Being a parent can be hard at the best of times. And when your teenager is struggling with their mental health it can be even more challenging. It’s hard to see someone you love going through something tough. And unlike lots of other situations, this is not something a parent can fix. Improving our mental health is a journey that takes time, bravery and often therapy and medication. Having said that, as a parent you can be a huge support and this can be a big part of recovery.
Here are some ideas to support you as a parent:
A lot of illnesses have clear and logical solutions. You have the flu – take flu meds and rest. Mental health is different. Recovery is absolutely possible, but it’s a journey that often involves learning more about yourself, developing strategies and skills and tripping up a few times along the way.
You can be a big part of helping your teen learn new skills and take up strategies. Some teens are really open to help from parents. But often, suggesting a solution is less valuable than supporting someone to find their own way. This can be especially true of teens, who are on the road to becoming independent adults. So support your teen by being with them, encouraging them, cheerleading as they face their obstacles. Give them your time so that they can find their own solutions. Some teens might not be ready to change, and this can be so hard on you as a parent, when all you want is for your child to feel better. Even if your teen is not actively seeking change though, you can support them by being there. Letting them know that you’re here to listen and have time to give. Even if we don’t take up the offer, it can be hugely supportive knowing that someone is in our corner.
Examples of giving time include: Inviting a sad teen to dinner, out to a cafe or for a walk; offering to be a companion while an anxious teen tries out something new or brave; giving your time to their interests such as playing a video-game together. Don’t be disheartened if they don’t choose to take you up on offers of time. Offering is valuable in itself. Keep offering opportunities to connect.
“Being empathetic is seeing the world through the eyes of the other, not seeing your world reflected in their eyes.”Carl Rogers, Psychologist
Empathy can be hugely supportive. And it takes effort to do it well. As humans we like to understand things. And when people are given diagnoses such as depression or anxiety it can give us a false sense of understanding. We might know something about depression but that doesn’t mean we know that individual’s experience. Depression is actually a word to describe a whole cluster of different symptoms. And someone’s experience of depression might differ depending on which specific symptoms they have and to what extent, as well as their personality and life experiences. As a parent you might feel you know your teen pretty well. And you do; as their parent. What you don’t know is what its like to be them, growing from child to adult, moving towards independence, with mental health challenges thrown in.
So be curious about their experience. If you don’t understand their struggle with mental health, ask them to help you understand. See them as the expert of their own life. See it through their eyes.
When you empathise with your teen you are communicating with them that you accept they are struggling, you respect their experience and that they are not alone.
One of the worries parents can often have is that if they set boundaries as a parent as they were previously, that they will make things worse for their teen, who is struggling already with their mood. Gentleness and kindness are not to be underrated. But boundaries are also important. As long as boundaries are fair and consistent, they can be helpful. Setting clear boundaries communicates to your teen that you are in the parent role, and that you care about their wellbeing.
Examples of clear boundaries that can promote good mental health include limits around bedtimes and practices to promote sleep, digital media use and keeping mealtimes.
Some teens who struggle with self harm or suicidal thoughts may need parents to help with reducing access to sharps and harmful materials. This will be an agreed strategy as part of a treatment plan. If your child does struggle with self harm or suicidal thoughts and they have not yet been seen by a mental health professional, is is important to get them help. You can find more information on who to contact here.
Teens are dealing with the hormonal and physical changes of adolescence, navigating the social transition towards adulthood as well as managing their own mental health. Its not surprising that sometimes communication can be emotional, sharp or apathetic.
When communication is difficult within families we each bring our own history. We remember past conversations that may have been difficult, words that have hurt, habits that are infuriating, the time that difficulties have persisted. These memories come with feelings: hurt, anger, frustration. And they act like fuel to a fire. Conversations can quickly become arguments. Emotions can flare and the communication breaks down.
So delete your history. In the moment, forget it, because its not going to help. Instead identify what you want to say about now, in this moment. How are you feeling now? What do you want to be different now? Aim for communication that is calm and clear, even if its not met with the same.
This is important. When your teen is struggling, it can feel like you need to put their needs ahead of your own to help them. Of course, as parents this comes naturally. From the moment our children are born we are giving up our sleep and own time to support them. The problem though, is that if you’re not feeling 100% yourself it’s going to be really hard to support your teen. Parenting is really hard! All the suggestions above are hard. They’re simple ideas but none of them are simple in practice. So you need to look after yourself, to look after your child.
What does this look like? Well, consider your own support structure. Who can you call on, when you need to vent? Who can you call for support? If you have a partner, are you on the same page? How can you support each other? Make sure you are supported well. They say it takes a village to raise a child.
Think about your own mental health needs. If you need support, get it. Don’t put it off. Consider whether you are giving yourself time to rest and relax. Are you sleeping well? Eating well? The better you can care for yourself, the more you will have to give your teen.
I hope these ideas are helpful. Remember, they are just ideas. You are the parent here, and you know your child. So add this to your toolkit, and disregard anything that isn’t useful. If you or your teen do need more support please do seek out help. At Imagine Therapy we can support you or your teen with mental health needs. Contact us through our website or find us on Facebook. We’re here for you. You are not alone.