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10 Things I Learned During a Year of Psychotherapy

Following my son’s diagnosis, our family’s boat began taking on so much water that I feared we would all drown. It’s then that I began seeing a therapist — not to talk about my child — but to help me work through my own challenges. Here are the most valuable things I’ve learned.

My eldest son was diagnosed with autism just after the arrival of his new brother. It was an exhausting, stressful, confusing, and frustrating time. I wasn’t sure I could navigate it on my own, so I decided to seek help from a mental health professional. Here are the top 10 things I have learned about myself, parenting, and relationships since I started psychotherapy a year ago.

1. Don’t give it back

Kids are hard-wired to annoy you. My psychiatrist’s theory is that back in pre-historic times, agitating their parents was one of the most efficient ways children could attract attention — protection from nasty beasts. When your children deliberately annoy or yell at you, don’t reciprocate — just ignore it for the attention-seeking behavior that it likely is. Of course, if a Jurassic beast is indeed involved, you may want to look into it.

If you do lose your cool and snap at your kids — which is inevitable — wait until everyone has calmed down before you discuss what happened and why you lost your temper. Even if they are too young to understand your explanation, research suggests that the tone of your voice alone can mend rifts with young kids and help reaffirm that you are there for them.

2. Building resilience in your kids starts with love

The issue of building resilience in children is vast, too difficult to simplify under a single bullet point… but I’ll give it a try. What I’ve learned from interacting with my own children and speaking with my psychiatrist is that resilience and confidence start with love. Always remind your kids that you love them; never leave them wondering, even when you are livid.

3. Understanding your own emotions makes you a better husband and father

Talking about feelings does not come naturally to me. Faced with conflict or perceived disrespect, I shut down and go into “the cave.” Speaking to someone about the things that were making me frustrated helped me begin to recognize and describe them, thereby allowing me to express them more assertively. Although this may ultimately lead to a greater number of mini-arguments, I have come to understand that…

[Free Resource: 11 ADHD Coping Mechanisms]

4. Conflict is inevitable and even desirable

When you and your partner can more freely express your feelings, mini-conflicts are likely to surface more often. These little ruptures are actually healthy as they can provide you with important conflict-resolution skills. The alternative is that feelings and emotions get suppressed, leading to wilder flare-ups that neither of you are equipped to resolve.

5. Time for yourself and your partner is crucial

When my eldest boy was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, his pediatrician told us to make sure we made time for ourselves and each other. We didn’t really listen to her advice. We felt so guilty and scared that we spent every spare minute researching his condition and possible treatments. That and we had a newborn, who also demanded a lot of attention. Our relationship suffered as a result of this and while “us time” is not back to pre-kid levels (and probably won’t be until they move out!), at least we’re more conscious of it now. I, for one, know that if I am able to get a round of golf in, doing so is not a purely selfish act — I actually come back refreshed, rejuvenated, and ultimately a better husband and father.

The often-used analogy of the oxygen masks in an airline emergency is an apt one. Before you get the mask on your child, get it on yourself, otherwise you both might suffocate.

6. Ask your partner to come along to a therapy session

I cannot emphasize enough the importance of taking your partner along to therapy sessions. When talking to an independent therapist, you and your partner will often say things that will provide great insight for the other that cannot be gained when it is just the two of you talking (or not talking, as is more often the case). My partner took a little convincing, but when she finally agreed to attend she immediately saw value in the exercise.

7. The importance of connectedness

When experiencing significant stress or anxiety, my natural tendency is to isolate myself for fear of burdening others. Like me, you may lack the confidence to engage and/or feel guilty spending time away from your family. This is certainly how I felt. Seeing a psychiatrist provided clarity about my thoughts and the confidence I needed to articulate what my family was going through to significant people in my life.

Before seeking therapy, I felt isolated even within my own family unit. Isolation can wreak havoc because uninterrupted or challenged unpleasant thoughts can morph into something ugly and out of control. And ain’t nobody got time for that.

[Self Test: Is My Child Autistic? Signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder]

8. Whatever doesn’t kill you…

Many families undergo significant hardship, stress, and grief following a child’s diagnosis. My psychiatrist uses the analogy of a boat. You and your partner are sailing a boat in calm, pleasant seas — everything seems okay on the surface. In the back of your mind, however, you’re wondering what would happen if a storm came. Would your boat be strong enough to withstand the pressure?

Well, for us a storm did come. It rocked us, made us seasick, and we came pretty close to capsizing. But ultimately we weathered it and made it through to the other side. Now, back in calm, pleasant seas, we know our boat is strong. Very strong, in fact, and in some ways we’re glad we faced the storm in the first place because we don’t have any nagging doubts about the strength of our boat.

9. Seek help from someone you trust

Culturally, we do not seek help with our mental health, perhaps because we are afraid to show weakness. This is utter rubbish. The first port of call should be your primary care physician, who will refer you to the appropriate services. It may take a little effort to find someone whom you trust and respect, but I assure you it’s worthwhile.

The first person I saw spent the first twenty minutes or so talking about possible naturopathic treatments for my son’s autism, and not my mental health issues at all. While this approach may have been suitable for someone else, it certainly wasn’t for me and I didn’t go back to see her. The next person I saw listened to the grief and hardship my family was undergoing and simply said, “heartbreaking” — a word that hadn’t come to my mind, yet summed it all up perfectly. That one word showed me, in an instant, that he got it and was here to help.

10. Keep seeking help, even after you are “fixed”

Though my family is no longer in “crisis,” and my original problems are largely resolved, I continue to go to psychotherapy sessions on a monthly basis. To paraphrase him, the traditional approach is to treat mental health issues like a broken leg — heal the break, then send the patient on his way. A better approach to improving and maintaining mental health, however, is to keep seeing an individual even after he has been “healed.” For it is during this period that you can really capitalize on what you have learned through psychotherapy, and begin to achieve long-term, sustained, positive mental health outcomes.

[Read: Best Therapies for Kids with Autism]