.
When my eldest boy was diagnosed with ASD, his pediatrician told us to make sure we made time for ourselves and each other. We didn’t really listen. We felt guilty — like every minute not spent researching his condition and possible treatments would consign him to a life of misery. Our relationship suffered as a result. While time for ourselves and each other is not back to pre-kid levels (and probably won’t be until they move out!), at least we’re more conscious of it now. I now know that if I’m able to get a round of golf in, it isn’t a selfish act — I actually come back refreshed, rejuvenated and ultimately a better husband and father.
6. Your partner might need to come in with your to a therapy session.
When talking to an independent therapist, you and your partner will often say things that will provide great insight for the other. Hopefully your partner is amenable to attending. Mine took a little convincing, but when she finally agreed she saw the value in the exercise.
7. Connecting to others is so important.
Experiencing significant stress and anxiety, I naturally isolated myself for fear of burdening others. I also lacked the confidence to engage with others and felt guilty spending time away from my family. Seeing a psychiatrist provided clarity about my thoughts and the confidence to articulate what my family was going through to significant people in my life with whom I’d become distant.
8. Whatever doesn’t kill you…
My psychiatrist uses the analogy of a boat. As a couple, you’re on a boat sailing in calm, pleasant seas. Everything seems OK on the surface. But you can’t stop wondering what would happen if a storm came. Would your boat be strong enough to withstand the pressure? Well, for us a storm did come. It rocked us, made us seasick and we came pretty close to capsizing, but ultimately we weathered it and made it through to the other side. Now, back in calm, pleasant seas, we know our boat is strong. Very strong in fact, and in some ways we’re glad we faced the storm in the first place — know we have no doubts about the strength of our boat and its storm-weathering capabilities.
At least I think that’s what he meant.
9. It’s important to seek help from someone you trust.
Culturally, asking for mental health help is seen as a sign of weakness. Hopefully by now people understand this is nonsense. After my psychiatrist I saw listened to the grief and hardship my family was undergoing, he simply said, “heartbreaking” — that one word showed me in an instant he got it and was here to help.
10. It’s OK to keep seeking help, even after you’re “fixed.”
Although my family and I are no longer in “crisis” and many of our problems have largely been resolved, I continue to see my psychiatrist on a monthly basis. To paraphrase him, the traditional approach is to treat mental health issues like a broken leg — heal the break then send the patient on their way. A better approach to improving and maintaining mental health in an individual, however, is to keep seeing them once they have been “healed.” During this period, you can capitalize on what you’ve learned, achieving long-term, sustained, positive mental health outcomes.
Follow this journey on The Adventures of T-Bone and Sea Bass.