Having a child who deals with mental illness can be a difficult path to maneuver. You obviously love your child and would do anything to help them, but what exactly do they need from you? As someone who lives with anxiety, here are ten things that I would advise parents to keep in mind in warranted situations.
Avoid snooping into their private business.
While it may be tempting to snoop—track their location, or read their phone messages, or check their internet history—when you know your teen isn’t confiding in you, this is not the way to handle the situation. Of course, all parents want their kids to be able to talk to them, but sneaking into their private information will not achieve this goal. In fact, this may push them in the exact opposite direction, breaking their trust and causing them to actively avoid discussing personal matters with you.
Remember that they are not always in control of their feelings.
Sometimes mental illness can manifest in social withdrawal and a tendency to retreat from people, even family. While not being able to remedy this situation may be frustrating, it is vital to not act annoying or angry with your teen. They are already having a very tough time dealing with their mental illness, and the added impression of their family being upset with them can be almost too much to handle.
Forcing them out of their shell will only push them further into it.
An important factor to remember is that your idea of help, may not actually be helpful to them. For example, while you may think they need to socialize, forcing them to go on an outing and talk to people could make them feel worse. It may even cause resentment towards you for putting them in an uncomfortable situation. Instead, ask them if they would like to branch out or socialize, rather than telling them to do so. Presenting the option will put the idea in their head, while still giving them the autonomy to make their own choices and avoid possibly mentally detrimental situations.
Remember that any person with a mental illness has something in common with your child.
Sometimes shows, movies, or other media portray people with mental illnesses as crazy, dangerous or weird. While these stereotypes may exist, it is vital to not play into this kind of language. It is difficult enough to live with a mental illness, and hearing language of disapproval from family—even if it is not directed specifically at them—can make this journey even harder for your teen. Keep in mind that any time you speak derogatorily about a person with mental illness, it could be indirectly offensive to your child.
Don’t talk too much, don’t not talk at all, but definitely listen.
It can always be difficult to figure out the best way to talk about circumstances you’ve never experienced. The best way to approach the situation is ask your teen what then need from you. Absolutely offer to talk to them about anything, but do not sit them down and force them to have a conversation that they do not want to have. On the opposite end, if your child is trying to reach out to you, don’t avoid the subject matter just because it makes you uncomfortable or you aren’t exactly sure how to handle it. If your teen is actively seeking you out to discuss these personal matters, it is because they trust you and you don’t want to diminish this by giving off the impression that you don’t care. Whether your child has agreed to speak to you or sought you out without provocation, the most important thing to do is listen. Listen to their problems and what they need from you, and don’t add any extra help that you think they might need, because you never know when you could be overreaching.
Never diminish their feelings, no matter how small their problems may seem.
Part of mental illness is experiencing smaller problems or issues as more destructive and upsetting that they really are. For example, your child is in tears and you come to find out that the inciting incident was getting mud on their shoes, or making a mistake in pen, or something else seemingly menial. In situations like these, DO NOT laugh, or scoff, or tell them to ‘just let it go.’ Sometimes, tasks such as these are not very easy. The small problem may have struck a specific nerve, or brought back a bad memory, or maybe your teen was just having a particularly rough day and this was the final straw. One time, as I entered my room, I swung the door closed behind me and jumped in bed, only to realize that my swing had been too weak, leaving the door slightly ajar. After the rough day that I’d had… this incident caused me to cry. Just keep in mind that you are not seeing things from their point of view, and their feelings are completely valid.
They know what support they need, you don’t.
As briefly mentioned in some previous points, always remain humble and accept the fact that as far as help goes in this situation, you don’t know better than them. While this may seem backwards for a parent-child relationship, the typical dichotomy could discourage them from being candid about their opinions and experiences that are unknown and new to you. If they need support directly from you, they will let you know how to help. Don’t try to overstep your bounds because you may be unintentionally hurting instead of helping.
There are many forms of help… do not force your child into using any particular one.
In line with the previous point, one help tactic that may seem like a good idea is giving your child a push towards a specific form of treatment. Whether this is talking to you, talking to a therapist, or anything else, if your teen is not open to this idea of getting better, they will not benefit from it. For example, I have a good friend whose parents forced her to go to a therapist, against her will. Her parents meant well, but she hated this technique so much that she began skipping sessions, and no longer felt comfortable talking to her parents about personal issues because she feared the ‘punishment’ of being forced to go to therapy again. Her parents thought they were helping, when in reality they were pushing her away.
Sometimes, space is necessary.
Do not worry if your child retreats to their room sometimes or seemingly perpetually has headphones in. While, yes, this can sometimes be a warning sign of a more time-sensitive problem, if it is only occurring periodically then your teen may just need some alone time, as we all do. Remember that this is not about you—you did nothing to drive them away and it is not your job at this point to draw them back out. Good parenting means finding the balance between overprotective and distant, but this does include giving your child distance at times, when they need it.
You are first and foremost, a parent.
What does being a good parent mean? Obviously, there are endless answers to this question. But overall, I think most people would agree that good parents provide a loving, accepting, understanding, and supportive environment for their children. We all know that you want the best for your kids, and I hope these tips can help you better navigate your relationship with your child in stressful circumstances.
By: Jackie Miller, Anxiety In Teens Contributor