Help, I need somebody…
How do you know when someone is asking for help? Let me re-phrase that. How many ways do you think someone asks for help? Countless, the answer is there are countless ways, but perhaps an even better question is how many can you recognize? Asking, not asking, making eye contact, not making eye contact, trying to look like they need help, trying not to look like they need help, being a jerk, being too nice, being decisive, being confused, appearing confident to the extent of cocky, appearing unconfident, talking incessantly about the issue, refusing to talk about the issue…shall I go on? Asking for help has not been a culturally accepted behavior for who knows how long, too long, for sure. American’s are the “I can do it” people of the world so we have grown up in a way that keeps us looking strong on the outside while perhaps crumbling on the inside. Becoming a Psychologist taught me just how pervasive this dichotomy is. The good news is, the breaking point is creating a gap in which asking for help seems to be the mortar.
Over the course of my career, one constant has been the call from the parent on the behalf of the child. This can take several forms, all of which display a different kind of “help” call. There have been too many calls with panicked, aggressive parents begging (more like demanding) me to make their ten-year-old a better competitor. “Why doesn’t my child have a killer instinct and how long will it take you to give them one?” At age ten, I think a killer instinct might not be the best trait in a child, but who knows. I’m not a child psychologist and personally think that if an athlete needs help before high school, the pressure is too much and needs to be reeled in. Most parents don’t want to hear this though. There are not enough spots and too many athletes, and let’s not talk about the stress of getting into college right now. However, the bulk of the calls are from concerned mothers, looking for a way to help their high school or college daughter or son. They see the struggle and don’t know what to do so search the internet for someone who looks like they could help. I welcome calls from concerned parents and always give them some of my time to see how to help. This is where the differences in how people “call for help” become profound.
Emails, phone calls, messages all give wonderful clues as to what this parent is struggling with before we even get on the phone. If the email is long, the phone call will be, too. If the voicemail is abrupt and irritated, trust will be hard to gain. If it is the father calling, the likelihood of an appointment ever happening is much lower than if the mother calls. See, I don’t make promises to parents because that is impossible and a set up for disappointment. An hour a week or month with an adolescent pales in comparison to the dozens of hours they spend with their parent, who might or might not know how much pressure they are putting on their kid. If they put pressure on me during a fifteen-minute call, then I know what must be happening to the young athlete. The first question I ask a parent is if the young athlete wants to talk to someone like me (a sport psychologist). The length of the delay in response is the tell along with the hem and haw of how to explain that the kid just doesn’t know what’s good for them yet. Early on, I would take these kids as clients and each one failed. If the young athlete doesn’t want to be there, it is a waste of time for everyone involved and kills the possibility of this kind of help in the future.
A recent call from a concerned mother is what sparked this reflection. The email was long, but not just because the call would be too, but because the circumstances were significant. The daughter is an equestrian, which is how she found me, but had experienced two incredible losses in two months. There are several elements about this “case” that stuck out. The first is the willingness to ask for help. Believe it or not, even asking for help for your child can be difficult for parents (why father referrals are less successful). When you ask someone else to help your child, no matter how old they are, you can’t help but wonder if you did something wrong as a parent. Ridiculous when you think about it, how can any ONE person be all things to someone else, but that is our paradigm: something wrong with the kid, blame the parent. Once a child enters the school system, the number of hours of impact a parent makes decreases significantly. In addition, as children move into adolescence, their desire to actually talk to a parent practically evaporates. Connection changes and sometimes disappears completely so how can a parent really know what happened to the child? They can’t and so they guess and do what they can to help. Calling someone like me is a bold, brave step and I always commend a parent for the courage to do so. Putting your child’s needs ahead of your ego is remarkable and needs to be acknowledged.
The second element blaringly obvious was the mother’s need for support. This is very common, take care of the child to the detriment of the self. But this faulty thinking creates a gap in any kind of treatment because the team is only as strong as the weakest link. The parent needs to be strong and healthy to help the child. The parent also needs to model what getting help looks like and that it is OK to do. As the child gets help, the parents’ healing allows everyone to heal and grow together. It is the old airplane safety lecture, “Put your mask on before helping others…” because if cabin pressure changes, it will be hard to put your mask on if you are passed out in the aisle. This kind, sweet, worried mother was doing everything in her power to keep it together. Her daughter, a college student, was not home for her to protect and watch over anymore. She had lost a best friend (to murder) and a long-term boyfriend (got dumped same week as funeral). Two events that alone are significant, but together, beyond words. The mother described the questions the daughter would ask about her grief and trauma and her inability to answer them. Normal, important questions but difficult to answer. Yes, the daughter is in therapy (thankfully) and the support seems to be helping. Now, what about you, mom? When do you plan to get some support? As I present the case for her getting help, sniffles sneak out on the other side of the line. Her voice becomes nasally and congested, indicating she is crying and trying to hide it. “We all need someone to talk to.” I can almost hear her head nodding in agreement as she thanks me for saying that.
The third element of importance was describing the process to the mother. While impossible to put to a timeline, understanding what everyone goes through can be very helpful. The mother originally called because the daughter had fallen off her horse a few days in a row (not hurt) and the worry was about her focus and ability to compete successfully. This was the surface issue and easy to talk about and connect to. What was beneath the surface was much more important to discover. One of the most impactful moments for me in graduate school was when a professor compared mental illness or injury to physical illness or injury. “You wouldn’t ignore a broken leg so why would you ignore a broken heart?” Bam! Paradigm shift in a moment for me. Grief and loss are mental injuries and if ignored, could lead to longer term or illness. It is the same with physical issues…ignore it and let it go on and it just gets worse. We have all read about the person who ignored the lump here or there and by the time they went to the doctor, it was late in the game and much harder (if at all possible) to win. You also wouldn’t complain to your friend for being so slow and tell them to “keep up” if their leg was broken…or would you?
“You can only heal so much and so fast,” I tried to explain. “If she had broken her arm, would she be riding, let alone competing?” The answer to the question was obvious but the acceptance of the concept much more difficult. Mom felt riding was important and needed but was the timing as important? We can’t see mental/emotional/psychological illness or injury the way we see physical and so we don’t relate to it as well. We also have a terrible ability to hide our mental injuries and pretend we are fine…even though we are deeply hurt or injured. The daughter needs to heal her grief injuries first because they are critical. If riding is becoming stressful, as the falls would indicate, she needs to pull back from that so she can work on the other. Trying hard to understand, the mother more submitted than went willingly to this suggestion. Her effort and her willingness to ask for help will source this healing journey more than she will ever know.
Being in the helping profession, at first, I thought it was my job to help everyone. And it is, however, I have learned over the years that “help” takes many forms. I don’t have the training for everyone and every age group, so sometimes a referral is the best I can do. And the most difficult to accept is the one where not helping was the best form of help I can provide. There was a point where I discovered that everyone needs help, myself included, and so it is when I look through that lens, especially when not wearing my psychologist hat, that the most profound connections are made. Learning how to recognize the similarity between a call for help and quite frankly, an asshole, has been the most valuable education of all. Note: this mother was NOT an asshole, quite the opposite. So, I encourage you to begin to add a lens to your arsenal of lenses and look for how people might just be asking for help. We do it in funny and hidden ways because vulnerability is a scary thing. When someone rubs you the wrong way, try asking yourself if they are simply in need of something…and you might be surprised to discover you are just the one to give it. You never know, it might just change both of you.