Show Notes:

Welcome to Hello Rebecca Ray, our collective home for courage, growth, and human to human connection. I’m your host, Dr. Rebecca Ray, human, clinical psychologist, author, and educator. I know only too well how fear, comparison, and self-doubt can stifle your potential. This podcast is all about brave and meaningful living, and how you can make your authentic contribution to the world today and everyday.

Hi, lovely ones. Welcome to Hello, Rebecca Ray, the podcast. I’m very excited to introduce you today to a friend  of mine, Dr.  Sarah Arachchi who is a paediatrician in Melbourne.  Sarah often discusses kids medical topics, parenting challenges and sees kids for both medical and behavioural conditions between zero and the  zero and 18. And she also has two little kidlets herself. So we’re going to talk about managing anxiety as a parent today. Welcome, Sarah.

 

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi
Thank you for having me Beck. It’s been lovely to get to know you. And I’m excited to be here.

Rebecca Ray 
I’m always keen to talk to other professionals who are stepping into different arenas in their careers. And that’s exactly what you’re doing right now by putting your work out into the world outside the clinical room, and being able to offer tips online. And one of the things I was really interested to talk to you about is anxiety as a parent, because it’s something I used to see when I was in clinical practice. So often, the transition from non parent to parent is such a huge one definitely would often create this sense, at least in my clients of uncertainty and wanting to be able to do it right and do it perfectly. So I wanted to talk to you from your particular perspective as a paediatrician and your experience in terms of parents that you see with anxiety on a daily basis. So let’s start by talking about parental mental wellness.

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
It is such an important topic Beck. I think one of the things that people don’t do enough is prepare enough, because they don’t actually know there’s no book on how to raise kids. And a lot of the way that we parent comes from how we were parented, subconsciously as a child. And so you sometimes fall back into what, what, how, how, how was I raised when I was a young child, but also, you don’t expect to be alone a lot. So say you’re a mum or a dad and you’re home with the child, you might have stopped working for a period of time, you might not have your same contacts, you’ve got a little baby to look after, it can be very overwhelming, particularly if the baby’s not sleeping. And there are other issues, the baby might not be feeding or attaching properly, if you choose to breastfeed, or, you know, even with bottle feeding. And I think it’s just the inability to prepare for these little beautiful little creature bits come along. And you’ve maybe have grown this human being inside you for nine months, or 10 months. But just being unprepared to have to then look after it and then sort of realise that you’re going on a different journey, like a journey into motherhood or fatherhood. And you become someone else, and you lose a sense of your own identity in that process, but it shouldn’t be about that it should be becoming, you know, a better person, a better person for you and for your child. And I think a lot of people struggle with that journey because there’s no right way.

Rebecca Ray
How long have you been a pediatrician?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
So I have worked in paediatrics for probably close to let me think about 15 years. And I have been a, you know, consultant paediatrician for about five or six years now. But since I was about 24 years old.

Rebecca Ray
Because that means that you’ve had paediatric experience for almost double the time that you’ve been a parent. So for listeners, Sarah has a seven year old and a three and a half year old. So I’m wondering how much does being a paediatrician and having specialised experience with kids help you when it comes to being a parent?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi
Yeah, so interesting. You say that. I have memories of when I used to go to the paediatric wards, pre pregnancy, right. And I would go and counsel women and sometimes they would, you know, cry because then they say, Oh, I’m very hormonal and I tell them, I have to take your baby downstairs, put a drip in, because you know, worried about infection, and the mom would start crying, I felt so horrible for her. And then fast forward when I had my child, I went through similar emotions. And I was like, Oh, this is what they were talking about. You know, like, there were things that I didn’t know until I became a mum myself. But I think it really helped me to empathise better with parents when I did become a mum. And I found my own community, which was really important. And I think it also gave me an opportunity to talk to mums and the community about talking about these things, because it’s really important that we don’t live on our own, we don’t try and sort of raise the child by ourselves, because there’s a huge village of support that you can access. So pre kids, I had a lot of knowledge, I looked after babies, I would sometimes I would be one of those doctors that was sitting there in the special care nursery saying, Can I feed the baby with the bottle? So because I just loved handling children. And when I had my own, I was like, Oh, my God, the baby doesn’t sleep? What do I do? So I had to learn all of these things, you know, so there were things that I knew medical things, which were definitely helpful. And I knew, you know, if my child had a fever, I knew what to do if my child but then sometimes, because you know too much, you think about all of the other possibilities. So it’s not always great. But I think, yeah, it doesn’t teach you how to be a parent.

Rebecca Ray 
Yeah. So it’s almost like you’ve got dual identities, you’ve got an identity as a mother and identity as a paediatrician. And those two things can actually help each other. But they can also kind of hit up against each other, if there’s not learning in place to be able to understand that this role as a mother is actually going to be different. It’s one thing to work with a child clinically. But it’s another thing to actually step into the role of mother and learn your baby’s patterns and your babys, your bond with your baby and how that looks and how that plays out between the two of you. Yeah, now that you’ve been a mum for some years, seven years, what would you say the role of mental wellness plays in parenting?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah, it’s so important. It’s so important because you, you need to be well, mentally in order to care for your, your child, when I was doing my paediatric exams, one of the things that we have to talk about or learn about is come up with a formulation of the, you know, the treatment options, and what is the most priority for this child? So what are the priorities? If there are any problems of mental health in the family, that is the first priority, always, because if your mum or dad cannot look after you properly, then that will impact on the child 100%. I see so many parents who struggle with parenting itself. Because it is difficult, you know, I’ve been a parent, I know it’s difficult. And I think the mental health of parents is so important, something that’s quite neglected. Lots of things happen to people in their life, some people go through separation, some people lose their jobs, some people choose to work from home or choose to not go back to work. There’s lots of different things that can happen when you have kids, you may have a child that has an illness, as well. So it’s sort of learning all of these new things. And it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for parents as well. And if you don’t look after your mental health, then how are you going to look after your child, you know, and so often, like I remember having a conversation with a parent recently, and she was telling me how I everything I do everything for my child, you know, everything. From the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to sleep, I do everything for her. And I said, But what about you? And she said, No, I don’t have any time for myself. But I said that you need to take some time for yourself, because then you will be a better mum. And you will be there for her most of the time. So that might be going for a walk, you know, you can put the baby in the pram, go for a walk, talk to your friend, put them on the phone, one speaker or you know, on hands free or whatever. And have that time to yourself, ask someone to come over and watch the baby for half an hour you go for a walk or even have a lie down or a cup of tea or whatever. And she said, Oh, I never thought about that. And it just surprised me, I think because there is this inclination that you have to do everything for the child. But children need to also learn to slowly become independent as they get older. And it’s good for them to see that their parents are exercising that they’re eating healthy that they’ve got other interests outside of the home, because that helps them to become more well balanced as a child as well. And, yeah, and one of the things like for me, like I often have this mum guilt when I have to go to work, and I feel bad about it, you know, like, I don’t, I didn’t always, like I love working, but I feel bad when I have to leave my kids. But do you know what? I’m a role model for my children. And they see that I do all of these things. And then I hear my son say, When I grow up, I want to do this, this and this and this mummy. And it’s so nice to hear that. And it’s because he sees that in what we do. Yeah, he sees possibility for your own life. Exactly. So I think what you show your children, the person that you want them to become.

Rebecca Ray 
How much of the anxiety that you see in parents, particularly mums is also associate associated with this is a random term, not a clinical term. I’m just pulling it out, something I might call parental burnout. So it just made me think when you describe that mum, just then that said that she wakes up, she’s almost operating from a place of self sacrifice, you know, to be everything for my child. And that’s almost like worn as a badge of honour, right? If I’m missing every single one of her needs, and I come last, then, at least my worthiness, as a mother is kind of accounted for. But is, would I be on track by saying that some anxiety would be associated with just how exhausting that is to operate like that?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah, of course, parents were like, parental burnout is extremely common.

Rebecca Ray 
Not a clinical term listeners. We’ve just made that up right now. But let’s go with it.

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
It’s a it’s a great way to describe it Beck. Yeah, of course, like, I talked, if I’ve got, you know, doctor, Mum, friends, I’ve got friends that are not doctors, who have children. And we talk about these things. And we talk about the things that keep us awake at night. And, you know, you’re always trying to be the best, best, whatever. And I don’t know if it’s this technology age, or what’s what, what caused that in the first place. But there is this inclination to always sort of be the perfect, perfect, whatever it is, but there’s no such thing as perfect. And I think we just need to remember, as long as you are there for your child, that is all that they need the love the attention, the food, make sure that you are there for your child, how can you be fully present for your child, if you cannot look after your mental health, because you’ll be stressed? You You know, if you don’t look after yourself, you can’t be calm when they’re having a tantrum, how are you going to be calm, if you feel like you know, and sometimes it can result in a bit of resentment towards your child, if they are a more difficult or challenging child. And the child grows up, that’s the thing. So if you don’t create those friendships, for yourself, if you don’t create those, if you want to go back to work, or whatever it is, if you don’t create that when they’re young, there might come a stage where you feel like you lost that time as a parent. And I think it’s important to sort of not just remember that, remember the person you were before you became a parent, and delegate tasks to people, you know, delegate things, so you don’t end up having burnout. It’s just so common Beck, like, if your house is messy, it’s okay. You know, it’s okay to have a messy house. I have a messy house sometimes, you know, I mean, a lot of the time, there’s clothes on the floor as I speak. You know, you’ve got it, we’ve got to just remember that we have little children, they need attention. And things can’t be perfect. Like, things can’t be perfect all the time. And if you do feel like you’re doing this, then why are you doing this? Maybe there’s some internal feelings inside yourself that need to be addressed. Like why do you feel you know,

Rebecca Ray 
I feel like you saying you don’t need to be perfect is such a permission slip for listeners, because it’s coming from a paediatrician there is something so powerful to hear someone with your experience that deals with kids all day long. And also, as a parent say, you don’t have to get it perfect to get it right. Because one of the things I think that the technological age, the social media age has brought is this constant comparison outwardly that if we’re not doing it in some curated at some level where it’s curated on the feed, and that looks beautiful, then surely we’re doing it wrong, or it’s a marker that we’re not good enough as parents. So thank you for saying that out loud. Because I think it’s a really, really important thing to say. Yeah, yeah. The other thing I wanted to ask you is I think it’s, um, it’s kind of expected perhaps that the transition from not being a parent to Being apparent. So you’ve got 9-10 months to get used to that idea. Unless you have a surprise pregnancy or surprise, what do they call it? When you don’t know that you’re pregnant? And then like two days later, you have a baby. There’s like a name for that. Surprise, Christmas present an early Christmas present?. Yeah, we’ll start with that. But sure, you can kind of see why parents can be anxious when they start outfit, especially in that first 12 months, right, you’re actually learning A – how to respond to a baby and meet the needs of a baby, and B – your identity as a parent. What are the things that create anxiety as parents become more comfortable in their role as a parent, and their child becomes more independent and ages into new developmental stages. What are the things that you see in practice daily, where anxiety is still present?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah, so like, so I guess it’s probably transitions Beck, I would say. One of the things that I know a lot of parents get anxious about, if we go through the developmental stages, one of the first things that people get anxious about is is my baby feeding properly, is my baby sleeping properly, compare, compare, compare to all of my friends, because this is what we talk about, and possibly in mothers groups where you feel like your baby’s the only one that doesn’t sleep, that can create a lot of stress for parents, because they’re like, Well, what am I doing wrong? Instead of focusing on what you were doing right? Then as the baby gets older, and starts going to childcare, one of the biggest causes of anxiety for parents is when children get sick. Yeah, it’s quite normal for children to get six to 12 infections per year.

Rebecca Ray 
In the first 12 months of Bennett’s daycare life, he started daycare at 10 months, you went two days a week. For that first 12 months, he had I swear only about a couple of months where he was well, and that was a different time. So yeah, I felt like he had not 85% of the time that he first

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Well, it’s a it’s a germ zone. It’s like this, the child care, but it’s good for them, too. But yeah, so as their immunity develops, and they start to get, you know, better look, dealing with certain viruses that will get better. Yeah, but so often I see parents, and they’ll say, you know, just constantly sick all the time, they are in childcare, or you know, whatever. And even my son was the same, one week, in one week out one week, in one week, yes, that’s what happens. But sickness can cause a lot of anxiety for parents. And I think not knowing what to do when your child is unwell. That’s certainly a stage. And then when they get a little bit older, there’s a bit of separation anxiety, that can manifest sometimes in the parent, but mostly in the child when they’re going off to school. So that’s sort of another developmental stage. And then I guess, going into school problems with child development, learning and those kinds of things, attention issues, concentration in some kids. Definitely areas that I see. And then there’s always the teenage troubles that parents and teenagers go through together. And then the wanting of independence of the of the teenager and the struggles that you have with parenting in that regard. I think sometimes we have to give our children, the wings to fly at different stages, and give them the confidence and just believe that they can do things by themselves without having to do things for them all of the time. Yeah. I think another thing is definitely talking through emotions, allowing children to feel their emotions is important as well. And I think sometimes, because we don’t do that enough, when you become an adult, you often hear about, you know, I’m going to use the example of men because it’s very common, where that you don’t necessarily always see men cry. Why is that? Is that because society said, Don’t cry, you’re a boy, you know, suck it up. Can I say that? Maybe that’s why I mean, I don’t say that to my children. But I don’t think a lot of parents do. But what is the reason?

Rebecca Ray 
My parents did? That’s how I was.

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah, it’s, it’s just it’s I think it’s just the way that we, we just have to change the way that we expect I mean, children are going to behave different times different behaviour because of their age as well as age related behaviour. Yeah. Parents also struggled with tantrums when their child is going through emotions, which are normal emotions, and they don’t know how to deal with it. It’s tricky because some children are more challenging than others. And there are some children with general medical issues which caused those difficulties. And it can be it can be quite taxing for parents definitely.

Rebecca Ray 
I love that you’ve spoken about the importance of parents looking after their own mental health so that they can then be well when it comes to parenting their children. Can we dive a little bit more into this distinction between allowing validating a child’s emotions and also encouraging their independence? I would love to talk to you about that. Because Bennett’s going to school next year. So we just like you’ve articulated you don’t tell your children to suck it up. I don’t know whether you were told that as a child like I was, but I was parented by parents who are I love them to death. They met all my needs, but there are emotionally incompetent, like honestly, most emotionally incompetent people I’ve ever met. And I’m now a psychologist, so perhaps a challenge for them, because I’m constantly calling them

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Maybe you’re pushing the boundaries Beck.

Rebecca Ray 
Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe I was just a difficult kid. But now that I have a child myself, one of the things that I really want to do to, I guess, round out his emotional well being is exactly this, find where the line is where I’m available, if he’s frightened, and I’m able to help him sit in that kind of fear. But also, I’m standing there going, mate, you can do this. And I’m encouraging him to explore the world from a position of courage and taking the fear with him to go and do the hard things. So if we’re talking about a transition, like going from a life that he’s known for four years at daycare, very well known, very confident. They have a show’n’tell schedule, because of him showing up every single day, but now he’s about to go to school. What can I do to know that I’ve got the balance right between being there for him when he’s scared and validating that versus saying, No, now’s the time to step forward? Does that make sense?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah. Yeah, we can talk about it. And then I’m not like, yeah, so I think one of the things that works really well for children is social stories, so reading about things before they happen. So if you are going to have a new child who go into school, you get a book, or you can even make up the story about, you know, Ellie, the elephant went to school, and this is what happened to her at school, you know, so you can talk about, then show them pictures and meet new friends and things like that. So you talk about the school and you talk about that with the child in an exciting thing and get them involved in going to get the uniform and getting their bags ready and talking about all of those things. And if you have a very anxious child, you may want to walk to the school with them before the school actually starts. So they get a bit familiar with the surroundings or make a play date with another friend who might be attending the school as well. So that’s a really good way to sort of familiarise the child with the school. In terms of the emotional part, I think with children, we have to remember, when we stand over them, we kind of are big people, you know, they’re smaller than us. So you need to get down to their level. So you’re sort of eye to eye and sit with them, you know, through the emotions. So, you know, sort of, I think, I feel like we always want children to sort of behave all the time, and they’re never going to behave all of the time they’re going to have in most they’re going to have difficulties. Why is your child upset right now? Are they hungry? Are they tired? Is there something else that’s causing the current emotional, tantrum, you know, sit down with them, take them to a safe space that they feel comfortable, whether that be their room or outside or something like that a lot of children relax, as soon as they go outside. It happens with babies as well. If you’ve got a crying baby, go outside, take them near the trees, they’ll start crying most of the time. And that distraction method works really well. But when when they’ve settled down when they’ve come down, that would be a really good time to start talking through. You know, Oliver. I know you’re feeling really sad before. Was it because of any if they don’t volunteer things you can say, you know, was it because you were feeling a little bit scared? Maybe when I’m scared, I feel some funny feelings in my stomach. Does that ever happen to you? And then you can sort of start the process of talking about it? If if depends on the child, I guess as well. Yes, yeah. I think validating their emotions. It’s okay to feel like this. When you feel like this Mummy will be here. But if you need your space, or if you want to do you know, these are some things that you can try Mommy’s not here and just sort of giving them some options like like that, that can be quite helpful. I think, expect that there will be challenges and know that your child is able to overcome those challenges, the teachers will be there at the school to help them as well. And we can’t make their friends for them as well. That’s another thing I know, sometimes parents, they struggle because their child is having difficulties making friendships and all of that. But there are things that you can do, you can organise a playdate for the child with another child. And you can facilitate that you can keep in touch with that their best friend on the holidays so that they get this to get to see their best friend. And these kinds of things are important because they’re making their space sort of make making their social network, wider. Yeah. And eventually kids love routine Beck. So once they start going to do things regularly, in a routine, they fall into a routine. They actually like that they respond really, really well to routine. So I think repetition and routine, and sort of trying to be calm, and then going back to The Parenting part. That’s the tricky part is Are you tired? Are you stressed? Can you handle your child when your child is upset? Do you need a break? Do you need to walk away? Do you need to have a bit of space? You know, if you’re gonna go and pick up your child from school and you’ve had a hard day, just sit in the car for five minutes or have a coffee? Have that five minutes to yourself? And then go and pick up your kid

Rebecca Ray 
I love that often think of ‘Hold on a second, I’ve gotta go parent myself before I parent you.

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah, exactly.

Rebecca Ray 
I do think about this hold on that I’ll just get need to get my head straight. And it is essentially making sure that my needs are met before I actually go and do the thing. Yeah, one last question for parents that are listening, who are perhaps facing a transition like I am. So perhaps their child is going to primary school for the first time or even high school for the first time next year? What tips would you give the parents listening who are feeling a bit anxious about their skills to be able to manage that transition for their child?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
So I think firstly, depending on the school, get to know the school structure, get to know who do you contact? If you had an issue? Is it the principal? Is it the coordinator? Who is it that you need to contact? Find a parent group within that school that you can keep in touch with socially as well? Because that can help like just to talk about? Oh, yeah, you know, you know, I don’t know if Mr. So and so I was very difficult teacher, and yes, my son agrees, whatever, someone, other people that you can talk to, like we have in my son’s school group, we have like a WhatsApp group. And people post on there all the time. Some people are not great at remembering things. So then other people will just sort of remind us, oh, by the way, you’ve got book parade on this week, or whatever it is. Have some time out for yourself and know that. And I think the other thing is get your child involved in extracurricular activity. So it’s not all about school. So there’s other things that they can go to that they’re familiar with, separate to the school, which can be really helpful if I feel like we don’t give enough stress, you know, on the extracurricular stuff, which can really help children to move out of their circle. Because sometimes they get stuck at the same school with the same group of friends. And then that transition going from primary school to secondary school can be really challenging, because they don’t have the same group of friends or their friends go into a different school or whatever it is. And you teach your children to be able to go to different extracurricular activities from a very young age, they’re going to be very, a bit more malleable. That’s my personal opinion in terms of interacting with other kids and then I guess you know, school uniforms, bags, whatever get your child involved as much as possible to help with those things. Don’t do everything yourself delegate to your other half. If you have another half to do stuff, like Yeah, books. I cannot for the life of me want to do the contacts on the books.

Rebecca Ray 
I’m just saying out loud because for those of you that know I have a wife and she’s a musician and also edits my podcast, Bob, I’m also not I’m not claiming the contact. I’m just doing that out loud publicly. Now on this episode. I’m not contacting books. So just so yeah.

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Although I love contacting books when I was a kid and I had to do it myself, my parents being ripped off. This is a thing back when I was a child, and I think that maybe because of the type of person I was when I was child. I didn’t my parent my parents. I did everything myself. Yeah, I did ever heard me say this will be like, yeah, no, you did it. I remember I did all my school projects myself. I didn’t get any help from any of my parents and they never helped me with it. And I never asked for help. But my brother

Rebecca Ray 
Your’re a successful woman whose right doctor, a specialist specialist in terms of being a paediatrician and you’re fine, you’re not very much If we haven’t actually explored your internal world, maybe we should do another episode on that. But it is true that we need to embrace the independence of kids and the fact that they’re far more capable than we often give them credit for, hey,

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Yeah, and one last thing back that I wanted to sort of touch upon the COVID pandemic, maybe not so much up in the Sunshine Coast, where I probably should move to because of the better weather. But anyway, you know, one of the things Melbourne, lockdown caused a lot of grief for parents. And I think, partly because they were burned out. And that’s because they were stuck in the house, if they weren’t, you know, not if they’re working from home, they had their kid and they have to do the learning for the kid. And I had to deal with all the emotions and all the behaviours and everything was really, really, really, really hard. And I think that made a lot of parents really stop and think about their mental health, and focus a little bit more on improving their mental health because a lot of conversations I had with parents was about that. You need to need to they they will say, I need to take a break from this, I need to leave this environment for a little period of time. And everyone was so happy when the kids went back to school. So grateful for the teachers because they realised we can’t do everything. You can’t you can’t do everything. You know, I was I had a chat with my son’s karate teacher because you know, it was kicking that he was doing and I said, I’m not a karate teacher, I do not know. I mean, I know how to kick but like I don’t know how to teach him how to kick. Can you do that? Then? Of course, and like I can do everything

Rebecca Ray 
I can’t do all the things. I love that thank you so much for being here today. Sarah, your tips have been invaluable? Where can listeners find more of you?

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi
So on my Instagram Beck. So, Dr_Sarah_Medical_Mum. There’s lots of underscores there. Sarah medical mum, for the moment. Yes.

Rebecca Ray
Thank you so much for being here. It has been enlightening. I’m so grateful for your tips. I’m literally taking them with me as I transition into into primary school next year with Bennett, thank you so much for being here

Dr.  Sarah Arachchi 
Thank you so much for having me Beck.

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