When We Judge Moms About Their Children’s Mental Health…

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Let’s talk about judging others (and when I say “judging,”— I am referring to how we use the word in our society, which refers to judging negatively.)

Judgment is such an intense tool of the mind — intense because it can so quickly morph into a weapon that causes excruciating pain to others.

A few weeks back, I had the good fortune to spend some time with three women I had not seen in years. All three are sisters. I was with each of them on different days. 

One sister, I will call her Maria, is an adventurous artist who is very wise and caring. When her two daughters were in elementary school, Maria got divorced and raised the girls mainly on her own. 

Maria and I were taking a long hike together, and I told her about my work with kids and parents around mental health. I shared some of my family’s challenges in this area. (If you’ve seen Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER you know some of the challenges I’ve endured with my kids.)

Long into the hike, she started slowly opening up about her daughter. She told me that she rarely felt able to talk with others about it. About five years ago, when Maria’s eldest was 16, she went through two years of intense depression, anxiety, and periods of self-harm.

Maria talked about how devastating it was to see her daughter going through this and how alone and confused Maria felt in figuring out how she could best help her. Eventually, she took her daughter to a hospital, where they did an assessment and encouraged the daughter to check-in. The daughter felt helpless and agreed to stay.

After our hike, Maria shared more over lunch. When I asked how her two sisters had been throughout all this, she put her fork down. She looked at me and then away, and I realized that she was crying. 

She explained to me how both her sisters had been and continue to be very judgemental of her. And she said how painful this was in part because she was already dealing with such ongoing intense feelings of guilt. She blamed herself for her daughter’s struggles and shared her thoughts, such as, “Maybe if I hadn’t gotten divorced, this wouldn’t have happened.”

On another day, when I gently talked with the two sisters, they indeed shared with me how they were sure that Maria’s less conformist ways were in part to blame for her daughter’s years of struggle. 

My heart ached, learning how these sisters, who had been close in years past, had now seen their closeness shattered. 

I think of all mothers who have endured judgment when their kids go through adversity related to behavioral health. And how that judgment gets exponentially magnified by one’s own feelings of guilt. Feelings of guilt are so natural in these circumstances, and usually, the feelings of guilt do not fit the facts. 

Over two decades, I have seen variations of the destruction caused by judgment people bestowed on mothers when mental health challenges surface in their children. 

When you feel judgment towards parents, consider these things:

First off, we all must remember that our minds are judgment generators — (I am referring to both positive and negative judgments). Our brains are designed to categorize, analyze and make opinions of things every second of the day, including about people. For example, we walk in a room, see people whose looks we instinctively like or who we think look interesting to talk with or make us feel uneasy. 

Our brains are not only judgment generators; they are also story creators. When there are gaps in our knowledge, our brains often fill in the blanks with our made-up interpretations. Our brains make assumptions … that is what they do. 

When I am teaching youth about social and emotional topics, I often teach about judgment. I tell them that the idea of “Don’t judge others” is hogwash. Their brains are going to have judgments pop up all the time. Judgments come in the brain as naturally as we breathe air. 

What I do say is how powerful it can feel not to be controlled by those judgments but to start having more agency about how you actually want to think about situations and people. So first, consider noting when a judgment comes up for you. And then, can you shift into a place of curiosity? Why am I having this thought? Am I hurt by this person? And why might this person be doing this? Maybe she is feeling insecure? 

When it comes to judging moms about their children’s mental health, I recommend the same approach, trying to tap into a state of curiosity — and even better, a state of compassionate curiosity. Why do I find myself feeling so sure about my thoughts? What if I am totally wrong? And if I wish I did not feel so judgemental but find I can’t change my feelings, can I behave more in line with what I wish my feelings were, i.e., more compassionate. For example, can I call the mom and offer to take her daughter out for ice cream — to act as a Mentor Mom. In fact, I just made this offer to a friend of mine whose daughter is home from college and going through serious depression for the first time. 

How Marie’s daughter is doing now: 

There is hope in the story I shared above.  First and foremost, Maria’s daughter is doing incredibly well and just completed college. She still has challenges at times, but nothing like what it was like five years ago. 

How I spoke with one of Maria’s family: 

I  was able to gently talk with one of Maria’s sisters that I am the closest with about how common judgment is but how important it is to try and replace the judgment with curiosity. I asked if together we could reexamine the situation. She agreed, so I talked with her about things like the biology of mental health challenges, including that researchers can actually see how the brain’s anxiety center–the amygdala– has far more activity in anxious kids than non-anxious ones. 

We talked about how genetics play such a strong role in mental health challenges — how countless teens who live in wonderful families suddenly start to struggle emotionally. Could she try and hold in her heart that the situation was so complex and that Maria has suffered so dearly?

By the end, the sister said she really could see my points and wanted to talk more with Maria, to work to repair the past.

I have to admit I was so happy when she told me that. 

Ideas to get the conversation started:

  1. Have you heard people say, “Don’t judge?” What do you make of that?
  2. Do we know people who have had kids that struggled emotionally, and we have kind of blamed the parents? In what ways might our brains be filing in blanks to create a story? 
  3. Is there a parent we know in pain due to their child’s pain, and could we do a compassionate act for that parent? 
  4. Could we all try once time this week to note when we feel a judgment arise and to try and change it into curiosity?