My wife had noticed a turtle in our pool one weekday afternoon that couldn’t clamber out on its own. She repeatedly tried to help it but the turtle just swam away. When I came home in the evening, I similarly tried to help the turtle, but to no avail.
Our immediate and decisive next step was to call the local humane society. Although it was after hours, our call was answered. As promised, professional help arrived at our home early the next morning. In no time at all, she fished the turtle out and placed it in the lake right behind our pool deck. And that was that.
Later that night, I reflected on this experience and how different it would have been if it was not a turtle but our child that needed help. Don’t ask me why but my next association was to think about how difficult it is for many parents of children with even severe psychological issues to take needed actions. Understood, a random turtle floundering in a pool and ‘swimming away’ from helping hands is not quite the same as your child with major psychological issues floundering in life who is against any help but bear with me.
For one thing, although we wanted to help the turtle we were not emotionally attached. We did not know the turtle’s name or the slightest detail about its life. Furthermore, we didn’t get caught up in trying to understand the turtle’s point of view, feelings or reasons for not responding to our offers to help. We also didn’t worry if the turtle would hate us or be scarred emotionally forever because we forced help upon it. Consequently, we did not feel guilty or remorseful in any way, shape or form for our actions. Maybe best of all we didn’t let a lot of time go by before getting professional help. Summing up, we didn’t overthink it.
On the other hand, parents of children with psychological issues who oppose getting help– including adult children – understandably can get lost in the weeds about all the things we didn’t entertain in the slightest way about the turtle.
Again, I’m not saying that parents should have the same relationship with a child with psychological problems as they would with a turtle stuck in a pool. But I am suggesting that there is a lot of value in parents becoming more aware of how over-thinking, anxiety, guilt and indecision could be impeding them from getting a beloved child the help they need.
Personally, I think that the turtle who was stuck in our pool is way better off that we did not treat it like it was our child, let alone a highly vulnerable child with psychological issues.
It’s not easy, but very often the best a parent can do is to act as objectively for the good of their own child as they would toward any living thing in trouble that isn’t their own child.
And most of all, try and resist going into a shell hoping the problem will just go away.
Jonathan Hoffman, Ph.D., ABPP