“You can’t resolve other people’s issues, but you can sit with them and share the burden of their pain, thereby lightening it.” – Yehuda Berg
When someone we love is suffering, one of the first things we want to do is fix whatever is wrong to make them better. This is especially true of parents. And when I say parents, I mean biological, adoptive, grandparents, godparents, caregivers or whatever other various type of parent there is out there. I’m sure that are times most of us can remember in which we were sick, or broken hearted, or upset about something and our parents only wanted us to stop feeling bad and make the hurt go away. They took on our pain as their own and tried to find a way to make it better.
The same can be said of parents of children who have BFRBs, and in this case it can be especially difficult because the disorders are so foreign. There’s no simple running out to the pharmacy and getting some cold medication or offering of a bowl of ice cream to make the hurt go away. I’m sure many parents are terrified when they find out their child is engaging in self-damaging behaviours and end up desperately searching for ways to make it stop.
I was lucky enough to be part of a group discussion about this with the Peer Support Group CBSN has out of Toronto, which is where a lot of what I’m going to say comes from. BFRB children talking about what worked and didn’t work with our parents, and what we liked or wished they would have done differently. It was a very good discussion, and as we were speaking, I knew it would be helpful to share.
To start, it’s a good idea to educate yourself, whether that means finding out if your doctor has any information about the disorder, or even using the internet and searching yourself. When I was growing up, my doctor didn’t have a clue and we didn’t have a computer or access to one; but fast forward to the present and computers are much more readily available. You’ll still probably be hard pressed to find a doctor that can help, but keep searching, because it will be worth it in the end and it’s very likely that your child will appreciate it too in the long run.
When I say educate yourself, though, I don’t mean go frantically searching for a cure (since one doesn’t exist at this point, no matter what the flashy font on the websites say), but instead learn what you can about whichever BFRB or BFRBs your child has. Learn about how it manifests or how it might make them feel about themselves or in general. Learn how it affects their day-to-day life and just how much effort there is to try to hide it. Even knowing that your child has a BFRB (however you came to that conclusion) is a one up on most parents and so learning more can be a great help. One thing we face the most is ignorance and it is particularly frustrating coming from our parents.
It’s also good to explore different websites (and maybe even check out different doctors) because one might have more information than another or you might understand one better than another. Just make sure they’re reputable, not ones trying to push a product or cure. Your best bet with websites is to stick with informative ones, like we’re putting together here at CBSN and even sites that share personal stories.
Unless you come across your child’s journal or blog, however, no site or doctor will fully describe their unique experience with their BFRB. Sure, there are fundamentals that tie us together, which makes the disorders diagnosable, but we each have lived different lives with them. My story might be extremely similar to another skin picker’s, for instance, but it won’t be the exact same, and that makes a big difference in how I will react to different suggestions and probably even treatments.
But here’s the problem: you may want to ask your child a million-and-one questions about their disorder and experiences. Don’t.
For one, it can be overwhelming, in particular if they haven’t come to terms with the BFRB themselves. There’s also the fact that they may simply not be ready or comfortable talking about it. There are a number of possible reasons for that, ranging from shame to feeling like they have to fix it themselves. I was like that. Not only was I ashamed, but I felt like the problem was mine to deal with because my parents had their own problems without me burdening them with mine. There may even be other reasons your child just doesn’t want to talk about it.
“Well what do I do then?!” I imagine some of you may have this exasperated thought right now, but don’t worry, there is something you can do.
Let them know you care, let them know you’re there to talk when they’re ready and let them know they have your support.
I understand from my own experiences with my mother that you might be scared about what could happen, and that’s fair. With all sorts of BFRBs, there are many risks and some instances that might warrant doctor visits or at the very least a serious conversation. They might be mad at you in the moment, but looking back they will likely be grateful. When we were speaking, some of us said if only our parents had taken us to the doctor that one time or had sat down and spoken to us that one time, we would have really appreciated it.
However, what you don’t want to do is try to shame your child out of their behaviours because of your own fears or concerns. While it’s perfectly okay to let them know you’re concerned, don’t use negative language towards them because it does more harm than good. Don’t smother them with your anxieties, either; I know it always only made me feel worse when I knew my parents were worrying and I still couldn’t change what I was doing.
If your child does want to talk, LISTEN. Don’t interrupt, don’t correct, and most importantly don’t invalidate their feelings or experiences. One of my favourite quotations is “perception is reality,” which means that even if you don’t see it the way they do or remember an instance the way they do, it doesn’t make their perception of it any less true. Yes, things can be warped when it comes to mental disorders, but what they are saying is how they experienced it and has shaped how they feel about it and themselves. Please keep this in mind.
It’s a lot to think about, isn’t it? So many things to consider and so much to learn. If you’re feeling guilty or blaming yourself for your child having a BFRB and going through all of what they do, don’t. While you’re blaming yourself, your child is playing the self-blame game, too, and the truth of the matter is, it’s not either of your faults. It’s a mental health disorder and quite likely something that we’re born with. I say quite like only because research is still being done as to the cause and origins of BFRBs. But it is true that it’s not your fault. There isn’t something you could have done to prevent it or some way you could have stopped it early on. It just is.
I’m not a parent, but I know how much my mother wanted to help me (and still does) as I’ve grown up with my BFRB. She has made some mistakes along the way, and if you’re a parent reading this, you might, too, which is another scary part of trying to find a way to deal with this. The secret is, mistakes are okay, so long as you don’t continue repeating them.
Although you want to help and protect your child from these hardships, there is only so much you can do. The most important thing to do is let your child know and feel your love and support. That you will help any way you can and be there for them no matter what. If and when they’re ready to open up, then you can get to some dialogue, but in the meantime, try some of what has been mentioned. And let your child know it’s not their fault either. That they’re not alone or freakish or monsters. Love them and show them that they are worthy of that love, regardless of their disorder.
Keep in mind the quotation I mentioned at the beginning of this. You may not be able to fix the problem, but you can lighten the load just by saying, “I’m here for you.”