The Practically Unparentable

Sindy Prankard tells the poignant tale of her struggle to raise a teenager suffering from mental ill health – and how, despite everything, she is prouder of him than ever.

When the first glow of parenthood fades the sleep-deprived parents of a teething, fractious baby probably wonder what has hit them. It can’t get any worse than this, can it? Then the heart-swelling moment of a child’s firsts step is replaced by the realisation that junior is able to get to places you would rather he could not. And then the terrible twos hit and you ask yourself again, ‘Can it really get any worse than this?’

I remember when my own children were small – I had four under the age of four years and I was run ragged – someone suggested I enjoy these precious moments for ‘it only gets harder.’ I was dumbfounded. Were they kidding? They weren’t! Nothing prepares you for teenagers – not even having been one yourself. The answering back, the stumping up the stairs with declarations of ‘I hate you’ or ‘You just don’t understand’, the banging of doors, the storming out of the house and the tears! Oh my God, so many tears, probably mostly from me. You hurt with them in almost equal measure when their heart gets broken for the first time. You feel their embarrassment, their sense of failure, and every rejection of them feels like a personal attack on you. You worry when they are late but are concerned if they don’t behave like normal adolescents. Can it get any worse than this? It can when you add mental health problems into the scenario.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I realise mental ill health is not the only difficulty facing parents of teenagers, but for me it has created the most problems. The sleep deprivation caused by parenting a newborn seems like a fairytale existence in comparison to the anxiety-filled hours of the night when you torture yourself as to what you did wrong and what you can possibly do to put things right. I could suggest that anyone else having similar problems should not torment themselves, but it won’t work; I still do it despite knowing it to be futile.

I realised quite early on that one of my sons had ‘problems’ and sought professional help. The years of intermittent therapy, medication and even hospitalisation appear to have done little to help and he resents me for this now. Despite this, I would always advise seeking help from the professionals for they have many success stories and it is surely better to do something rather than nothing. Had I done nothing I have no doubt I would have been punished for that as vehemently as I have for having done something, but I stand by my decision for it was done with the best intentions.

Might our story be different had I not acted? What if I had avoided intervention in the hope of a happy ending? No one can answer that, of course. While the doctors argue for the benefits of their treatments, I worry that we turn to easily to medication these days. Despite my reassurances that taking medication to help with the chemical imbalance of the brain was no different to a diabetic requiring insulin or an epileptic needing tablets to control their fits, my son was reluctant to take his tablets, and I don’t blame him; they made him sleepy and unresponsive. Although it gave me and his brothers a respite from the angry outbursts and threats of violence, the tears, the tantrums and the horrific sight of him soaked in his own blood from self-inflicted wounds, he was not him. Despite the aforementioned horrors my son was also capable of such love. He could be so generous and kind, protective and caring, and funny… so, so funny. On the medication he was, in his own words, a ‘zombie’, unable to feel or react. But without the tablets he was almost impossible to parent.

All children, even teenagers, require boundaries. They need something to push against as they find their way in the world. Parents, and school to a degree, provide these boundaries in normal circumstances, but how do you impose rules on someone who is unpredictable? When a teenager has no respect for consequences the fear of the outcome of their actions is no longer a deterrent. How do you deal with an adolescent who may self-harm, run away from home or even overdose? How do you parent the practically unparentable?

When my son’s outbursts were at their worst I once again sought help from the doctors. Their advice was to ‘call the police’ for they did not have the resources to deal with ‘an angry young man’ and as he was eighteen, and therefore technically an adult, they could not discuss his problems without my son’s written authority. I was offered the opportunity to join a group of other parents experiencing similar problems. I realise this may help some people but for me it was a depressing scenario. All that anguish and heartache in one room as parents compared horror stories didn’t appeal to me.

So we battled on, unsupported and floundering, but always hopeful that time and maturity would alleviate and eventually heal. To a degree it has and, although we do have the occasional setback, it is nothing compared to the trials of teenage angst combined with a mental illness.

My son recently texted me telling me, ‘Sorry for every bit of hurt and pain I have caused you and I’m sorry I’ve not made you as proud as I should have. I’m really proud to call you my mum and I’ll do my best to make you as proud as you deserve. I love you.’ He was wrong to believe he hadn’t made me proud and, at that moment, I was more proud of him than I can convey. So, to any other parent experiencing the problems of parenting the practically unparentable I say this, ‘It really does get better.’

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.