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On parenting an older child who struggles with mental health

There’s this X Ambassadors song that one of my past foster sons and I used to love to sing together whenever it came on the radio. Our favorite part goes like this:

“Hold on, hold on…hold on to me. Cuz I’m a little unsteady, a little unsteady…”

Whenever this boy was having a mental health breakdown, I sang it in my head, and I tried to remember that he needed someone to be a rock for him during those times when he was most vulnerable, even though it seemed as though all he wanted to do was push me away. This boy I loved so much had multiple disabilities and diagnoses, including mental illness, and to be honest, of all the needs on the list, that was the one that always rocked our little foster family’s world the most.

This child experienced more loss, more trauma, than I in my sheltered existence could ever imagine. I understood that he needed empathy and support. But when he hit me, when he broke things, when he screamed from the other side of a door that I was struggling to keep closed between us “I’M GOING TO KILL YOU!”, I could barely remember any of that. I loved (and still love) this child. He was the light of my life, the most creative and fascinating little person I’ll ever have the privilege to know. But in those moments, I didn’t feel any of that. All I felt is an exhausted, frantic fear, the pounding heart stress of a trapped animal. In those moments, I had to remind myself of why I was doing this.

My son deserved the nurturing I was giving him. It was not his fault that he experienced trauma and then debilitating PTSD and disassociating episodes as a result of that trauma. It is not his fault that he and his mama experienced prenatal abuse, adding extra challenges for them both before he even entered this world. My son deserved someone who was strong enough to love him at his worst, and brave enough to push him back to being his best. He was worth it, this beautiful child. No matter how bad the storm got, I was hell bent on never giving up on this child, this hoped for boy who I was so lucky to meet and raise for a time. He wasn’t what I expected at all, and at times the challenges threatened to overwhelm me, but he was worth the struggle. Underneath the layers of challenging behaviors, there was a precious treasure. I would take this miracle over a child with lesser challenges any day, for although the storms were fierce, when the sun finally came out within him, was a really beautiful day.

“But if you love me, don’t let go…”

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