Through my positions as a youth with lived experience in the child and youth mental health world and advocating over the years, I have been asked by several parents how to talk to their children who are struggling. I can’t imagine what its like to be a parent of a child with mental health struggles, but I do know what it’s like to be on the other end of it. I’d like to think that I’ve grown and matured enough to have some kind of an idea of how to help them, but the truth is, its hard. And what works for one child and parent is not necessarily going to work for the next. There are however a few common parent-child situations that I hear most often, that I feel I can comment about.
Obviously the advice in here is based on my own life and the stories I personally hear from youth, parents and professionals, and by no means do I believe that this even begins to cover the vast spectrum of family dynamics or mental illness.
When your child says that they are experiencing something, believe them. And by “believe them” I don’t just mean silently believe them while telling them that they’ll be fine. No child or person wants to feel depressed, or numb, or hear voices, or have drastic mood swings. No person wants to feel like ending their own life is a valuable option. If your child is sharing with you that they have these thoughts or feelings, chances are it took a great amount of courage for them to even be able to say those words out loud, let alone to their parent – the main person in this world that they want to please, to love and to be loved and admired by. As children we naturally want to impress our parents. We want them to be proud of us. We want them to love us. Telling the person who gave you life, that you don’t want to live anymore, is incredibly challenging. I can remember feeling totally paralyzed as if my voice just didn’t work. I’d pick up a pen and still not know how to word it. Then I’d sneak my letters explaining how I was feeling into my mom’s office when she wasn’t looking, simply so that I didn’t have to face her.
I knew I needed help. I knew I wasn’t safe in my own body and mind. All I wanted was to be an average, contributing member of society. I didn’t want to have such a hard time getting up every morning that I’d fight with myself, my parents, and be late for school. I didn’t want to be afraid of being alone in my own mind. I knew I needed help. I didn’t want to talk about what was going on with me because I didn’t want to have to feel all of the things that I was feeling. I can remember being so, so scared.
Something I hear often is that, because parents want to make it all better, and because they have a different perspective, when the youth shares that they are struggling the parent often responds with something along the lines of, “you’re fine,” “I promise you it’s not that bad,” “its not a big deal,” etc.. While the parent might see this as a way to reassure the youth or to give them a reality check, to the youth that can feel as though you don’t believe them, you don’t see their point of view, they are burdening you with their feelings, or that you don’t understand the seriousness of the matter. What the youth might actually need is for you to get down to their level, not try to fix it, and instead say something like, “I hear you. I know you’re hurting and I want to help you. I’m here no matter what, what can I do that would help you?” Chances are the youth doesn’t expect you to have all the answers, and doesn’t even want to hear your answers, but simply needs to talk and doesn’t know how.
What I need most when I’m struggling emotionally isn’t for someone to do anything, but for someone to simply be, with me. Someone to make space for my pain. Someone to accept it, without judgement or opinion. Someone to listen without making it theirs.
I’ve been on the youth’s end, and now as someone who has healed I still struggle to do that. Because as the person caring for the depressed, it is so hard not to try to fix it!
Don’t get angry at your youth for not communicating or not being able to be the person you think they are. Getting angry often only pushes the youth further away and reinforces what the disease has convinced them – that they’re not good enough and that the world would genuinely be better off without them. They’re beating themselves up enough without feeling guilty for your anger too. It’s frustrating and often a parent might wonder if their child could be manipulating them. Many parents I talk to feel as though their child has all the power. This was so shocking to me because as a youth with lived experience it has never crossed my mind that I was the one with the power.
Remove all expectations of who your child should be, and ask them who they want to be. Focus on what baby steps they can take to be that person.
Do share with your youth how much you love them and how scared you are. You don’t have to be strong all the time. Be vulnerable in front of them. Show them that it’s okay to feel things. That its okay to not be okay. Talk about your feelings and own your feelings as your own, so that they can follow by example.
Children learn a large percentage of their understanding of how to communicate, how to behave and react, by the age of 3. This is all by watching other humans around them and how they communicate, behave, react, show emotion. If no one ever teaches them how to communicate in a healthy way, how to take responsibility for themselves and their feelings, or any coping strategies, then why would we expect them to know how to do these things? If no one ever taught your youth how to drive, would you expect them to know how to drive?
It’s okay to be scared that your child is hurting and it’s okay not to have the answers. Why not try dropping down to their level for a bit and simply ask them, “What can I do to help you?”. Silently listen. When the safe space is created, you may be surprised what you can learn.