Mid-life crisis parenting. How to move from perfect storm to perfect opportunity when parent change and volatility is afoot and teens are on the scene.
Ok. Never knowingly under-dramatized. But I feel like I have had a bit of a mid-life crisis over the Christmas break…hence a pause in the newsletters. And I know people like me are supposed to have it all under control…you know ‘life coach’, ‘wellbeing speaker’, ‘relationships expert’…but from time-to-time, I really don’t.
I remember our course leader Dr Graham Music, at the Tavistock, telling us trainee psychotherapists that everyone knows about post-natal depression, but – and here he laughed – the untold story was that actually the toughest, most depressing time to be a parent was to be the parent of teens. Because you could only look at your life as it is – as something half-gone – whilst your children were just starting out and starting to leave you!
This article explores that glorious territory where the reality of being human meets the fantasy of being able to somehow soar above the bumps in life’s little road. And my mid-life crisis was inadvertently self-imposed in what with hindsight I can see partly as an act of hubris, partly a scientific experiment on myself… But I think it resonates – particularly for (m)any 40+ mums and partners…and children…
Because it only takes ONE person to be living in dysregulation at home for the whole family system to be affected. Whether it’s a teen or tween pushing at the buttons and boundaries with anger management issues or the heavy hand of anxiety pushing and pulling life out of shape.
So here’s the thing. Mid-COVID, age 48, I watched the Davina McCall and Mariella Frostrup documentaries on the menopause. I’d had some symptoms for about 4 years, seen a doctor or two to check it out, had some tests and been told I was too young…Ordinarily you’d be thrilled – right? But no, I kind of knew something wasn’t right with my energy levels and intermittent disrupted sleep caused by hot flushes at night.
And I was really inspired to hear the narrative flip – to hear that there were significant benefits to taking HRT and that recent research put the risks into a much clearer perspective. The key deciding factor for me was the link between estrogen and cognitive functioning. In my work – especially as a speaker – I need my words to flow, and my memory to be in good order.
You build up the doses in homeopathic increments over time. So it’s not quite like the conversion on the road to Damascus…And for me, the benefits were OK, but didn’t really enable my energy to bounce back. I nearly always have to watch the second half of The Apprentice again because invariably I am asleep for the board room drama. So as time passed, and the nightly anointments with increasing amounts of Estrogel took ever longer to dry…I got a bit bored and discontented. The hubris of thinking I could age medicine-free or that maybe somehow I’d ridden out the storm, and the wishful thinking that my menopause would somehow be over took hold…
To cut a long story short, I saw the doctor, reduced the dose incrementally, and by early December was once again HRT free. Ironically it is only through giving it up that I now REALLY know what it was doing for me. Through December I basically had a crash course in my own menopause.
It wasn’t pretty. Random hot flushes – and cold flushes. Accompanied not infrequently by irritation -if not full-blown rage. It wouldn’t take much to put me into anxious states – and normally I am not an anxious person. I would feel a tightness in my chest, and on those days, my heart rate would be up by 20 beats per minute on my usual resting state. Night time was literally a nightmare. Vivid dreams of imminent danger. Anxiety dreams…boring anxiety dreams – the lowest point being the one where my wallet got stolen and I had to stop all the cards…
Of course all this took a toll on family life at home. Sluggish and tired one minute, feeling like flipping my lid the next. A falling out with a family member left me tearful, ruminative, brittle, and shook my confidence. For those we live with, it’s very difficult. The old-fashioned term for the menopause used to be ‘the change’…and it’s hard for those closest to us to see us change and be unable to follow what’s going on in our inner world – whether that’s the inner world of the intemperate body thermostat, or the tempo of the increasingly irritable or anxious mind.
It only takes one person in the family to be out of sorts and dysregulated for the whole family system to be affected…walking on egg-shells, or pushing back at less measured, less reasoned behaviour. And to be fair, my fam were amazing. But, what helped was being communicative about what was going on, and helping them help me…Which is not something I am very good at at all. But has been very much thanks to my therapist. ( A plug for Better Help https://www.betterhelp.com ) More of which later.
I am now back on the HRT…One small step at a time, building it up again – but with now absolute conviction that it is the right thing for me – and my family. To help me regulate my body temperature. And to help regulate my mind, and be better regulated with my nearest and dearest.
So here’s the learning from my mid-life-crisis / menopause journey…And though obviously much of what I have said so far is based on the female experience…maybe some of this will be helpful – no matter what your gender…I hope so. BUT – not only might these elements be helpful for you, they can also be used as teachable moments and approaches to model for your children…
Observation without judgement
One of the highest forms of intelligence – the mindset that provides the springboard for learning. Focus on the noticing, clarifying the way you see the experience of how you operate when under pressure at times of change. Look to learn – with curiosity and compassion…not to judge.
Carl Jung said “Those who look outside, dream…Those who look inside, awaken.” There are always external fingers we can point… ‘I did this because you did that…’ Or because ‘work is hard right now’…or ‘modern life is too fast paced’…All these elements are external observations, beyond our control. What is IN our control, however, is how we are interacting with these stressors – inside our minds… What are the narratives / meanings we are making of these external factors…and how well are they serving us?
Notice when patterns in your behaviour change. Especially if it’s in ways you’re not vastly proud of. But instead of getting caught on the hook of self-blame, get curious about it. Lean in to some detective work. Are there certain triggers that accompany? For me it was noticing that if the smallest thing went wrong, or added to my list, it felt like persecution!
Observing without judging – Application for our children…
Teaching our children to do this – from an early age – AND ESPECIALLY WHEN TEENS – helps increase their self-awareness, and their self-compassion skills. To be softer with themselves when they are struggling, and not adding the second dart of suffering – self-blame and self-criticism. Moving from ‘I did a bad thing, I am a bad person, people won’t like me…’ to ‘I did a bad thing…that was a mistake…what really happened there…what can I learn…what can I do…
We can’t change, what we can’t see, and when our teenagers internalize a harsh inner critic – as is all too easy – it is harder for them to see their actions cleanly and clearly, and be able to step outside patterns of behaviour that keep them stuck. When we are practiced at doing this for ourselves, we can help them be better at compassionate self observation by holding back on delivering our judgments, solutions, decrees, and asking them questions with genuine curiosity to help them explore and reflect.
Tuning to the body (interoception) as an antidote to overactive attunement to threat… (neuroception).
Dial up your awareness of your body’s feeling states. We are feeling creatures who think. Our emotions are actually your brain’s interpretation of signals from the nervous system about what’s going on in your body. Being attuned to our physical state – at rest, and on the flightpath to overwhelm / overload is empowering because it gives us the chance to intervene, create a fire-break, self-regulate.
This is called INTEROCEPTION. Being aware of what our heart rate feels like when at rest, what a good temperature is for us, when are we tired, over-tired, wired…when we are on the hungry / hangry axis. When we are thirsty – and when we need the loo. Being able to notice ‘Where am I at?’, ask yourself the question ‘What do I need?’ and DO something about it is empowering. We’re not good at doing these things when our autonomic nervous system is over-revved.
One thing that was hugely helpful for me over this past tricky month, was being able to notice that my heart rate was faster than normal. My regular practice of using the breath to calm and open my mind, and the accompanying use of my smart watch to pace my breath and give heart rate readings, means I know my normal resting heart rate is around 62. Noticing that change enabled me to increase use of my breath to slow my system, and be kinder to myself.
Noticing the fact, labelling it kindly, and doing something about it, was the gateway to making wiser decisions about what extras I was taking on, and find better ways of giving myself a break – so that I could back myself away from a breaking point that would mean the stress I was feeling would push out into the world – typically into family life – by being, for instance, more snappish and less tolerant…being more insistent, pushy, blaming, than I would ordinarily choose to be.
The same went for noticing body temperature and rather than changing clothes through the day, changing what I wore so I could layer on, layer off at much earlier stages than when either shivering or boiling over – physically and mentally!
Application for our children and teens
Young children simply don’t have these skills – and the more explicit we are in helping them learn these skills, the more we can empower them to understand their needs and speak to them and act on them more helpfully than it emerging in their behaviour and mood.
Talking to them about how to recognise the signs that they want the loo, need to eat, are getting tired, or need to have a little quiet time alone…and instead of telling them that they need this, asking them questions that can help them identify this for themselves is a great way to start.
Equally helping them take charge of when they’ve eaten too little or too much and knowing what it feels like in their bodies when they are starting to feel hungry, or too full. This also means not being too fixed in expectations -eg about having to finish the food on their plate. Or about having to wait for their meal if they are having meltdowns due to their growing body’s need for something nutritionally dense… This does not help them with their bodily autonomy or to have that balanced relationship with food based on what feels good for me, what is good for me. (NB this does not mean a license to binge on Haribo because it feels good)…
Essentially, being attuned to our body, means we can understand it and respond to it’s needs. It’s hard to do this when there is too much ‘noise’ – stress, pressure, clutter, activity…IN the lives of tweens and teens we also need to come back to these skills. Their lives are more fast-paced and stimulation rich than ever before, and these are crucial skills to help manage and balance anxious tendencies.
From the age of 5 at school, we start to instruct children to ignore the signals of their bodies and live more in their heads – paying attention in school, sitting still and quiet on the carpet, waiting for break time. Complete more cognitive tasks and develop cognitive skills. And this aspect of our socialisation of our young has some merits in part…but needs to be balanced. In my training work with teachers and school leaders, one of the number one priorities in terms of improving wellbeing, performance, mental health, is self-regulation skills.
With the volatility of the teenage years, when the brain, body, and hormonal systems are undergoing significant change, it is well worth helping them tune to their body to help their self-regulation skills by having a rich tool-kit of calming strategies. It is reassuring, and calming to know that you can increasingly head off overwhelm at the pass, at the bridge, and at the gate…to use your body’s signals as a call to action, rather than a point of hijack.
Drawing on our social support…
We all learn to co-regulate – or access calm and reassurance – before we learn to self-regulate. At any stage of life this is true.
“We are biologically built to mirror and echo the feelings of others…being entwined with others is the whole point of life…” Dr Sarah Garfinkel, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, UCL – How to Listen to your Body – A Thorough Examination, BBC Radio 4.
Talk to your loved ones about what’s happening. You don’t have to self-diagnose. But it stops the elephant in the room of your freak-out behaviour getting too large and trumpety…
It puts what’s going on with you in context and can reduce the fear-and-fantasy narratives getting out of hand. Young children and teens will tune in to the changing vibes around you…their negativity bias will make meanings of it. They will notice – like your partner will – that the ‘approach / avoid’ sense of safety around you is different…and over time, their agile brains may create quite worrying and frightening interpretations…Owning what’s happening and talking about it can be a brave thing to do – but it can create an enormous release in family life when we are showing up differently, and the rest of the fam are on eggshells…
In my case, it was talking about the menopause symptoms emerging from coming off HRT, but for other parents, it might be something more complicated, in which case being able to frame a clear, objective, and age-appropriate nutshell of what is going in is helpful – and best prepared with care in advance of talking about it. Gah! Life…and growing old!!
It’s basically a heads up to say something along these lines… ‘You know, I’ve been feeling a bit off lately. I think I’m a bit extra irritable / teary / reactive / preoccupied / worried…If I’ve been a bit of extra hard work, I’m really sorry – it’s something I need to take responsibility for. Here’s what I think might help me, if you’re OK to talk about it and help make a plan…do you think you could…?’
Outside of the family, getting support also means moving out of suffering to be proactive about getting the right help and advice. Whether that means seeing a doctor…and best not hold back on scheduling an appointment with wait times potentially extending…Or consulting a professional who can support you with your thinking and feeling. This may be a coach, like me, or a counsellor, a clinical psychologist, or a therapist. It has never been easier to do so, post pandemic. You can consult the BACP website (the British Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists) and search for accredited members by specialism, and by area. https://www.bacp.co.uk/about-therapy/using-our-therapist-directory/
Equally, I was able to find an excellent therapist specialising in the areas I wanted to work on to do with my own family life, attachment history, and family systems, via Better Help. I was able to have an initial consultation within 24 hours. And certainly, I felt better for reaching out to a professional myself, and starting to look at some of the material that was coming up for me from my childhood background from a fresh and empathic lens – AS WELL as being able to talk to cherished friends and my immediate family. https://www.betterhelp.com
Application for our teens…
Being collaborative means taking responsibility, owning the situation, and modelling recognising your needs and getting your needs met in alliance with other people. This is a really important life skill for all of us in times of struggle. And is really important for children, teens, and tweens to develop.
When our kids are teens, they and their friends, will be engaging in more advanced social and emotional territory. Peers in their orbit – and who they care about – or even they themselves will have times in the course of their development where they may be and feel stuck and overwhelmed. Modelling talking about things as a parent, getting help and appreciating support is one of the most powerful ways in which we can show them that getting help is a good thing. Brene Brown’s book on The Power of Vulnerability, and her TED talk are really inspiring sources of encouragement in this respect. http://The power of vulnerability | Brené Brown – Bing video
Very interestingly, despite my background, and knowing what I do for a living, I was interested to see our 13 year old’s concern at me seeing a therapist – as though that somehow made things more serious and worrying. It was GREAT to be able to talk that through with her. It gave me a golden chance to model the importance of getting help. To talk about how me working with a therapist was EXACTLY like seeing a physio for the mind and doing physio exercises to help strengthen pain-points and the places in my mind and hurts that emerged through family conflict that I want to work on…
The collaborative element of leading from our vulnerability with courage is so powerful because it empowers other family members with information, understanding, the ability to empathise more, and equip them with mutually discussed co-regulation strategies. This means the tool-kit we have for helping each other access calm and get back within our ‘Window of tolerance’ (Dr Dan Siegel), where we can think and respond more openly, and act more intentionally.
What is particularly important to realise is that our teens KNOW when there’s something up with us. They can feel it in the atmosphere and energy we create around us. They have been watching and sensing us from birth. Giving them some agency, some direction in the ways in which they can help is hugely empowering. It meets their developmental need for attention, acknowledgment, and autonomy. By including them in an age-appropriate way in the circle-of-trust of what role they can play, we are helping them be and feel responsible and members of the family team. NB that is NOT the same as making our children responsible for us, or becoming caretakers of our mood. It just demystifies what’s going on, and reduces the anxiety of it, and enables them to take effective action and be in connection with us even during times of strain.
Restructure – the way to bind anxiety, is to take action
Reducing the allostatic load of family life is always a good thing to do when things are revving up at home. Allostatic load – the scientific term for the wear and tear on the body. Take stock, reduce stressors. Streamline routines, predictability. Focus on what is important and clear away some of the tasks and things we add to our ways of ‘doing’ family life. We are very, very good at adding in the extras – just joining another choir, just another tutor…just another social event we all have to go to…
Clear the path so that there is more down time, a return to more access to just ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’. I have heard numerous child psychologists speak to this as a way of settling down presenting behaviours of mental ill-health or neurodiversity pinch-points. Simplification and a more strategic, pared back focus, rather than playing the whack-a-mole of trying to fix all problems all at once.
Reducing the stress in the whole family system, taking charge as the adult or adults steering the ship…making the home the safe harbour for all will not only help the family member who might be struggling. Whether that’s you, your partner, or one or more of the kiddoes…it will also open the window of tolerance of everyone around them. When things are more restful, we are more resourced. When we are better resourced, we are able to be more compassionate, open, generous, and creative in our responses.
I hope this reflection on my recent struggles and big learning might be of help to you, whatever your situation – especially when thinking about how to manage change, difficulty, uncertainty at home. As always, we are stronger together. When we ‘keep calm and carry on’ we continue by default, rather than by design. We struggle to lift ourselves up, and we prevent others from having the chance to lift us up also.
Maybe you, or one of your family is struggling, and you’d like to look at things afresh with someone who can bring some objectivity…Or maybe you are going through a period of change, or wanting to take stock and re-set things for the New Year. If any of this has resonated, and you’d like to book a consultation with me, I’d love to hear from you.
Take action, seek support, and go for growth.
With love and gratitude,
Contact me if you’re going through a period of change either as an individual or in family life and would like a consultation. It may be a stand-alone session, or a short series – or even develop into an intermittent part of your self-care routine like having a massage for your mind…
Whatever the situation, you can expect the following from a consultation with me:
- Being and feeling deeply heard.
- Being able to look at your situation more clearly, compassionately, and creatively.
- Becoming better informed via psychological or educational perspectives.
- Clarification of your objectives, your sense of purpose.
- Developing a clear path forward of action to take, explorations and enquiries to make.