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Lorraine Candy: “You need to put on your own oxygen mask first.”

Ex Elle editor, parenting author and mum of four Lorraine Candy talks hormones (yours!), pot-plant parenting, and how to adults need to look after their own mental health to better help their kids

You’re part of an expert panel on post-pandemic parenting happening this month – how did that come about? 

I met mental health campaigner Jonny Benjamin (above) at a literary festival, we both did Budleigh Salterton together and I just really liked his ethos and his story. His charity Beyond, who runs the panel, is all about advising schools and parents about how best to address the topic of mental health and I think it’s really helpful, that sort of ground-level approach.

Do you find that parents are so busy focusing on our children’s mental health, we don’t have time to stop and examine our own?

Yeah, and it’s definitely true of parents with teenagers. Most of us are in that midlife period, in our 40s to 50s, and that particularly for women is a monumental upheaval. We’re going through these huge changes in our physical and mental health, with the forty or so symptoms of perimenopause starting to hit, and at the same time we’re trying to parent teenagers. It’s just a perfect storm of hormones! 

Why do you think parents struggle to focus on their own mindset so much?

I know when I had young kids, I was so busy all the time. I would rush home and I would still have my coat on three hours later, because I’d just go straight in to parenting. When I look back on that, I think what I needed was just half an hour to decompress, to change from one situation to another so that I could reset my breathe, my nervous system. 

I’ve been writing parenting columns now for 17 years, and I have rarely come across anything in the parenting books saying, ‘sort your own mind first’. It’s like when you’re in an aeroplane and they advise you to put your own oxygen mask on first, otherwise you can’t help those around you – it’s the same with parenting. 

You have a 10-year-old and three teenagers (15, 18 and 19) – how have they been? 

With my kids, we were lucky that we had no serious mental health crises or traumas. Of course, I had the normal shame, guilt and fear as a parent that I was doing it all wrong, and that all the situations I was in, good or bad, I wasn’t handling correctly. I felt very much that I was on my own, when actually you’re not, everyone is going through this – we’re just not talking about it. 

How much of an effect does your own upbringing have on how you raise your teens, do you think? 

Whenever we parent, we obviously bring our childhood into the room. Trish Halpin and I interviewed Philippa Perry for our podcast Postcards from Midlife, and she was just so brilliant on teenagers and the idea that if you aren’t healthy, then they can’t be healthy. If you haven’t addressed your own issues, you can’t role model the great stuff and you’re going to react in a way that might cause more issues rather than help solving them.

It’s hard work to change your own behaviour though, isn’t it? It’s so engrained! 

It is, especially as we’re all so different. We all interact in this world in a very unique way, based on our programming and our neurology. There’s a book by the psychiatrist Thomas Boyce called The Dandelion and The Orchid, which is a pivotal adolescent therapy book and it explains that every teenage brain is different. You could have twins, but they won’t have the same brains – if one is an orchid, which is more sensitive, and the other is a more resilient dandelion, they’ll each need a different type of parenting. So I learnt that how I worked with one of my children wouldn’t be the same as how I worked with another, and that made me step back from doing things ‘my’ way. 

So taking a step back worked for you? 

The main thing I learnt about parenting teenagers is the idea of ‘pot plant parenting’, where you are just in the room and that is so much better for them rather than trying to fix everything, solve everything, cure everything, handle them, manage them. It might feel counterintuitive, but I’ve learnt from friends who have gone through quite dramatic mental health episodes with their teens that just being there is way more important trying to fix the problem. Allowing children of all ages to feel sadness and hurt, pain and frustration and fear and anger is a really good thing, rather than stepping in and trying to stop it. Phillippa said in her book, ‘Feel with, don’t deal with,’ and I think that is the main way we try to navigate parenting our teenagers.

You mentioned the perimenopause earlier – did dealing with that at the same time as parenting teens affect your ability to cope? 

Absolutely – I thought I had a brain tumour. I couldn’t remember my name, I couldn’t remember what side of the road to drive on, I was having panic attacks, I was really depressed, and I didn’t know what was causing it. It wasn’t until I met Dr Louise Newson in 2019, having been going through it for a few years, that she explained it was all hormonal fluctuations due to perimenopause. 

Sounds horrific. What did you do to manage that?

I took hormone replacement therapy, which is a lot safer than my generation has been lead to believe due one really terrible survey that told us it would increase our risk of breast cancer. In actuality, the risk is about the same as having two glasses of wine every now and then. So I went for HRT and immediately I was back to myself again. The panic attacks and night sweats stopped, my memory improved, I could work again.

But not all women get that level of treatment. We know that 1 million women have dropped out of work due to menopause symptoms. Two thirds of GPs wrongly prescribe antidepressants, when the NICE guidelines are actually to prescribe HRT. So if you’re going through all of these symptoms – the depression, the panic attacks, the exhaustion – and not getting the support you need to manage them, while trying to parent, it’s a recipe for disaster. 

It’s such precarious time, it’s a wonder any of us cope.

It really is. Midlife is a hard time anyway, and you’re anticipating your children leaving home or moving on to higher education. If they’re 15, you’ve got three or four years with them before they’re taking that next step, and if those years are hell because you haven’t been able to look after your own mental health, that’s time you’re never going to get back. My eldest left home last year, and I was so glad that we’d had a pretty good last couple of years with her at home. 

So what happens when they come out the other side of the teenage years? Are you just like, ‘phew, that’s done now’? 

I don’t think so! Lots of the women I have interviewed in my book (Mum, What’s Wrong With You?) who are in their late 50s and whose kids are beginning to have kids, say they’re still worried about them crossing the road! I don’t think it gets less stressful unfortunately, but I do think they get a lot nicer at around 21. 

Million pound question: do your children like you? 

Not every day! I don’t have many must-dos in the book, but the one thing I say is that you must not be their friend. Whether you have boys or girls, it’s an absolute no-no – it’s not fair to put them in that role, it’s wrong for them and it’s wrong for you. But my children do like me, or they seem to! I do have to remind myself of it sometimes, when they’re in a ‘mean-ager’ phase, but I think if you’ve gotten to the end of the day and no-one’s died, you’re okay. 

Lorraine is hosting ‘How to Parent Post-Pandemic‘, an online panel that’s part of Now and Beyond, the UK’s only mental health and wellbeing festival for schoolson 9 Feb 2022 at 8pm. Sign up here.

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