An increasing number of teens today are suffering from mental illness, chronic stress, and the ambivalence associated with getting help. Thankfully, an increasing number of teens are also speaking out about mental health and reaching out for support. (See FIT contributor blog by Paige Stabile's on this page.)
Don’t freak out. What many parents don’t realize is just how much of an impact they have on their children...not through teaching, not through lecturing, not through rearing, but through modeling. We are innately and biologically wired to connect with other human beings, especially our parents, so if your fear is leading the way, they will feel afraid. If you are angry or condemning, they will feel ashamed, if you are constantly anxious and insecure, they will absorb that too.
Listen, empathize, set limits, empathize, instill confidence. By no means do I believe that rules or consequences should go out the window when it comes to behavioral issues. But I do believe that first and foremost your child needs to feel heard and understood, and they need to know that you see their strengths and believe in their ability to overcome adversity. The most effective consequences are the natural and logical ones that they (and we all) endure by making mistakes. If your teen is using drugs, alcohol, or engaging in other activities you disapprove of, before you lay down the law or set a boundary, be curious and listen to them. If they aren’t acting out but you know they’re suffering internally, let them know that you can see that they are struggling with “x”, that you know it’s really difficult and confusing and hard, and that you are here for them. Then set the reasonable limit or boundary, followed by further affirmation of their ability to overcome whatever they are going through.
Understand. Their internal pain and suffering may be manifesting in ways you wouldn’t expect. Be careful about jumping to conclusions or layering on the punishments without taking the time to understand what is really going on. Depression and anxiety in teens can often look like: substance abuse, lying, sexual promiscuity, difficulty concentrating, social issues, isolation, irritability, stomach pain, restricting, bingeing or purging food, headaches, and other physical symptoms...the list could go on. Assuming that they are just seeking attention, being manipulative, or disobedient is more than likely not true. The point is don’t make assumptions about what’s going on in their head without taking the time to try to understand their underlying feelings, and don’t be afraid to enlist the help of a professional.
Get them help and find yourself support. Your teenager may naturally feel more comfortable talking to another adult about their innermost thoughts and feelings. Try not to take that personally. It is a natural and healthy part of human maturity and development. Find them professional help - and get support and help yourself. Not because you “need help” in the stigmatized way, but because this work is really hard and taxing and you deserve all the support you can get. As I mentioned above, the most impactful way to teach your teens how to be is how you choose to be - the healthier you are, the healthier they will be*.
Written by, FIT expert contributor, Rachel Daggett, LMFT