You Don't Need A License To Drive a Family - Or Maybe You Do

Tags: Nervous Breakdown, Anxiety, Learning Disability

Written by: Dr. Cathy Moser

           The other day, I had a patient in my office crying because she had what she called a 'nervous breakdown' .  She spent days crying and unable to get out of the house; she couldn't clean her house, let alone herself; and she yelled uncontrollably at her children.  The older toddler somehow took care of the younger one, and they all survived.  Her Depression has lifted a bit, and she is better able to care for the children.  Unfortunately, she continues to yell at her children - not because she wants to, but because she can't seem to control herself.  She felt horribly guilty about being a bad mother, but didn't know what do to about it.  It was one of those sessions where my own heart sank.  I am fortunate enough to treat both children and adults, so I know how mental illness and a toxic family of origin can affect the ability to parent.  Most of the time, I don't judge parents; I try to figure out where they are coming from and help them do whatever it takes to get to a better place.   I try to allay some of the guilt about: being a poor parent ("your Depression is making it hard for you to parent; first let's treat the Depression"); being a poor role model ("your role models didn't win the parent of the year award - let's try to make some changes so that you can be a better role model for your children"); or passing along crappy genes ("it's not your fault that your child was born anxious - you didn't choose to inherit your parents' Depression/Anxiety").

             I know I have written about this topic before.  But it needs to be said over and over again: it's not your fault that you make parenting boo boos - but it is your responsibility to try and do better.  It's never too late to change - children want their parents' unconditional love and approval until the day that they die, and you can begin the process of getting there on any day of your life; instead of beating yourself up or blaming your child for bringing out the worst in you, think of the process in terms of dealing with a child's Learning Disability.  If your child has special needs in learning to read (i.e., a disability), there's no point in blaming them for not being able to read well.  If you are not a teacher who has studied for years to learn how to teach, you are not equipped to do the teaching on your own.  Even if you are a Special Ed teacher - you likely need someone else to teach your child, as children usually learn best from someone else.  Being a parent is kind of like that - some children have social/emotional/ behaviour disabilities that challenge you beyond your skill level.  It's not their fault, and it's not your fault.  There's no point in trying to pinpoint blame.  The point is to begin the process of learning how to best meet the needs of you and your child.        

            You need a license to operate a car, a boat, and a motorcycle. We take classes on how to use our digital cameras; some careers require years of study and a license in order for you to practice.  For other jobs, you have to spend a day, a week, or a month in orientation, and hours of Continuing Education courses in the years that follow.  So how is it that we don't need a license to operate a family - the most important job in the universe?

            If it was up to me to run the world, new parents would have to take some basic training in the first years of parenting.  Even before that - you would have to do some genetic testing (not really), so that if there was Depression or Anxiety in your genes, you would be on alert.  If you saw signs of Anxiety developing in your child, you would have access to resources for assessing and treating whatever developed.  Instead of wallowing in guilt, you would accept that this is something that runs in your family.  IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT - you can't change it, but you can find the best ways to manage it. Give yourself a little time to grieve the fact that your child (along with billions of others) is not perfect and will have to work at being mentally healthy and happy.  And then, arm yourself with the skills to help them.

            Using the metaphor of the Learning Disability - you can't teach your child how to read if you yourself don't know how to read.  So, first stop is at the adult treatment centre.  You have to be emotionally and mentally strong enough to take on the job of bettering either yourself or your child.  Get some good help.  Start with your Physician, and move up the line from there.  If you try the solutions offered by one professional and it doesn't make things better - find someone that is the right for you and your problem.  You may be saying to yourself - 'regardless of the work that I need to do, it's going to be years, and I still have a screaming child at home'.  Okay - they've been screaming for five years; they will scream a few months longer while you work on getting strong enough to help them.  More importantly, it's time to swallow your pride and reach out for help.  Find someone that you can lean on - a spouse, a friend, a relative, a professional.  Check out available resources.  For your own mental health, check out the Canadian Mental Health Association (  If you strike out with the first call, move on to the second.  For your child's mental health, go to the Healthy Child Manitoba website ( and to South Winnipeg Information Centre (  Accept that you could use a parenting skills course (there are a number of good ones - Triple P Positive Parenting Program, Step Parenting).   There are even some resources that can come in and help you parent in your own home (The Family Centre has an In-Home Support program - ).  And of course, if you have the means and/or the insurance, pay one of us friendly Psychologists a visit - we really can help you make changes that will make you and your family much happier and healthier.

            It takes humility to reach out, and I admire people who take that step.  There's a saying 'it takes a community to raise a child'......don't sell your child short by limiting that community to your own block.  Really, we are all connected in some kind of way.  In my way of thinking, it goes like this - I am not at fault for creating the gangs that steal cars, torch houses, and sell drugs to kids.  But I am connected and the child that joins the gang, to their parents that can't stop them, to the schools that can't reach them.  I probably know someone whose car was stolen or who was deeply affected by a home invasion.  Even if they are not my child, I can contribute to the community effort to provide recreation centres that offer an alternative to gang membership.  SO, communities do help to raise a child.  Accept the fact that we are all connected - and lean on some of those members of the 'family' that can help you out. When you are able to broaden the field of options, the world seems like a more friendly place, and your situation will seem much more hopeful. 

            There is no doubt that life's work is challenging and can sometimes be overly taxing.  But it's worth it, and for every investment of time that you put in, you will reap many benefits - for you, your children, your community, and generations to come. I often hear a Bill Withers song in my head....'sometimes, in your life, we all have pain, we all have sorrow...but, if we are wise, we know that there's always tomorrow.  Lean on me, when you're not strong, and I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on...for it won't be long  til I'm gonna need someone to lean on'.


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