On parenting: when your child’s behaviors are triggering

This is a topic that I often want to write about, but I am usually unsure how to begin.

My past history is of being raised in an abusive home, where my dad — a narcissist — called all the shots and handed out physical and emotional punishments daily, usually when you were least expecting it. And even if you were expecting it, that didn’t make it hurt any less.

I was married to a man for several years who also emotionally and physically abused me, and there’s so much internalization of blame within me that it is still difficult, to this day, to separate what I know are facts from what I’m being persuaded to believe.

It doesn’t help that the persuasion is often happening inside my own head, where my lying anxious thoughts try to convince me that I am a huge failure and that everything is my fault.

Alex and RhiannonAs of this writing, my second oldest teenager, Alex, has several weighty mental health diagnoses: PTSD, anxiety, depression, cluster B personality disorder, and DMDD.

Combined, these are a hell of a cocktail of swirling emotions, beliefs, perceptions, triggers, and potential crises.

We spent most of 2016 in ERs, taking Alex back and forth to acute care facilities, and the waiting rooms and couches of doctors and mental health professionals. It was probably the hardest year I’ve ever had, including the ones where I was afraid all the time of what my dad or significant other was going to say to me that day or how much emotional labor I’d be putting in to rescue the situation for myself (or for my kids).

We also spent a lot of 2016 either actively adrenalized with fear and stress, or exhausted and trying to recover while Alex was in another facility being medicated into a calmer state while her diagnoses were re-assessed again.

I can’t tell you how many times I was brought to my knees and turned it against myself, questioning my worth as a parent and as a person. I know that I swung back and forth between strength and fortitude, and utter despair. The only thing that kept me moving forward was the stubbornness that’s the bedrock of my personality, and the logical reality that I needed to keep my job for the sake of my family as a whole, for the other three kids that need me just as much as the one in crisis, for the spouse whose help and support sustained me countless times.

We seem to be in a period of lull, in which Alex’s coping skills are just strong enough to keep her from needing ER trips as often as she used to. She has learned a lot and has done a really good job of trying to get better, which is something I can’t always emotionally believe but that I can logically see is true.

Alex and I go to a group DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) session together every week right now, and we both get homework to do while we learn the DBT skills. The skills are very useful for people like Alex, people whose impulse control is erratic at best and whose perceptions of reality are heavily influenced by emotional dysregulation. They’re useful for Alex to use, and they’re useful when communicating with Alex, which is a thing that happens near-constantly.

I’m exhausted. These skills, while useful, are exhausting to use.

I am so tired of being always available, or even 80% available.

I am weary of all this emotional work.

This weekend is the anniversary of the first time Alexa and I went away and spent a weekend together, and it’s been very difficult to enjoy it because Alex has wanted my attention since before the weekend began. Her perceptions of her own needs and her own pain consistently play out as more important than anyone else’s needs, even though part of my work is to remind her of the boundaries every time she tries to step over them.

There is no happy medium when you have a loved one with this particular set of mental illnesses. I love my child dearly and will defend her, advocate for her, and support her unequivocally. However, her challenges will always be present for her and for those of us who love her. We will always be working hard at communicating with her, with stating clearly and reinforcing our boundaries, and with reminding ourselves that it is valid to dislike being manipulated by her strong and vocal desires.

What I’m trying to say, maybe, is that no amount of therapy and self-work can be as helpful as a nap uninterrupted by someone’s crisis du jour.

Yes, I can continue to work on my boundaries and in stating those clearly and in reinforcing them; but work is work, and work is hard. Some days I do not have enough spoons to manage my own anxiety as well as everyone else’s.

Rhiannon Kelley
Stargazer, medium, druid, student. Activist & rabble-rouser. Married with four kids. Really fucking sweary. Genderqueer & poly. They/them/theirs.

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