Tag Archives: parents of young adults who struggle

Leaving A Support Group After Leading It: Parenting & Young Adult Mental Health

iStock_000044753522Large doors

“If you founded the parents’ group, then why did you stop attending?”

A legitimate question I could not readily answer.

That question was posed to me in the Q and A after a Mental Health talk I gave a few weeks ago.  I had been invited by a Northern California synagogue to speak as part of their open-to-the-community “End The Silence” series on mental illness. They asked me to talk about the parents’ support group I started – and led for 6 years –  at my own synagogue in DC.

If you’ve read this Blog, you may have come across my post from September, 2014 – titled a “Different Kind of Kvelling” where I first mentioned our P/YAWS – short for “Parents of Young Adults Who Struggle.”  The Washington Post then published a version of my post in its @OnParenting section – and word spread.

One of my life goals (truly) is to foster the creation of support and strategy sharing groups for parents of young adults who struggle with mental health challenges such as anorexia, anxiety disorder, bipolar, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and schizophrenia at synagogues throughout the U.S.

So I was thrilled to come to California to explain why I started our P/YAWS group, how we ran our meetings and why our network of parents had been so helpful to me and to many others.

Many hands raised with questions during the Q and A session – most I could easily answer, but when asked if, after I stopped leading the group, I remained a regular participant, I stopped to consider. I gave a short response, which I forget (blame it on the bad cold I was getting over that night).

Now that I’m back home I’ve been pondering the real reason I no longer attend our P/YAWS meetings.

At first – so I tell myself – I didn’t attend because I wanted to give the parent co-facilitators who replaced me some space to develop their own style. Running a group like ours isn’t easy. Parents come with heavy hearts and worried minds. Sharing stories is painful. We support each other, offering ideas for doctors, therapists, meds, local and distant treatment programs and strategies to use with challenging young adults. Tears flow, laughter too; sometimes everyone wants a chance to talk, sometimes people want to talk too much. There is a different rhythm to each meeting. My personal “weapon” of choice was a strong sense of humor – perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but it seemed to work. The group thrived.

And it continued to thrive without me.

After I stopped going to meetings, I was surprised at how relieved I felt.

For years I had been carrying around in my own heart and head everyone’s else’s stories. I could facilitate the back and forth based on what I knew –  I would ask S. how her son was doing on his new med or remind C. that the last time she came to the group, her daughter had been hospitalized, how was she doing now. Not being the sole person in charge freed me up to let go of the knowledge weighing on me of other participants’ pain.

The more I thought, the more I realized didn’t want to go to the group anymore, even as a participant.

In part because I didn’t want to scare anyone away.  Mental Illness happens on a spectrum. When a new parent comes to his first meeting, it can be because their young adult son has just had to leave college because of a mental health crisis. That parent is confident that there will be an effective medication, a promising therapy and that next semester their child will be back in school. And sometimes it works out that way. Our group has had many successful “graduates.”

But for those of us on the longer-term, “work in progress” path, our stories are more like roller coasters than linear tales of successful coping. I didn’t want the new parent to listen to my longer-term narrative and fear that their trajectory would resemble ours. It might or might not.

P/YAWS has been amazing for me and my husband. We could not have gotten through all that we did without it. From a wisp of an idea to a thriving monthly group for eight years, I’m proud of my role. It was through our group that I learned that a parent can only do so much. Most young adults with mental illness can change, can grow into stability but the parent cannot do it for them. Your young adult child has got to want it more than you do.

For now I’ve facilitated all I want to; I’ve encouraged, I’ve supported, I’ve shared plenty. I’m not letting up on my plan to prod other synagogues to create groups similar to ours. The need is clearly there.  But I’m going to be on a hiatus from participating around the table. Let others speak, share and be comforted. I’ve had my turn, time to sit back for a while in silence (unusual for me!) and apply the lessons I learned.











Filed under Adult Kids, College, College, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Parenting, Talking, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

Sauces, Siblings and a Mental Health Challenge

corn pudding on thanksgiving


Sitting on the couch in our family room, with my left ankle (my Fabulous Fractured Fibula is healing nicely, thank you) propped up an ottoman, I listened to the talk coming from our kitchen.

It was early on Thanksgiving afternoon and our two young adult children, who both love to cook, were busily using up every bowl, pan and utensil we own to prepare their own side-dish contributions. They were squabbling in a friendly way; comparing the merits of mashed potatoes with or without roasted garlic, disagreeing as to how much salt to add to the stuffing (kale and carmelized onions) and debating the merits of gravy versus a demi-glace.

My left ankle was aching. I had spent too much time on my feet the day before the holiday – making corn pudding from a recipe passed down by my late mother (the grandmother my two kids never had a chance to meet), a spinach gratin (where I substituted Gruyère instead of swiss cheese but my husband hated it anyway) and a sweet potato casserole (yes, too sweet, with marshmallows, which our two-year old grandson – a/k/a “He Who Can Do No Wrong” pronounced “yummy”).  I had also set the table and now mid-day on Thanksgiving was gladly leaving the cooking to my family, while I rested my aching ankle.

It isn’t often that I get to hear our adult children talking and laughing together, at ease in each other’s company.

One of our kids, struggling with mental health issues, seems to be doing better, in a place just now of some stability and we are all benefiting from it. His relationship with his sister has had many ups and downs. When he is difficult to be around, she retreats.  So to hear them engaged in a good-spirited discussion over the merits of whose mashed potatoes will taste the best, is rare music to my ears.

Many of my friends seem to take for granted, as I guess they should, the good relationships between their adult children. My friends’ adult children like to spend time together, they stay in touch, get coffee, go to baseball games together.  Sure there is the standard friction that comes with being siblings, but for the most part – Alex and Emily, Rachel and Drew, Daniel, Sara and Josh get along with each other. I a bit jealous of their easily amicable relationships.

That isn’t what happens in many families where one of the adult kids has a mental health challenge and the other does not.

From my years of facilitating a support group for parents of struggling young adults, I know too much about sibling relationships gone awry.  A history of disputes, expected hurts, rude misunderstandings, too often the difficult behavior does not allow for a normal (whatever that is) give and take relationship between siblings. Sure the neurotypical (not fond of that word but it seems appropriate here) sibling cares about his brother or sister who is struggling with her mental health, but caring alone doesn’t create stability between them.

I worry about my kids’ on and off relationship.

NPR had a recent story on how important good sibling relationships are as adults grow older.

 “During middle age and old age, indicators of well-being – mood, health, morale and stress, depression, loneliness, life satisfaction – are tied to how you feel about your brothers and sisters.”

True enough for me, as my sister and I have grown closer as the years pass. We have very different personalities; she’s always on the go, very high energy while I happily sit, reading or writing, for hours (I know, bad for you). But we have similar senses of humor, a proclivity for conversation and an attachment to family. She lives 10 minutes from our 92-year-old Dad while I am six hours away. I count on her for frequent bulletins on his health and happiness. Lucky her, that she gets to see him as often as she does.

My husband is similarly close to his two brothers, one lives close to their 87-year-old mother. They bond by texting, updates on sports scores and frequent “how’s mom doing?” phone calls.

As I write this, our adult children get along – but their ties are tenuous.  My husband and I are their cement. What happens when we are no longer around to serve as the family glue, bringing them together and urging them to make peace with each other as needed? Mental health struggles can challenge the bonds of even the closest of families.

I know, I know, be content with what I have now and don’t do any anticipatory worrying (my specialty)  – especially since I have little control over what the years will bring as to their sibling relationship. As they get older, will they still happily squabble over sauces or will mental health struggles push them apart? I wish I knew.




Filed under 1st Grandchild, Adult Kids, Aging, Baby Boomers, Empty Nest, Family, Holidays, Husbands, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Midlife, Moms, Parenting, Relationships, Women, Young Adult Mental Health

Speaking of Hilarious Humor on a Serious Subject

Head Library - flat concept vector illustration

Friends in high places? I have exactly one. She is a top political reporter for a national newspaper and I am lucky to count her as a good friend.

Three of the best things about her are:

  •  she lives in my neighborhood
  •  she is a very generous person &
  •  she appreciates my sense of humor.

One night a few years ago, when we were sitting in her family room, as she had her ever-present iPad on her lap, following along on social media (reporters are allowed to do this at all times), she looked up at me and said:

Nancy, you know, you should be on Twitter. You’re funny!  You have a lot to say. You should start a Twitter account.”

Now you have to understand this was said by someone who currently has (I just checked) 56,300 followers on Twitter!  People follow my friend because she is astounding insightful on all things political, but also because she is very generous in sharing the work of others.

Plus she has a wicked sense of humor. Which is extremely hard to do in a maximum of 144 characters,

I thought sure, why not give this a try, I love to communicate, to stay on top of the news, Twitter will be fun. Just after I created my account, my friend tweeted to her thousands of followers, something like:

Be sure to follow @_nwolf, new on twitter and very funny”

Within a matter of hours, I had nearly 1,000 Twitter followers!  And then within a matter of days I had nearly lost them all.


Because being funny on Twitter is an art form I could not master. As soon as my friend told her twitterverse to pay attention to me, her funny friend, my sense of 144-character-driven humor disappeared.

Since then I’ve figured that my sense of humor comes through better when I speak than when I write. Not that everyone gets  my sense of humor. Some do not.

Humor like cilantro or olives, is an acquired taste. You either enjoy it right away or sniff in distaste and never come back. I happen to love both cilantro and olives; you may not.

And oddly enough my sense of humor really shines through when I talk about difficult topics.

A few years ago I gave a talk about the parenting of teens and young adults with mental illness to a roomful of Jewish clergy at a DC area organization. The rabbis wanted to know to respond when a congregant with a troubled kid came to them for advice. What did they need to know about awareness, stigma and support?

I launched into my tale of my experience as a parent, laced with insights from the many families I’d gotten to know while I was leading the parents’ support group (“parents of young adults who struggle”) I founded at my synagogue.

My audience nodded appreciatively as I spoke, laughed often. When I finished, one of the rabbis came up to shake my hand, and said something like –

Thank you so much for your candor and helpfulness; you really have a knack for being hilarious when talking about mental illness.”

I smiled, said thank you but as I was driving home, suddenly thought, what did he say? Is it a good thing or a bad thing to be funny when speaking about such a serious subject?

I decided it was a good thing. Humor can often reach people in a way that solemn speech cannot.

Ever since then I’ve tried to talk about “mental health” (which everyone has, even your dog or cat) and “mental illness” (a diagnosable medical condition which everyone does not have, but some do) in a relatable way.

To carry the message that mental illness is a disease of the brain – you can think of it as a broken brain. You’d go to a doctor and easily find the appropriate care if you break your ankle (as I did 3 weeks ago), but when you have a broken brain, it is inexplicably much harder to find the right treatment. (and to stick with it.)

When is the last time you saw someone stigmatized because of a broken ankle?

(I thought so.)

If in February, 2016, you find yourself in or near Marin County in northern California,  I am thrilled to tell you that I will be speaking there at a reform synagogue about young adult mental health and mental illness. Fair warning that what I will likely say will not be solemn or serious but it will be heartfelt.

And in case you are as fascinated by the connections we make on social media, I have not given up on Twitter.

You can follow me @_nwolf  – where I tweet about books, college, mental health, parenting, women’s issues and other topics that strike my fancy.

Just don’t expect to laugh out loud when you read my tweets. For reasons I am still trying to comprehend, my funniest moments come when I am talking about the most serious of subjects.


Filed under Communications, Female Friends, friendship, Jewish, Mental Health, Mental Illness, Parenting, Raising Kids, Social Media, Talking, Women, Writing, Young Adult Mental Health

A Different Kind of “Kvelling”

womantalkingThere were a few regularly-used  Yiddish words in my house when I was growing up. Like the word “kvetch” to refer to my great-aunt who was a known complainer. Now was “Aunt Kvetchie”, a nice thing to call her?  Probably not.

Or “you are such a klutz – heard this one often. As in uncoordinated. An accurate description of my always bumping into things, not the least bit athletic self.  And “what a schmuck he is” –  my dad describing someone who was a real jerk. You probably know what schmuck means, whether you are Jewish or not.

One Yiddish word I didn’t learn until I became a Mom is “kvelling” (noun) – when a person is bursting with pride and pleasure. As in – “His mother was kvelling over his early admission to Harvard.”

Kvelling is done by all mothers, Jewish or not, when discussing their children.

In my lawyering years, I ate lunch (carry-out salads around a conference room table) several days a week with younger female colleagues at my firm. There was a lot of kvelling among us. My friend, Lisa, would tell us about her daughter’s star soccer skills. And Michelle would let us know that her son got an A on a tough social studies test. Denise was naturally thrilled when her daughter was elected class president in 6th grade. I shared my kids’ accomplishments as well.  And when your kids are young, you have lots of achievements to kvell about. It isn’t boasting or bragging; you are just proud of your child. And o.k, maybe patting yourself on the back as a parent too. I confess to that as well.

When Lisa, Michelle and Denise’s and kids were in elementary school,  mine were of high school and college age.  Kvelling gets a bit trickier as your kids get older. Especially if your kid happens not to be on the do-not-pass-go direct path from high school to early admission into Harvard, then on to elite grad school or Wall Street or a fancy internship.

What happens to kvelling if your kid is on his or her own very different path?

By the time one of my kids was in high school we were on a first name basis with mental health struggles. In college the same mental health challenges grew worse. An elite grad school, Wall Street or a fancy internship did not seem likely. (although hope does spring eternal.) Since I’m not one to sit back and watch life happen, I sought out other parents whose young adult kids were also on different paths to adulthood. Not finding such a group, in 2008 I created, with the backing of our rabbi,  a support & resources sharing group at my synagogue in Washington DC – called – wait for it, very clever name coming –“Parents of Young Adults who Struggle”. We have met monthly for the past nearly 6 years to share our stories, to talk about the rollercoaster rides that our kids put us on, to strategize on how to cope as parents and to laugh. Lots of laughing. We even have our own Facebook page!

In our support group we kvell often.

One of us will say how thrilled she was that her son, David, managed to get up on time on Tuesday morning and get to his doctor’s appointment. Yay, we respond.  Or that Matt remembered to take his meds. Terrific, we cheer. Or that Rachel is taking a class at community college and hasn’t dropped out yet. Great news!

And while this different kind of kvelling was going on, I was still having lunch on weekdays with friends whose kids’ accomplishments were of the more typical variety. While my work friends were true pals, I wasn’t always comfortable talking about my kid’s struggles. I was dealing in two parallel universes here – I was certainly happy for my friends and their kids, even if I couldn’t always keep up in the kvelling department.

And when minor (to me) problems were shared  – a son got a B- on a test or a daughter didn’t make the soccer travel team –  I had some trouble summoning up the required murmurs of sympathy. I would think – you just have no idea what real problems are until you’ve met some of the people in my support group. There was perhaps a reverse pride in having tougher stuff than a bad grade or a missed goal to deal with.

So the next time you are having lunch with friends, and the talk turns, as it often does, to what your kids are doing, at any age, and the kvelling begins – one of the Moms is happy that her daughter aced the SAT’s, the other’s son just got into law school, a third mom glows about her daughter’s engagement, and you see that one of your friends around the table, is sitting silently, fiddling with her drink, just waiting for that part of the conversation to pass. Consider the quiet Mom; she loves her son or daughter just as much as you do. Smile at her, and ask her how her child is doing. She may need to do a different kind of kvelling.





Filed under Mental Health, Parenting, Women