The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Tim Carey
What can a parent do to help his or her child who is experiencing emotional or mental distress? Part of the answer has to do with the skills a parent brings to the table: does the parent know how to listen, how to be supportive, how to “be there” for his or her child? Tim Carey speaks to the importance of these basic parenting skills and their role in helping children deal with the everyday emotional challenges of childhood.
EM: You believe that children would be helped and would experience less emotional and mental distress if their parents possessed improved parenting skills. What do you mean by “parenting skills”?
TC: One of the premises of parenting might be that the job of parents is to teach their kids to get along without them. “Getting along without them” involves being able to problem solve and make independent decisions. In order to be effective decision makers and to live satisfying and contented lives, people need to be aware of their goals, desires, and purposes and need to be able to evaluate or assess the extent to which they are heading in the direction specified by their inner standards. I consider parenting skills, therefore, those skills that help children: (1) develop clear and important goals; and (2) figure out flexible and persistent ways of achieving their goals. One of the most important goals to have may well be the goal to create the life you want without preventing other people from creating the life they want. Far more important than the things parents do and say is the attitude they have about their parenting. What they say and do will be the manifestation of their attitudes in any particular context. Attitudes of optimism, of “let them be”, and of joy in watching and helping another life develop and blossom will help parents relish their parenting role and will provide the resilience necessary to navigate turbulent times.
EM: What might a “parenting skills program” look like?
TC: A parenting program should focus on parent’s attitudes to themselves, their children, and the relationships they are building with their children. Somewhat paradoxically, parenting programs should focus on the behavior of the parents not the behavior of the children. A parenting program should provide time for parents to clarify their own ideas about what it means to be an effective and successful parent. Parents should be able to develop goals about the type of parents they want to be. In 30 years’ time, how do you want to remember yourself as a parent? Once parents have a clear idea of their important parenting goals, beliefs, and values, they can then think about specific situations and identify the outcomes they would like to achieve in these situations. How can you be the parent you want to be whether or not your children are behaving as you would prefer? A parenting program with these kinds of activities would provide parents with a compass to help them stay on track with being the parent they want to be.
EM: Could parents engage in such a program “on their own,” do you think, or would they need classes, mentoring, and so on?
TC: The best way for parents to go about acquiring a mind-set of self-reflective parenting will be different for different individuals. Some people will find that they are already very close to being the parent they are striving to be. Other people will find reading books or blog articles to be very helpful and some other people might benefit most by engaging in discussions on the internet. For some people, attending classes and accessing ongoing mentoring will be the best way of incorporating the attitudes being described here. There is no one best way for parents to become the parents they want to be just as there is no one best way for a child to grow into a contented and contributing member of society. People need to find what works for them. It might even be that just starting a conversation with other parents will get the ball rolling. Parents typically don’t talk to each other about their goals and attitudes to parenting but this type of conversation could be very useful for helping parents become clearer about the things that are important to them.
EM: If someone you knew were the parent of a child or adolescent in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she try or do?
TC: When a child or adolescent is troubled, the most important thing for the parent to focus on may very well be their relationship with their child or adolescent. Parents need to do whatever they can to make sure the relationship is strong. Spending time with the child or adolescent in mutually enjoyable activities on a regular basis will help to build warmth and trust. Prioritizing listening to their child or adolescent is also extremely important. It can be very hard to listen to someone who is upset or troubled without offering advice or suggestions or otherwise telling him or her what to do. With these kinds of conversations, however, any statements from the parents may seem like criticism or judgment by the child or adolescent. It’s very important that the child or adolescent does most of the talking and the parent asks questions curiously to understand the perspective of the child or adolescent. Sometimes offering support and making yourself available when the child or adolescent is ready to talk can be the most helpful you can be. Demonstrating faith and optimism in the child or adolescent’s ability to work things out in their own time and in their own way can be very difficult but it is possible to do this while also offering assistance. Seeking the counsel of trusted and respected health professionals can also be helpful in providing parents with some balance for their concerns as well as other avenues of support.
EM: If you had a loved one in emotional or mental distress, what would you suggest that he or she do or try?
TC: Many of the themes discussed above are relevant here. If I have a loved one in emotional distress I encourage them to talk about the things they are holding inside. It doesn’t have to be me but finding someone to talk to can be extremely helpful. Saying out loud the things that are distressing and spending time listening to these things when they are on the outside rather than just being inside can help a person develop new perspectives and insights. To do this, however, people need to feel safe to talk without their ideas being criticized, judged, demeaned, or mocked. Accessing a “professional listener” such as a psychologist or counselor can be useful if the loved one wants to use this form of support. Often there will be activities and strategies that the loved one used in the past for good effect and reminding them of those past successes can be beneficial. Above all, however, as with the previous parenting scenario, building and maintaining a warm and supportive relationship with your loved one will be paramount. Communicating to them that there are people who care about them and value them may be the succor they need to find a solution to the troubles that plague them.
Professor Tim Carey is a clinical psychologist with a background in preschool and special education teaching. He has a blog on Psychology Today (https://www.psychologytoday.com/experts/tim-carey-phd), a therapy (www.methodoflevels.com.au), over 100 publications including articles, books, and book chapters, and has presented nationally and internationally on helping people have more control in their lives. His latest book is called “Controlling People: The Paradoxical Nature of Being Human” and is available on amazon.com (http://tinyurl.com/zebe2bv).
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
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