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Father with depression struggling to communicate with his young son

How My Mental Health Affects My Parenting Style

Reading time | 7 mins
Reflecting on his "parenting style," Martin Gallagher explores the elements that influence his role as a dad. Some examples include his mental health, learned habits and behaviors, and memories of his own mom and dad.
While he understands that some days can be more difficult than others, Martin underlines the importance of making a consistent effort with his children and embracing new parenting approaches. 

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Recently, I spoke at an event exploring the issues faced by Gypsy, Roma, and Traveler people (my heritage) and how the problems affect our mental health.

When I was introduced to speak, the host brought up my blog. They pointed out how the blog began with me sharing my experience as a parent, i.e., the expectations vs reality, how much culture influences a parenting style (for better and worse), and so on.

Afterwards, it made me realize that I hadn't written about myself as a parent for a while. My audience may think everything is rosy, happy, and perfect with me in Family Land.

Truthfully, I could (or should) have continued to write about my family. I have lots to say about how it's developed and how much I've learned about parenting.

Actually, I use the term "learned" very loosely… because, in reality, I have no idea what the heck is going on.

Relationships get more complicated as our children age

My seven-year-old is now more of a teenager in his little body than I ever was at 18. At an age when I would've been petrified to talk back to my elders, he is fluent in it. He also has much more media vying for his attention, from when he wakes up until he goes to sleep.

Perhaps the digital world speeds up that development? Still, my son seems far more knowledgeable about the world than I was as a teenager. Like most kids, his knowledge of how to use technology is vast. The scary thing about his media consumption is how much it caters to short, 30-second bursts of attention. I worry that my son will develop an erratic attention span to life outside of media and games.

Day to day, life is chaotic. Most days, I feel I'm in a Homer/Bart Simpson relationship with my son.

My son is so similar and yet so different to me 

One minute he is calm and happy. He's playing football or watching the videos he likes so much. Which, for the record, have 100% turned me into those dads that criticize the content of those videos.

I mean... Watching a 20-year-old pour a bottle of Coke onto his food as a "dare" and then eat it is stupid. Right?!

When I was younger, though, I remember how my friends and I loved the likes of Jackass and South Park

But let's get back to the serious stuff. Once my son has "gotten bored" of his interests, hell erupts.

He starts with the wind-ups. He begins to annoy the five-year-old and two-year-old. If it were the 90s, I'd have "Uncle Phil'd" him Fresh Prince of Bel Air-style (i.e., lost my temper) and chucked him on the trampoline to cool down for an hour or so.

My upbringing clashes with modern parenting styles 

Times have moved on since then. I know I didn't have patient parents when I acted up as a child. Back in my childhood, nobody I knew did. Today we know better and are more aware of young people's mental health.

I'm fortunate my wife has the patience of a saint. Maybe because I didn't get that same patience as a child, I can't keep myself from getting frustrated. Even when I completely understand how much of it is out of his control.

My son is reacting to his feelings, which his school and family implore him to do. This type of encouragement is foreign to me. Yet, I know it is the right thing to do if it prevents my son from reaching the same place I did with poor mental health.

But I wish I could switch off my inner "Homer Simpson" and give him what he needs. Sometimes I fail at that miserably.

I'm trying to figure out both myself and my son

I am still trying to figure out how emotions can affect my son's behavior. I want to understand what information he can grasp and understand in some instances.

Also, I need to figure out how to understand or help him when he needs it. I can't calm him down when he switches to angry or antagonistic. I can't talk to him when he criticizes himself and says hurtful and horrible things. I have to wait until he's calmed down, apologized, and hugged me to let me know he is back to "himself" again.

As someone with depression and anxiety, I should understand what people need to get through their intense feelings. But first, I need to learn how to take apart my upbringing of military-like respect and obedience.

Before I know it, my son will be a teenager with a new lot of needs, and I'll have to start all over with how I respond. There are times when I'll get it wrong. A few times per day, even. But instead of swooping in to try and resolve everything, I need to ensure I'm not a ticking time bomb myself. A clash of tempers will leave the scene much worse than before I got there.

Sometimes, I opt for the "easy way," which doesn't help

I'm also becoming tough to talk to when my wife and mother-in-law want to discuss working together to make life better for my son. My mother-in-law is a counsellor and someone I should be listening to.

Instead, I blame tiredness or stress and let them deal with it. As I write this down, I see how ridiculous it is. How will these excuses help me, my wife and mother-in-law, or my son in the long run?

Instead, I run away, buy him Pokémon cards, and become the hero after my wife and mother-in-law have done all the hard work.

Being a parent with depression and its "branches" is hard. There are no "rights or wrongs." And, indeed, there are no top tips and hacks that consistently work. Rather than find the easy way out, we need to look at where we're going wrong and fix the issues ourselves. Otherwise, we're bringing down the rest of the household team.

Unfortunately, I am struggling to be part of the "team." It is hard to stop your mind from making you feel like a terrible person and parent. In fact, sometimes, your mind may convince you that you're not a "real" parent at all. You're just an imposter standing in the way of your family's happiness.

Make mistakes, learn, and carry on 

If you feel this way, know that your mind is distorting your reality. You're not a bad parent. It is easy to run away from the unknown, especially when conflict is involved. It's easier still when you know you will likely come out worse for wear in the battle. You must have enough time and space to process and digest what you need to do to help.

I wrote this article one day; by the next, I'd failed at many of the things I'd written. But you can't always be what your child needs or think they need.

Children can be difficult. They still need to develop a sound theory of mind and learn to articulate more complex emotions. Imagine how difficult it must be to explain yourself to an impatient parent without those skills. Or to an angry parent while you're fearful of getting into trouble.

I try to remember that, and I try to remember my own struggles with communication too. It's the only way to move forward and strengthen the child-parent bond.

Parenting is the most demanding role in the world. There are no doubts or arguments about that. Make sure you look after yourself and your mind; you can't look after others if you don't.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for mental health evaluations, management, or treatment. Please consult with a professional who can apply best practices and appropriate resources to your situation.

NPS-ALL-NP-00765 JANUARY 2023