Saturday 24 August 2019

I think my son's wife has post- natal depression. Can I help?

Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
Illustration: Maisie McNeice.
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from clinical psychologist, David Coleman, on how to help with a daughter-in-law's suspected post-natal depression and how to react when an eight-year-old son wants to play 'you show me yours and I'll show you mine' with a girl in his class.

Question: I am pretty sure that my daughter-in-law is struggling with post-natal depression. She is very panicky with the baby and is forever second-guessing herself when she comes to visit. I know all new mothers can be anxious, but I had PND myself and I see lots of the same signs in her. I want to help, but I don't want to interfere. My grandson is her first child, but she doesn't acknowledge that she mightn't be coping. I fear she may think I am judgemental. I am not, but I am concerned that if she doesn't get support she will not manage. Any ideas?

David replies: It is interesting that you have seen signs that your daughter-in-law may be anxious and yet, your first thoughts are that she might have post-natal depression (PND).

We often attribute the signs of PND to new motherhood. We assume that the stress or distress that many new mothers feel is simply adjustment to life with a baby or hormonal shifts associated with the birth.

The "baby-blues" are a well-documented experience for lots of mums, where you might feel moody, weepy, anxious or tired in the early days and weeks following your baby's birth.

But, if those kinds of feelings persist into the months after the birth, it may, in fact, be PND. Research estimates suggest that between 8pc and 15pc of mothers are likely to suffer from PND.

Motherhood is a physical and emotional rollercoaster at the best of times, but when your child is a baby, the sleepless nights and uncertainty about how to meet their needs can easily lead to exhaustion, anxiety and feelings of failure or inability to cope.

Certainly, the two signs that you mention in your query about your daughter-in-law (being panicky with the baby and second-guessing herself) do both fit with post-natal depression.

Other common signs of PND are feeling persistently sad or low, taking no pleasure in the things you usually enjoy, feeling exhausted, lacking in motivation, feeling guilty, perhaps about not coping, or not loving your baby enough. Some mothers can even feel resentful of their baby.

A mother with PND may lack confidence or be ready to blame herself for everything. She may not be keen to see friends or family, or may feel irritable and tearful.

You mention that you have had post-natal depression. If that is the case then you can, I am sure, sympathise with your daughter-in-law. You also, with the benefit of hindsight, probably recognise that getting help and support make a really positive difference.

I hear your concern that you might be considered "interfering" if you say something, but when we offer genuine support to others, in a non-blaming way, then we are much more likely to be welcomed than rejected.

I could imagine that the tone you use and how you approach the topic is what might give your daughter-in-law the feeling that she is being judged. However, warmth, empathy (and, in your case, sympathy too) and genuine concern cannot be confused with judgement and implied criticism.

So long as you are sensitive to the fact that your daughter-in-law may already feel quite bad about herself (if she is second-guessing what she does with her baby) then you will be unlikely to further deepen any negative view she has of herself.

You might be better off discussing your observations and your concerns with your son first. See how he reacts if you talk about his wife in the same tone and with the same genuine care that you intend to use with her.

If he can see that you mean well, and that you have some helpful insights, then you can be somewhat reassured that you might be better received if you discuss it with your daughter-in-law directly.

Remember too, that your son knows your daughter-in-law far better than you do and so he may also have a different understanding of his wife's mood and behaviour. This too can, perhaps, guide how you might approach the topic with her.

Either way, if your heart is in the right place and your tone and demeanour are warm and supportive, I think your daughter-in-law will appreciate your concern for her well-being.

My eight-year-old wants to play 'you show me yours and I'll show you mine' with a girl in his class

Question: We recently discovered our eight-year-old son exchanging messages with a girl from his class. The note was effectively, "you show me yours and I'll show you mine". We're completely gobsmacked as we didn't expect to be embarking on a conversation about sexuality yet. Are there any resources (e.g. print or online) that will get us up to speed rapidly on how best to deal with this conversation? This first conversation could conceivably frame the development of our son's sexuality for the rest of his life.

David replies: Despite being gobsmacked, the most important thing is not to panic. Your son has been engaged in very normal, and very age-appropriate behaviour.

Most eight-year-olds are not very interested in sex. They are much more interested in bodies and in understanding their own and other's bodies and bodily functions.

For example, children of this age tend not to ask questions about sex, but they do ask about how their bodies work, or practical, concrete things like how do babies get inside mummies' tummies.

So, it seems, your son is interested to explore this girl's body, much as he is willing to let his own be scrutinised. It doesn't signify anything sinister, nor does it suggest any unhealthy, or premature, interest in sex.

Many children will have experienced similar transactional exploration in games like "doctors and nurses" or "mammies and daddies". There is nothing unusual about what your son has done. He has merely been caught as he tried to make arrangements.

Yes, your first conversation with your son will be important, but it will only be one of many conversations that you will have with him, about bodies, sex and sexuality, over the next number of years.

His behaviour with this girl means that you must start a process of communication about sex, bodies and relationships. But it won't be a one-off event.

You have plenty of time to refine, update, expand and further explain your views and your opinions about what is right and wrong in terms of sex, sexuality, sexual behaviour and relationships.

There are some good books that help with the kind of language to use when talking about bodies and sex with young children. One that I like is called It's NOT the Stork by Robie Harris. This book, illustrated by Michael Emberley, is aimed at six to 10-year-olds and so can be a useful shared point of understanding for you and your child.

It is really important, though, that if you are using a book as a reference or as a guide that you don't use it as a substitute for your own opinions, and the context for understanding sex and relationships that you will bring from your own value base.

Indeed, when it comes to choosing books, or online resources to help you talk to children about sex it is vital that you read, or view them, first so that you can be reassured that they give the same core value messages as you want to give.

After that, it is just about being comfortable with the nature of pictures, images and language that they use.

So, even if I recommend a book, it doesn't mean it will be the right book for you or your child. That will still be a judgement call for you.

To be honest, though, while some of your conversation with your son will need to focus on de-mystifying girls' bodies (and possibly his own body), a larger part of it will have to focus on issues like privacy, modesty and informed consent.

You need to be able to explain to him, according to your values, about why he needs to keep parts of his own body private (assuming that is what you believe) and also why everybody else's body is also private unless they are choosing to share it.

No book is going to tell what it morally right or wrong in this regard (or at least not mirroring your own values) and so this is the element of the conversation that you will have to determine for yourselves.

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