Transcript for
Re-release: Talking to your child about your mental illness

Runtime 00:33:02
Released 2/1/24

Narrator (0:00):

This is a re-release of one of our earlier episodes from the Emerging Minds Families podcast channel. We’ll be back in 2024 with a fresh series of engaging conversations with families and practitioners talking about supporting family life and the mental health and wellbeing of children in our care.


Welcome to the Emerging Minds Families podcast.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (00:23):

Hi, I’m Alicia Ranford, and in this series we talk to Australians about family life and mental health. In today’s podcast, we’re going to explore how to talk with children about mental health if you are experiencing difficulties. Mental health and wellbeing can be tough to talk about, especially if you’re experiencing mental illness yourself. It can be quite hard to know what to say, how much to say, and how to say it. And it’s quite common for parents to avoid talking about this with their children to perhaps try and protect them from some worry or confusion. But children are very cluey and will pick up on the changes around them.


The good news is research shows that when we talk openly about our struggles in an age appropriate way, it can help children to really make sense of the changes that they’ve seen in you when you’re unwell. It can also help them understand your difficulties are in no way their fault or responsibility.


Before we get started, I wanted to let you know our guest does talk about their experience of suicidal thoughts, which may be distressing to some listeners. If you would like further resources or support, please visit our show notes, or you can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14, and please remember to look after yourself.


So today I’m really looking forward to the conversation as I’m talking with John Clark. He’s a father of three and knows firsthand just how complex it can be navigating mental health difficulties whilst parenting children. Hi John. It’s so great to have you here. Could you perhaps start by telling us a bit about your experience?

John Clark (Guest) (02:00):

Sure, and thanks for having me, Alicia. It’s good to see you again and talk with you. So my experience was as a professional, so engineer by trade, and worked in the pulp and paper industry. Transitioned out of that into a not-for-profit sector into a management role. Engineers often get into management roles, possibly we shouldn’t.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (02:20):

I’m married to an engineer.

John Clark (Guest) (02:23):

Yeah, well, I’m great with numbers, and spreadsheets, and budgets and all that sort of stuff, strategic thinking, planning, but not necessarily that great with people. So I guess that was my undoing. And I had a bit of a performance kind of identity. So whenever I performed well, I felt good about myself. But in this role, I really struggled. And I struggled with my people skills, management skills. People are strange. So they don’t behave like machinery or systems or processes.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (02:50):

They don’t, do they?

John Clark (Guest) (02:52):

So I started a master’s degree in leadership actually to try and get my head around it, but it was all a little bit too little, too late. I started to work longer hours, work harder, until I eventually experienced what I now know was occupational burnout. And with that came depression and anxiety.


And so I guess at my worst, I was really struggling. I was kind of working all the time in my head, even if I wasn’t at work doing really long hours. The kids were probably at that stage maybe three, five, and seven years old when I started to go downhill. But I went downhill for a really long time.


I think people around me just thought I was just being a cranky person, but I kind of withdrew from people, isolated myself, found it really hard to sleep, so nightmares every night. So procrastinated, going to bed, waking up in the morning, fatigued, sleeping in, finding it very hard to get going. All the classic stuff.


I mean, mine’s just a garden variety depression, anxiety, but conflict at work. So very difficult, not productive, lights are on, but no one’s home. Conflict at home because I just wasn’t being the husband that I needed to be or the dad that I wanted to be. And quite intolerant, even to the point of being aggressive, angry. And I think that’s one of the reasons why sometimes, males don’t get picked up immediately for depression either because of that aggression, that overt sort of anger and irritability. I started using alcohol to try and manage all of that, and to get some sleep, and to try and numb the distress that I was experiencing. I was experiencing a lot of pain, although I wouldn’t have been able to identify that at the time.


So I felt trapped. It was terrible at home and it was terrible at work. And then the realisation came to me that I was a burden to everyone around me, and that was when the suicidal thoughts started, because I felt that I was such a burden to people that I needed to alleviate them of the burden that I was. And even though I loved my kids dearly, part of my suicidal ideation sounds a little bit silly now, but I wanted to make it look like an accident because I just did not want them to think that their dad didn’t love them enough to stick around for them. So that presented a real conundrum, because it is difficult to suicide and make it look like an accident. Well, it was to my brain anyway. So ironically it kind of kept me alive.


My brain had slowed down a lot. I actually couldn’t understand what people were saying to me sometimes. I knew people were speaking English, but I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of what they were saying. So this whole executive functioning decline, just in a world of pain.


So that really had a massive impact on my parenting, until I actually did do something about it. And that involved jumping on a Beyond Blue website, doing a quick survey, and finding out that I probably had major depressive disorder and that I needed to go to a GP and talk about my feelings, which is just a terrible thing to say to a 40-year-old Aussie male that they needed to do that.


So I didn’t, I took up fly-fishing, but that’s kind of like putting gaffer tape on a broken arm. So I eventually continued to deteriorate until I caved in. And with just absolute shame and feelings of failing, I went to the GP and told him what I was experiencing.


Of course, he was great and it was fine, but I just bolted out of there, just felt so ashamed. Now I realise it was actually the most courageous thing I could do.


So I do try and help people understand that giving into fear and not doing something, actually, it’s not a strong position, but being courageous enough to do something about it is a really strong thing to do.


So I did see a psychologist, but that didn’t really work out for me, the first one. But I persevered and got another one. Medication I resisted taking for another five or six months. But when I slid that script across the counter in absolute desperation, it felt like I was surrendering my bro card. It’s like, “Here you go. I’m just not a man anymore. I’m just a waste of space. I’m just an absolute abject failure as a human being. I’m no longer a man,” but the medication really helped. Within 48 hours, it was just a relief. So for me, it really worked and it kicked in quite quickly.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (06:57):

What an incredible journey you’ve been on. It must have been incredibly difficult at times. And I wonder, do you think initially your children understood what was happening during this time?

John Clark (Guest) (07:08):

No, I don’t think they did understand. I think the decline was so slow, that they just incorporated that into an understanding of, “Dad’s just like that.” And also my wife at the time tried to shield them I think from the most harmful aspects, which was probably the marital conflict. And I was very withdrawn. And I think kids don’t necessarily have a reference point either. So it’s like, do they know what all dads are like or what normal dads are like? So I think it kind of just grows on them and it is what it is, and that’s their norm. But I do think kids sense tension, conflict, discomfort. And I think that on an emotional level, they were experiencing the fallout of my illness.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (07:55):

I guess there was a point when you had to start thinking about talking to your children about your mental health difficulties. Can you talk me through what you considered?

John Clark (Guest) (08:06):

Yeah. So once I got that diagnosis, my world opened up because I had a way of actually understanding what was happening to me. Whereas before that, you kind of think, “I’m going mad or I can’t be here in this world anymore,” or, “I’m trapped or I’m out of control.” So very distressing thoughts, but once you know that you’ve got a medical condition, it just made all the difference. And I started reading about it and gaining a bit of an understanding. I thought, I’m ticking all of these boxes. So realising this isn’t me being a bad person or a terrible person or being a failure or anything like that. This is me having a medical condition for which there are treatments for, and I’ll most likely recover. So it was really exciting. I was actually quite joyful that I knew what I had. I was getting treatment ,and I kind of thought I’d get better, and I wanted to tell the kids that.


So I guess what I started to consider was how to tell them and how to help them understand given their ages. For me, it was a non-negotiable to tell them, because I think we need to be honest with our kids, and they need information. Because without it, they join the dots and it’s likely that they’ll make up shit in between and get it wrong. So it is really important to communicate. Well, for me it was anyway, and it’s important to be honest with our kids I think.


But it’s got to be child appropriate, age appropriate. So for example, I didn’t tell them I had suicidal thoughts. They probably didn’t know that until they were teenagers. I just think conceptually, it’s just not something that a three or four or 5-year-old, it’s not necessarily important for them to hear that. But denial is kind of trying to… I know denial, it’s a nice motivation because it’s kind of like I’m trying to protect my kids from things, but we are not actually protecting them because our behavior’s odd, or unusual, or unhelpful, or challenging for children. So we’re not necessarily protecting them by not helping them understand why we behave in certain ways.


So what I said to them, I was so anxious, my anxiety was off the scale. I decided I was going to tell them when they came home from school one day, and so they’ve all piled in through the door, and I’ve given them something to eat and drink and then said, “I want to talk to you guys.” And I can still remember the room that we were sitting in at the time and still remember them kind of gathered around and, “Gather around kids.” Dad’s got some news. And I said to them, and you’ve got kids too, haven’t you, Alicia?

Alicia Ranford (Host) (10:29):

I do. I’ve got two.

John Clark (Guest) (10:29):

Yeah, do you remember when they’re really little and they’ve got a terrible cold, and they’ve just got stuff coming out their nose, and they’ve got a bit of a fever, and they just get that sort of listless… And you feel so sad for them and they look so sad.


So that was how depression kind of felt for me, that sort of listlessness, that I can’t move and I just feel so low. And so I said to them, “You know how when you get a really terrible cold, and how you feel and it’s like, and how you can’t move much, and you’ve got no energy, and you just feel really down and sad?” And they’re going, “Yeah.” And they go, “Well, I’ve got something like that. But it’s in my head. It’s actually in my brain. It’s like my brain’s got this terrible cold and that’s sometimes why I stay in bed. That’s why I get irritable.” You know how you get a bit annoyed when you’ve got to do stuff and you’ve got this terrible cold. So that was the metaphor that I used for them. And I said, “I’m getting treatment and I’ll get better.”


It was later on when I met one of the former CEOs of COPMI as it was at the time before it became Emerging Minds. I met her in Launceston and I had this conversation with her. She said, “Yeah, when we tell children, we always like to make sure that we add in to let them know it’s not their fault and that they’re not responsible to make you better.” And I said, “Oh dang, I wish I had have said that.” But essentially the message that I think I conveyed was that I’ve got something wrong with me. I know what it is now, and I’m going to get better. And then I said to them, “Are there any questions? Is there anything that you guys would like to know? Ask me anything.” And they’re all kind of doing that whole kiddy shuffle thing where they look at their feet and shuffle around a little bit and they didn’t have any questions, but one of them did have a question and it was, “Dad, what’s for dinner?”

Alicia Ranford (Host) (12:17):

I love it. Very practical.

John Clark (Guest) (12:17):

I’ve just told my kids I’m mentally unwell. And they’re like, “What’s for dinner?” That’s just kids, isn’t it? How awesome is that?

Alicia Ranford (Host) (12:26):

It’s amazing.

John Clark (Guest) (12:27):

I don’t have the stigma, so it’s just like, “Dad’s sick, he’s getting treatment, he’s getting better. What’s for tea? Next.” Just move on.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (12:34):

And they reflect on how you tell them, don’t they? If you tell them it’s going to be okay, they go, “Okay, dad says it’s going to be okay. So it will be.”

John Clark (Guest) (12:42):

Exactly. Yeah. So all that anxiety for kind of nothing.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (12:46):

Isn’t that lovely?

John Clark (Guest) (12:47):

Kids don’t judge.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (12:48):

No, they don’t. That’s one of the beautiful things about them. Could you tell me a little bit about your parenting style when you were unwell?

John Clark (Guest) (12:55):

Yeah, parenting’s really challenging. I mean, I guess parenting is probably the most important role that we ever have in our lives. I mean, we’re kind of raising these human beings, and we have dreams for them, and we have really strong values, and we have a strong sense of what a good parent is versus a bad parent. So you have that on one hand. And on the other hand, you have these really, really powerful emotions with anxiety and depression, which have a major impact on your behaviour, and decision-making, focus, all of those things. So you kind of end up in this paradoxical state of wanting to be a great parent, but not necessarily being able to deliver on it, which is really, really challenging.


And there was a lot that I did that I do regret and do feel quite a lot of guilt over as well. I was really hard on the kids because I couldn’t manage. And that’s not why you want to discipline kids. You want to discipline kids to shape them, not be disciplining them because you can’t cope.


So the bickering, the arguing, just children being children. Children are childish. They drop stuff, they break stuff, they run into walls, they do silly things because their brains aren’t developed yet. But just the irritation and sometimes just the anxiety and frustration really boiled over, which led to me probably punishing them more often than I should have, or probably shouldn’t. I mean, punishment’s not great for shaping people anyway.


So I’ve kind of ditched a lot of ideas that I parented with, now that I know better. See, I’m coming at it from a mental health framework, having worked in mental health now for 12 years. And you start to realise a lot about the way we treat other people in the sort of context of mental health. And I realised my parenting wasn’t that great. I did a lot with them that was good too, I suppose. So we don’t completely disappear into our mental illnesses.


So there was a lot of things that were good, such as challenging them, stretching them. So it was really important for me to give my children self-esteem, and to challenge them, and to push them, and become confident people that could challenge themselves. So there was a lot of good in there as well. But yeah, there was a lot of stuff that was potentially harmful too, which I really regret.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (15:09):

And you talked earlier about how you hadn’t thought to tell them that it wasn’t their responsibility to help you get better. What are your thoughts on children being a support to parents when they have mental health difficulties?

John Clark (Guest) (15:22):

Yeah, again, paradoxical. I think it’s really good for children to support their parents and support each other. I mean, what we’re ideally hoping to raise are people who can become adults who can do interdependence. So we don’t want them to be completely independent, because that’s going to cause them difficulties in their intimate relationships in the future. But we don’t want them to be codependent either. So we want to raise children who can support others but not necessarily over-function for them. So it’s kind of a delicate balance really there, between allowing them to support us when we’re down, but not over-functioning for us.


And I think where we can draw the line is that they shouldn’t be responsible for us. I think they should be responsible for themselves, and I think they can do things to support us. But knowing that they don’t need to do those things to support us, that we can support ourselves.


So if my kids are doing something for me, if I’m a bit irritable or frustrated and they’re kind of panicking and running around trying to make sure that the place is tidy or they’ve got their rooms tidy in case dad’s going to explode, I think that’s a little bit unhealthy. I think if they realise that having a tidy room supports dad’s mental health so that it’s one less thing I have to worry about, then I think that’s a good thing. So taking responsibility for their lives in order to support someone else is okay. But that over-functioning is not.


I think there’s some challenges with elders children. I reckon our listeners will probably identify with that as well, that they probably have an elder child that is prone to over-functioning and doing what elders children do. So we have to think about elders children, and have conversations with them, and really reassure them that while we appreciate everything that you do and they boss their younger siblings around and make them get organised as well, we really appreciate that. But you don’t need to parent your younger siblings, that will do that. But we really do appreciate the times that you do do that.


And I think we also need to think about children who might be insecurely attached. So they can often become people pleasers. And if there is insecure attachment there, they’re kind of not really sure if we are okay, if dad and I are okay, and they might engage in behaviours around that that might not be very healthy as well, and anxious children. So I guess we’ve got to know our kids as well, and not just have one parenting style for all of them, but be thinking about the kind of child they are.


And some children are just naturally anxious. And if they are, then they’re going to be picking up a lot on your vibes, especially empathetic children too. They might be kind of picking up on those vibes, and that could be problematic as well.


So one of the things that I used to communicate with the children, because obviously communication is really important, and there was times that I actually did need support from them, was I’d use a zero to 10. So zero to 10 was my emotions. I wasn’t very emotionally literate when I had this experience, and that kind of puts males behind the eight-ball a little bit. So zero to 10 was as good as it got.


Zero was I just don’t want to live anymore. 10 is I’m really happy. So I’d say to the kids, “Look, I’m a three today,” and they’d leave me alone. But sometimes they’d say, “Dad, what are you out of 10 today?” And I’d be like, “Well, I’m a six.” And they’d go, “Great. Can we go to Macca’s?” That was a really good communication tool as well.


But sometimes I would need support. So if I’m down at a three, what that looks like for me is being glued to the couch or glued to my phone, withdrawn, not wanting to engage or talk to anyone, but also knowing that I needed to shift that. But the depression, it bluffs you. It traps you into thinking you can’t do stuff even though you can. And once you’ve started doing it, you feel fine. So what I used to say to my kids was, “Listen, I actually need help. I need to move. I need to go for a walk or I need to go out, go bush.” Because being in nature is just profoundly beneficial to my mental health. I just couldn’t quite manage it myself. So if they came with me, that really worked to treat. So I’d sort of get them to push me a little bit and get me out of the house and, “Come on dad, let’s go for a walk, or let’s go for a bike ride,” or something like that. And that really worked a treat.


But it’s great for bonding, good for relationships, it’s good for them to get out of the house as well. So all around, thinking about how our kids can support us and asking for that help, no problem, as long as they know they’re not responsible to make it happen.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (19:41):

And that actually leads me into my next question, because I know you are a huge advocate for help seeking. So can you tell our listeners why this is so important as a parent?

John Clark (Guest) (19:51):

I nearly died because I didn’t have help seeking skills. The idea of masculinity that I got from my father, and obviously as men, we get that starting point from our father. It doesn’t mean it’s fixed, but certainly got my starting point from my dad, and he’s 83, and he’s still farming and working full time. So you get the idea.


But the story that I got was, “Men don’t ask for help. Men are strong. Men solve their own problems, stand on your own two feet, kick yourself up the and pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” kind of masculinity. And so it was just a complete anathema to me to reach out and get help.


But even knowing when I needed help, I wasn’t even able to dial into my internal state, and recognise distress, and recognise that I needed help, let alone have permission to ask for it. And I came so close to dying.


Then I realised that help seeking is actually a skill. It’s neither good nor bad. I mean, it is actually good, because it has a good outcome, but it’s just a skill. And you can practise it, you can develop it, you can get good at it, or you can suck at it. So it’s kind of really up to you whether you want to practise that or not as a skill.


And then I realised when I started asking for help, there was a whole heap of people out there that had actually trained to help people, and they loved it, and they were really good at it. So it’s kind of like this is a win-win. Someone that needs help, asking someone who can help, and great outcomes. And everybody in that picture is happy. So I thought, “Wow, I really need to raise my kids so that they can do help seeking.”


So as parents, we often want to be the ones to help our kids, but I actually resisted that urge at times. So my kids would come and say, “I’ve got this problem.” And I’d say, “Well, who could we talk to about that?” Sure, I want to give them all the advice in the world, but I don’t know that necessarily giving someone advice and fixing their problems for them is necessarily that healthy. So I’d say to them, “Well, we’ve got some options here.”


And so I remember one time Abby, my daughter coming to me. And she was having some issues, and some strong emotions, and she was distressed and a little bit upset. And the stuff that was going on at school, I said, “We’ve got some choices. One is we could talk to a teacher about it that you get along well with. Another one is we could talk to the school social worker. One is we could ring Kids Helpline. And the other option is we could talk to the youth worker that works for the organisation that I work for,” which is Rural Alive and Well, we’re a mental health and suicide prevention organisation in Tasmania.


And she picked, I think she called Kids Helpline that time and had a good chat with them. Because there’s no way she was going to talk to the social worker and didn’t want to tell a teacher. And I said, “Well, that’s fine. It’s your choice.” I did however say we do need to do something. So not doing anything isn’t an option here. So I guess that’s the parent coming out saying, “We are going to have to do something about this. But you get a say in how we go about it.” And so the other thing that I’ve wanted to help them understand is how you can tell that you need help.


So when I need help with something, I’ve usually got a feeling of frustration, a little bit of a feeling of despair and hopelessness, like I’m stuck with something, it’s bothering me. My mind is perseverating, so my mind is kind of ruminating on it. It’s not letting go of it. I’m kind of thinking about it while I’m awake. I’m thinking about it when I go to bed. That feeling of stuckness, that’s kind of for me now where I’m thinking, “Okay, I actually need help with something. I’m not solving this by myself. I’m not making any progress on it, and I need to talk to someone about it.” So even helping them understand what it’s like inside your body when you need help is important too. So I’ve very much modelled it too. I tell them I’m getting help. I tell them when I’ve had a psychologist appointment, or I’ll tell them I’m back on medication, or whatever it is. I’ll just tell them because I want to be honest and model how to get help for them as well.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (23:36):

And what a fantastic way to set them up for success in the future when life is going to throw them curve balls, which happens to all of us.

John Clark (Guest) (23:44):

Exactly. And I’m not always going to be able to be there.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (23:46):

I know you and I know you have a great relationship with your children, and they are much older now than when you were experiencing these difficulties. What do you think they’ve gained from growing up in your household where they have seen you work so hard towards positive mental health?

John Clark (Guest) (24:00):

I saw a great saying the other day. You’ve probably heard it too, that there is no health without mental health. It kind of underpins every aspect of our life. So for me to demonstrate to them how to manage mental health and to be healthy mentally was probably, I think one of the most fundamental things as a parent I could do for my children. And maybe that’s an advantage that parents with lived experience have is that because we’ve learned to manage it in our own lives, we can actually teach our children how to manage it.


Because I think as a parent with no understanding of mental health, how do you actually raise your child to prioritise their mental health and know how to manage it if it’s not travelling well? So we definitely have developed some skills that make us great parents as well.


So I think they understand that. I think they understand that mental health underpins financial health, relationship health. It underpins their career. It underpins their physical health, and underpins all of their relationships. So I think they know it’s really fundamental to them. But the proof is in the pudding.


So one of my children was thinking about their sexuality and kind of going through what is my sexuality, who am I attracted to, that sort of thing. And that was quite a distressing concept for them as a teenager. And they did end up going to Headspace, and saw a really great psychologist there that helped them navigate through that sort of dilemma. Came out the other side. They have since gone to university and seen a psychologist since then, found it really helpful. So they’ve had great experiences in help seeking and with getting the input from a clinician.


Another one of my children is being treated for a mood disorder at the moment. They have had some sort of mood disorder. No one’s been that keen to put a label on it yet. Paediatric psychiatrists I think are shifting from just putting people into boxes, and now sort of focusing more on treating symptoms, which I think is an interesting way to look at it. So they’re getting treatment as well.


So I think my modelling has really paid off. Guess they know that recovery is a journey as well. It’s not just straightforward, it’s not cut and dry. My daughter will talk to me about her mental health as well, and we have really honest conversations. She’s had suicidal thoughts in the past as well, but she talks to me, because she knows I get it, because I’ve talked about my suicidal thoughts as well. She’s 17 now.


So as I said earlier, when they got older, I did start talking to them about things like that. It is important to talk about suicide. There’s still so much stigma around it that if we can’t have conversations about it, we’ll never beat the stigma. So we have to break that cycle.


And I’m glad I did because when she started to have suicidal thoughts herself, she knew that she could talk to me. She knew that I was going to listen. I was going to understand. I wasn’t going to judge her for it. Mental health is a journey. Mental illness and recovery is a journey. So I think they all understand how it works.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (26:40):

Looking back, is there something you wish you could have told yourself then when you were struggling that you’ve learned now?

John Clark (Guest) (26:47):

Looking back, I would want to tell myself, my unwell self probably what the most important thing about parenting is so that I could just kind of focus on that.


So there’s a couple of ideas that I would try and get across to myself. One is that good enough parenting is good enough. There’s so much pressure on parents these days and young parents, and there’s so much information out there. And I think particularly new parents have lofty dreams and goals about the sort of parent they’re going to be, and a lot of pressure as well. But good enough parenting is actually good enough. It doesn’t have to be perfect parenting. So we can just kind of relax a little bit.


So when I say good enough parenting, I think there’s probably only really a couple of boxes that we need to tick. And then the rest of them is just optional extras, sort of topping on the cake kind of thing.


So one of the things that I think is absolutely critical for raising children that I would’ve tried to get myself to focus on would be secure attachment. What I now know about attachment and parent-child relationships or any relationships really is being able to attach securely to someone who is unconditionally there for them and has unconditional positive regard for them, that just loves them no matter what. And being able to communicate that and to demonstrate that I think is so powerful for setting our children up emotionally, mentally, and therefore physically and relationally for their entire lives. So I’d really try and focus on that.


The other thing I’d really, really want to do better if I could have my time again or communicate to my previous self is the importance of emotional safety, which is a little bit like secure attachment. What I now know about things like PTSD, anxiety is that when you keep triggering someone’s threat detection system, if you like that flight fight response, it just becomes really problematic for them later on in life. And children can become traumatised as well.


So we don’t have to do one huge, terrible thing to our children to traumatise them. We can expose them to aggression, parental conflict, unstable behaviours. And it becomes a chronic trauma. So lower level traumas, but chronic in terms of it’s existing over a period of time and it’s kind of cumulative. And what we don’t want is for our children’s nervous systems to be activated all the time and become overactive.


So I think the best situation that children can develop in, in terms of their mental emotional development is in emotional safety. So I think I’d really, really focus on those two things.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (29:18):

That leads me to my final question for you, is for people listening today who are perhaps struggling, what would be your advice for others that are going through something similar?

John Clark (Guest) (29:28):

This is the thing about parenting, is that every parent I talk to says they put their children first. I run self-care workshops now, and I tell people, I ask for a show of hands. I say, “Who puts themselves as number one in their life?” And every workshop I run, it’s about one in 10 to one in 20 will raise their hands, and people don’t even put it right up in the air. They kind of just hover their hand up about chest height, because we feel embarrassed. It’s embarrassing saying, “I put myself first,” but I actually genuinely put my welfare and wellbeing first in order to be the very best parent I can be, to be a great partner to my partner, to be a great employee to my organisation, and be a great mate to my friends. So it’s putting yourself first for a higher purpose. It’s not selfish in that way, even though it feels a bit selfish.


So I really encourage parents to think about putting themselves first before their children for the sake of their children. And I ask parents, “When are you at your worst, when you’re at your lowest point?” You say, “I’m impatient, I’m intolerant, I’m hard on my kids,” and all of those things. And I say, “What are you at your best?” And they say, “Well, I’m compassionate, I’m gentle, I’m kind, I’m caring, I’m loving, I’m fun. And we have holidays, and we camp out in cardboard boxes in the lounge room, and we just do great stuff when I’m at my best.” I’m kind of going, “Well, don’t you sort of owe it to look after yourself so that you can show up as that parent?” So taking care of yourself, understanding your own wellbeing, making sure that you’re managing yourself and maintaining your wellbeing so that you can be that person for your children.


And that then models to them how to self-care as well. I don’t want my kids to become unwell, and I don’t want them to be sacrificing themselves for the sake of other people in their lives as well. I want them to know how to look after themselves and how to be at their very best. So we’ve got to be able to find a way to accept the way we are, that it is what it is today. Be compassionate to ourselves about it, and get back on our feet and go again, and just apologise if we get it wrong to our kids. And we can be very honest, as you don’t detract from your authority as a parent when you apologise to your children for getting it wrong, you actually enhance it. It’s honest, it’s authentic, it’s transparent, and it’s just so healthy. So there’s some things that we can work on as a parent to do better as parents, and also to realise that good enough is good enough. Just be kind to yourself.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (31:53):

John, thank you so much for talking with us today. I think your self-reflection and the way you articulate what you and your family went through is really precious that you’ve shared that with us today. So thank you so much for your time.

John Clark (Guest) (32:07):

Appreciate chatting to you.

Alicia Ranford (Host) (32:08):

You have been listening to an Emerging Minds Families podcast. If anything spoken about today has been distressing for you or you find yourself struggling, please reach out for help. You can call Lifeline on 13 11 14, or more resources for support can be found in our show notes.

Narrator (32:28):

Visit our website at for a wide range of free information and resources, to help support child and family mental health. Emerging Minds leads the National Workforce Centre for Child Mental Health. The centre is funded by the Australian Government Department of Health under the National Support for Child and Youth Mental Health Program.

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