Parenting is never perfect. Most of us yearn and deeply desire to meet all the needs of our children. This weighs on every well-intentioned parent. We often feel enormous pressure to be able to meet their needs physically and spiritually. We would also say emotionally, however so long as we imitate Christ in our parenting, all of our children’s emotional needs will be met. As we watch our children grow, it stirs up so much in us. We see ourselves in them, we have constant reminders of our own childhoods, and we often reflect on what aspects of our upbringing we want them to experience and which aspects we do not want them to experience. We keep an ever-watchful eye on them; ready to respond to any need that arises.
However, despite our best attempts, there are times when our children suffer or begin to struggle chronically. The types of struggles we are referring to, are ones such as depression, anxiety, developmental issues, addiction, mood issues, attention issues, and any issue that begs for outside help. Parental responses to these situations widely vary. Some of us may freeze and feel like a proverbial deer in the headlights. Some of us may over-react and over-function, which can make an already difficult situation worse and feel more out of control. Some of us may be seized by confusion; how could this happen when I thought I did everything right? We might even feel feelings of failure over our child needing extra help; dogged by the question, “what did I do wrong?”. Tragically, some of us may squander years in denial that there is a problem, prolonging our child’s suffering, as we refuse to accept that our child or teen needs extra help. It is only then, when their struggling reaches a crisis point, that we begin to respond. However, some of us respond swiftly and proactively upon the first signs of distress, and are able to respond in a very balanced way.
Orthodox children shouldn’t struggle with the above, right? Many of us carry the belief that because we raised them in the church, that alone should prevent the struggles that those other children of the world deal with. It is understandable if we have these expectations and they are fairly common. However, despite our best efforts, sacrifices, and many layers of protection we place around them, there are times when our children will still struggle and need extra help. It is not our failure if our children need extra help such as counseling. Getting them relief for their emotional suffering is all part of meeting their needs and giving them a fighting chance to survive in this world. We so often master the art of meeting their physical needs and spiritual needs, but don’t realize the importance of teaching our kids how to navigate their emotional world.
So, as we keep that ever watchful eye on our children, we observe not only their physical and spiritual activities, but also their emotional activity. Young people are very skilled at hiding their distress. The following are some less obvious signs that are often missed. Are they feeling overwhelmed? Have they gone quiet? Have they become reclusive? Are they wanting to withdraw or quit too many activities? Has there been a shift or change in their social activity? Have their appetite or sleeping habits changed? Are they worrying too much about their appearance? Do we ever see them relax and enjoy activities? Are we picking up on passing statements they make that that are loaded with significance and are distress signals? These could be statements such as negative self-statements. We can often miss these distress signals as we rush our kids from one activity to another.
Children of course may show outward signs of anxiety, which if not treated early, can snowball and become much worse. It can become debilitating and lead to depression. It can also lead to our children turning to substances during their adolescent years in an attempt to get relief and self-medicate. This opens the door to addiction. As parents we often don’t want to acknowledge that our kids need extra help. At best it is because we fear it is somehow a family failure and at worst it is due to our ego and pride. I cannot express how many adults I have encountered who have uttered the statement, “I wish my parents had gotten me help when I was young”. What a gift we give our children, what an investment for their future, when we acknowledge, validate, and allow them to have emotional struggles. When our children see us respond well and in a healthy way, they can then pass this on to their children. It is a generational gift. It is a gift that we give to the generations that have not yet been born.
The good news is that we don’t have to be perfect parents to be good parents. We just have to respond when they need help or are showing signs of distress. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to become emotionally literate. To teach them how to navigate their emotional world; how to identify what they are feeling at any given moment and to help them identify why they are feeling that way. We then work with them to find solutions. If there are no solutions, then we help to normalize their feelings. We teach them to be merciful and compassionate towards themselves, just as Christ is with us. If we need to, we seek an expert’s help. It is not a failure to take our children to see a counselor, it is a strength of our parenting. We need to realize also that there are many good non-Orthodox counselors. We may need to shop around a bit, but there are many non-Orthodox counselors who are faith friendly and who will not “pathologize” our faith. Also, when it comes to treating anxiety, we need a therapist who is well trained in treating it; it is not mere “talk therapy”.
We can take heart and realize that just because our kids are struggling emotionally, doesn’t mean we failed or did something wrong. We cannot overlook the role of genetics and also environmental causes. However, as Orthodox parents, we must have the humility and willingness to be able to see and acknowledge when maybe it is us; that maybe we have to make adjustments at home or in our parenting. Sometimes the imperfect parenting we received leaks out into our parenting. What a well-spring of humility this can be! Perhaps even, as part of helping our children, we may have to go to counseling for ourselves so that we can be better parents. This all shows our children how responsive we are and just how much we value their well-being. We want to give our children their best chance at Theosis, at Deification, in attaining union with God; being responsive to their emotional struggles is all part of it.