Life can be stormy, and every storm is different, as SEND parent, Charlie Mitchell, knows well. She has written a visual narrative to help guide and support parents/carers who are facing emotional challenges and signposts to helpful resources.

I have three amazing children who have helped me to see things differently. I had been working as an Executive Coach with senior staff in charities and social enterprises. However, having my three children changed a lot for me. My eldest (aged 13) has autism and anorexia, my youngest (aged five) has Down Syndrome and leukaemia, and my middle son sometimes gets caught in the storm himself.

To help cope with the complex behaviour, I attended a course on managing challenging behaviour when my eldest was nine years old and the tutor explained different approaches on how to support children and young people with challenging behaviour. In that moment, I felt quite overwhelmed and underprepared to support my child. While I understood the principles of what I needed to do, I felt I needed support with the emotional journey to be able to put the practical actions in place. I went on my own journey, exploring my feelings about different aspects of my parenting, and this has helped me to support my eldest much more effectively.

Emotional challenges

I found my eldest’s behaviour very challenging. I felt embarrassed, ashamed, angry, grief at the loss of the family life I had wished for, joy at the milestones, sadness at other people not recognising those milestones. I felt that if different emotions were like different colours of the rainbow, I regularly went through the whole spectrum!

It also reminded me of some challenges from my childhood that were unresolved, and I felt more trauma when my youngest was born with Down Syndrome and was later diagnosed with leukaemia. Life has not stopped to wait for me to catch up, so I have needed to learn how to navigate my emotional journey while life is still unfolding at a pace.

I wrote my book ‘Gifts from the Heart of the Storm’ while in hospital with my youngest son who has Down Syndrome, following his diagnosis of leukaemia. We went to A&E on 4th March and, within a few hours, it was clear Thomas had leukaemia. We were transferred to a specialist children’s hospital where we stayed for four months. Due to COVID-19, I was unable to leave the hospital or have any visitors, so was Thomas’s sole carer 24 hours a day, seven days a week for nearly four months. I had two hours a week to do my food shopping, have a shower and prepare meals. It was an extreme situation, especially not having access to any of my usual coping methods.

Finding support

I have found specific groups really helpful. For example, there is a group for parents with children who have both Down Syndrome and leukaemia, and a group for parents with autistic children who have eating disorders. These have been helpful for the practical aspects of ‘what do I do in this situation?’. However, the groups can also be difficult from a trauma perspective, as many parents go round in circles, struggling to find a way through, and finding their own emotional journey understandably challenging. It’s not always helpful for emotional resilience and I know parents who avoid those groups when they are not feeling robust.

Check out this community group for support: https://www.facebook.com/groups/starseedparenting/

When Thomas was diagnosed with leukaemia, the nurses did not have time to discuss my emotional responses to the diagnosis. I had a one-hour counselling session in four months of being in hospital, where the counsellor ended up in tears. I was experiencing challenges on multiple fronts – my eldest was diagnosed with anorexia while I was in hospital with my youngest. This was not enough emotional support. When I got upset one day, a professional suggested I stopped crying and had a cup of tea. They also said many parents go home and have a breakdown, which is unsurprising if there isn’t support in hospital to help parents manage their emotions.

Putting pen to paper

book Gifts from the Heart of the Storm

I knew that I needed to develop Starseed Parenting to reach as many parents as possible. To say, ‘It’s OK to be emotional. Your emotions are welcome, and this is a safe place to share.’

My personal experience, and my experience of working with other parents, is that when crisis happens, we can often go into fight or flight mode. Emergency situations, whether to do with illness or behavioural challenges, mean we need to take physical action quickly. Our emotional experience must go on the back burner for a while. For some of us, we have been putting our emotional experience on the back burner for weeks, months or even years as we strive to support our family. It is very difficult to start any kind of healing journey when our body is flooded with adrenaline to run and cortisol as a result of panic.

Emotional first aid

There are five steps that parents can take right now to get to a calmer place, whatever is going on for them. It supports their nervous system and helps lower the adrenaline and cortisol, so that they can make better decisions about what to do next. There is also a healing journal parents can fill in to help them do these things on a regular basis.

Five steps to emotional first aid

1. Creating space for you – even five minutes an hour can make a difference.

2. Calming your body – finding peace whatever is going on.

3. Your support system – finding the people to help along the way.

4. Nourishing routine – creating habits that help you feel a little better.

5. Gathering the support you need – deciding what you need next.

A journey of discovery

I spent two years in 2019/2020 doing research with parents who have children with different support needs. I ran small groups and did a series of one-to-one interviews exploring what parents were experiencing and what they needed.

I found many interesting things, such as 20% of parents I had contact with considered themselves to have a disability, compared with just 8% of the general population. I found that fight or flight mode leads to confusion and also freeze, where parents feel unable to take positive steps forward. I found that the journey feels very isolating, especially when a child has a more unusual combination of challenges that does not fit into the standard boxes.

In 2021, I retrained in Inner Child Healing with FreeMind, as I found many parents were triggered by past events that were impacting on their current parenting experiences.

As the book emerged, while I was in hospital with Thomas, I did research into models such as the change cycle and five stages of grief as outlined by Kubler Ross. While these models were interesting, I found they didn’t go far enough to encompass the experiences I was having, so I built on these models to reflect the healing journey I and my clients had been on.

Be present

Get present and honest about what is going on for you right now, either by getting support to help you do this or through techniques like journaling. The more you can deeply connect with yourself, the more you can deeply connect with your children.

Look through the lens of love. It’s really easy to look at life from fear or panic, uncertainty or overwhelm. Practise looking at yourself, your children and your life from the perspective of love. It may not be perfect – it may be far from what you imagined – and yet we are all doing the best we can, and all deserve to be loved right here and right now. Ask the question: what would love do?

Put your shoulders down a little and back a little. Sit or stand a little straighter and take a deep breath in through your nose, breathing out a little longer through your mouth. This helps you to remember and connect with your personal power. Whatever is going on, you can deal with this. You can step up and do what is needed, even when it’s a stretch. You can grow the capacity you need to nourish yourself and your wonderful children, even when you don’t feel you have the capacity right now. You have the power to do this.

I learned that only focusing on the bad possibilities really didn’t help my mental health, and yet, when things were getting worse with Thomas, it felt very difficult to be open to the positive possibilities that he may recover. It took deep surrender for me to let go of my need to control the situation (which was impossible to do anyway) and allow the truth of positive possibilities to be present alongside the difficult possibilities. I was then able to be more present for Thomas, support him whatever the outcome and allow life to unfold as it would. This felt like a real turning point for me as a parent, as it gave me a different perspective that felt more real.

What’s next?

People have been really pleased to see that Gloucestershire Carers Legacy Fund has given a grant to make the book. The five steps to emotional first aid, the healing journal and self-coaching tools are available completely for free on the Starseed Parenting website. I have been invited to speak at specialist schools and with NHS networks where professionals can share the resources with parents they work with. I’m really excited to see as many parents as possible using the resources and getting the support they need on their journey.

I have grand plans to make thousands of parents aware of the free resources, therefore sharing through organisations will be a really big part of this plan. I will start by focusing on the contacts I already have and am interested in speaking with anyone who may be able to help me spread the word.

The more parents who are able to embrace their own emotional experiences, the more capacity they will have to support these incredible children we have been gifted with, no matter how their storm rages. I know we can find our own way through to a balanced place because I have trodden this path and would love to inspire other parents to find their way.

Further resources

Free ‘Gifts from the Heart of the Storm’ online book, including:

• 30-day healing journal.

• Five steps to emotional first aid.

• Video, audio and PDF versions of the book.

• Healing meditations.

• Self-coaching tools.

https://www.starseedparenting.org/courses/54081-gifts-from-the-heart-of-the-storm-book

Freemind App to support your healing – free for 60 days:

https://www.starseedparenting.org/freemind-healing-app

Charlie is giving away 2 copies of her book to MFON readers. If you’d like to be in with a chance of winning a copy, simply, fill out the form below. Winners will be drawn at random Friday 3rd June 2022.

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    Charlie has three incredible children who are a constant source of inspiration. They are lively, independent thinkers and each have their own unique way of being in the world. One has autism and anorexia, one has both Down Syndrome and Leukaemia and the third sometimes gets caught up in the storm himself. Charlie has had plenty of opportunities to sit with her own huge range of emotions, and uses creative self-healing approaches to help her to be the best mother she can be. After a significant career as an Executive Coach, Charlie qualified as a FreeMind Rapid Change Therapist, inspiring as many parents as possible to take their own healing journey. To find out more visit: www.starseedparenting.org