Stigma can be detrimental… So be like Teflon
I recall being in a grocery store and seeing a little girl move from tears to completely dysregulated. I recall the mum’s exasperation, embarrassment, and pleading as she looked down at her child and around the store. I remember the lady near me who muttered under her breath “calm that child down”. I remember other people moving away. I distinctly recall that mother’s tears as I asked her if she was ok and if I could help. Turns out her little girl had certain sensory sensitivities, autism, and anxiety and had just found the whole shopping experience too much to handle.
Social stigma: A sticky little beast
This is an all too familiar example of social stigma. That is, stereotypes, prejudice, and discrimination held by people about others they perceive as different in some way. The stigma of mental illness remains common, albeit lessening somewhat over the years thanks to social interventions. Research completed at UWA has shown, however, that stigma is regularly experienced by parents of children with mental health problems. Parents feel blamed by others, judged as bad parents, and shamed by strangers, friends, and family.
Stigma is pretty damaging. It can lead to social withdrawal, sadness, difficulties engaging with therapy and compliance with treatment, and in some circumstances – the worsening of mental health conditions.
Self-stigma: The negative beliefs we hold about ourselves (even stickier)
We know from research and clinical practice that parents are at real risk of turning the stigma they receive from others on themselves and come to hold the same negative beliefs. We call this self-stigma. That is, parents come to believe that they are to blame for the problem, that they are not good enough parents, and/or are ashamed of their parent-self. Sometimes parents are excellent at keeping this close to their chest, whilst at other times, that negative internal monologue is as clear as day.
Research tells us also that these negative beliefs are associated with lower self-esteem and empowerment, and higher affective distress in parents. Ultimately, this can have serious implications not only for parents, but for their child as well.
Yup: I’m telling myself some pretty unhelpful things
If you have found yourself thinking these things as a parent of a child with a mental health disorder, here are some ideas for how to address that:
Other people cannot possibly know what your day to day is like. Their judgment, then, is ill-informed for they have not seen what the last hour was like for you or what you do every day to support your child.
- Be like Teflon. Because others are ill-informed, let their stigma fall right off you. You have no use for it.
- You are in a unique position – every parent is. Your child is not the same as his/her siblings, just as they are not the same as other children. You cannot compare one against the other. Therefore, you cannot compare yourself against other parents.
- There is no one right way to parent. Start believing in yourself.
- We are our own worst critic. Sure, but only if you’re being fair and constructive. If you are denigrating yourself, then this only keeps the self-stigma going.
- Spend a moment to think of all the things you do in a day to support your child. It is in these details that you will find the gold you are looking for. You are doing an incredible job, in an often very trying situation. Remind yourself of this. Often.
- Don’t blame yourself. The leading model explaining mental illness leads us to understand that there is no one cause of such difficulties. It is often the result of many things coming together – sometimes things completely out of parents’ control.
- Parents and families are not to blame – but they are the answer. We know that children improve with the love and support of parents. Period.
- Get involved. Get upskilled. Learn about what is going on for your child and what can help them. Parents who feel better informed, feel more in control, and therefore more empowered. That nasty little internal critic then has to pipe down as he/she has nothing valid to say.
- Develop a personally meaningful narrative about your child’s difficulties. Discover your strengths and incorporate that into your story. If you need to tell others about what’s going on for your child, then what you tell them should reflect an empowered position.
- Support. Support. Support. Get together with people you trust. Talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of parenting. People who understand, or who are in a similar situation to you can be incredibly validating and can help debunk some of these nasty little myths you hold about yourself.
- Talk it out. If your child is seeing a clinician and you are having thoughts like this, please tell the clinician. There are a number of things we can do to support you. You are not alone.
Parenting is incredibly rewarding, but it is also hard work. It gets harder when parents start saying unhelpful things to themselves about the quality of their parenting. You care about your kids and have their best interests at the centre of everything you do… this makes you an incredible parent.
Written by Dr Kim Eaton, Clinical Psychologist
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