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10 Things Veteran Parents Did for Me

Lisa Lambert
By Lisa Lambert

My friend Nancy turned to me one day and said, “We are beyond friendship now. We are comrades in arms. We are veterans of the battles we’ve fought in children’s mental health.” I thought a minute and nodded. It was true. There is a special category for a parent of a child with mental health needs who does what it takes to get services for their children. You often feel like you’ve been through a war. As Susan Rzuclido writes in Welcome to Beirut, “bullets fly and bombs drop and there are no discharges out”. If you’re lucky, you also find other parents, the ones you share a kinship with.

veteran parentsWithin that group of comrades in arms is a smaller number. They are experienced parents or veteran parents. They teach newbie parents the shortcuts and jargon and give indispensable, practical advice. These parents, the veteran parents, are the ones who also go further to change the way things are done, not just for themselves for but other families, too.

The veteran parents who came before me showed me the ropes of writing IEPs, how to argue with professionals and what to say to my insurance company. They were heroes, comforters and cheerleaders rolled into one. When I was a rookie, they were invaluable. I honestly don’t know what I’d have done without them.

Here are 10 of the things they did for me:
  1. veteran parentsThey listened with their minds wide open. They weren’t thinking about a potential diagnosis or whether my son fit into some eligibility criteria. Just being heard completely is an enormous gift.
  2. They told me that I needed to match my parenting to my child’s needs. “Be the parent your son needs you to be, not the one you planned to be,” one mother told me. This was hard. I had a son who needed to hear everything directly and over and over again. He didn’t pick up things by observing or by osmosis. I had to be the one to change. It turned out to be one of the best pieces of advice I ever got.
  3. They told me that I was the expert on my child and my family. Everyone has an opinion from “wait and see” to “give him a swat.” But parenting comes out of your relationship with your child. You gain knowledge from others, but your expertise is uniquely your own. Trust your gut.
  4. They let me cry or yell or catch my breath if I needed to. We try to tell our stories with a stiff upper lip much of the time and apologize if we cry. But parenting a child with mental health needs hurts, exhausts, angers, frustrates and saddens. A veteran parent gets it and makes it safe to weep and shout if you have to.
  5. veteran parentsThey never judged me. When your child has meltdowns in public, misses school, can’t do after-school activities, won’t eat or eats too much, or is withdrawn, there are plenty of people who are sure that it’s your parenting. Parents who’ve been there understand how much is out of your control and how helpless you can feel.
  6. They showed me the shortcuts, but more than that, they gave me the go ahead to push the system. Knowledge of what goes into an IEP or what service to ask for is never enough. How to do those things is important too. Experienced parents tell you their own war stories and you learn the” how-to’s” far better that way. You also learn that there are times to say the uncomfortable things that simply need to be said. Afterward, you are usually glad you did.
  7. They redefined success. We think we know what success looks like for our children, right? When our child is not the good student or well behaved, we need to figure out what success really is. Parents who went before me had redefined it for themselves and encouraged me to change it up too.
  8. veteran parentsThey asked me about my other son. Most of us are not parenting an only child. Yet, we – and those who are helping us – are so focused on the problems of the “identified child” that it takes up all the space in the conversation. We love our other kids and often worry that they are getting the short end of the stick. Asking how they are means a lot and lights up my day.
  9. They told me I was a good parent. Just like redefining success, we have to think through what it means to be a good parent. For me, it was making sure the relationship with my son was like a weather resistant coating – nothing could really penetrate and bog us down. That got us through a lot of rough times.
  10. They encouraged me to turn stories into humor and develop a wicked sense of what is funny. Sometimes the things that happen are shocking and overwhelming. But they have their funny side too. Find it, go ahead and tell those stories – especially to other veteran parents – will save your sanity.
Lisa Lambert
Lisa Lambert is a writer, speaker and mental health advocate.  She is also the director of PPAL, a family-run, grassroots nonprofit organization based in Boston that advocates for families whose children have mental health needs.  When her oldest son was 7, he made his first suicide attempt and Lisa did what all parents do:  she networked, learned and became a passionate advocate.  Along the way, she set out to change the children’s mental health system for families like her own.  She has won several awards for her mental health advocacy. In her free time, Lisa is a dog foster mom, a coffee fanatic (her mom was Finnish after all!) and unabashed fan of big ideas.  She has two rescue dogs of her own and fosters for a Labrador retriever rescue.  Her own dogs and the foster dogs teach her how important it is to focus on the important things in life, both large and small.  They remind her every day that passion and action help us mend the world.

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