How to approach our teens...when we are not well

I have spoken before about our tendencies to avoid conflict with our youths, not wanting to identify their apparent concerning issues and symptoms when we notice them.

Parents are naturally con icted over sharing dif cult situations with their kids. (photo credit: TNS)
Parents are naturally con icted over sharing dif cult situations with their kids.
(photo credit: TNS)
I have spoken before about our tendencies to avoid conflict with our youths, not wanting to identify their apparent concerning issues and symptoms when we notice them. What do we do, however, when we are dealing with our own issues? Let’s explore the delicate subject of how, why and when to include our teens in what is going on with us when we are dealing with mental illness or a terminal disease such as cancer. The advice is very similar.
The average parent knows the importance of their teens feeling safe and secure with a strong parental support system that is unwavering. However, when we give the impression that we need to be strong all of the time, it can cause our kids to feel disconnected from us. Always having to be strong and hiding their feelings may cause them to think that it is not okay for them to allow their feelings of fear, sadness, hurt, etc. to affect them.
Parents are naturally conflicted over sharing difficult situations with their kids. When dealing with a serious illness, it’s natural to want to protect our children from worrying, but children of all ages pick up on things. They know when something is wrong in the family.
When we are going through a challenging period in our lives – emotional turmoil, depression, various levels of mental and physical disorders – we don’t want our kids to blame themselves for our condition and/or reactions. They are aware when we overreact or underreact to things differently than we normally would.
They notice unusual movement in the house, quiet conversations, overly emotional parental moments. Often they imagine the worst, sometimes worse than the actual situation.
There is comfort in understanding what is happening. It allows them to share their concerns, ask questions and feel a part of the process. Our openness about the issue opens the door for them to be willing to open up to us as well.
They don’t need to witness our constant anxiety, but we don’t have to suppress our emotions constantly.
It is actually healthy for kids to see how we cope with our stress, particularly if we are able to use healthy tools to do so. In addition, allowing our kids to support us can actually do wonders in creating a strong bond between us.
It’s important to be aware of how you and others view your change in behavior and condition in order to help explain it to your teen. On the other hand, in the case of mental illness, be careful not to expect your teen to help you understand what is happening with you.
In the case of a physical illness, allow them to accompany you on doctor visits should they desire. Also make sure they are aware of other adults who know what’s happening and can be counted on for support. This allows your teen other options to inquire about the situation when they feel uncomfortable approaching you.
The situation at home is very likely to affect their performance and behavior at school. In addition, most communities offer teen support groups that can be the best way for your teens to get the help that they need and not feel alone in dealing with a sick parent.
There is really no perfect time to share what is going on. It is important, however, to have this conversation when you are feeling calm. Often it is easier for teens to engage with us when they are doing something with you such as taking a walk, driving in the car or eating a meal.
It is also important to tell all of your kids. It’s too much of a burden for some to know when the others don’t. Even the younger children still need to know.
Dr. Janine Domingues, a clinical psychologist in the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at The Child Mind Institute, suggests sharing with children a definition of anxiety and depression and how it is affecting you. Be honest and open with your teen and answer their questions to the best of your ability.
Ask them questions that encourage them to open up about their feelings. If there is something you don’t know, it is best to be honest and tell them that when you do know you will share it with them.
With easy access to the Internet, teens will tend to seek out information by themselves. Encourage them to speak about what they learned and discuss how that information may or may not be germane to your situation. Most important is to assure your teen that you have an action plan and are receiving the help that you need to get better.
Domingues suggests assuring your child that mental illness is not contagious, and that feeling anxious and sad happens to everyone; but in your case it was affecting your life too much and it became unmanageable.
Explain that it is okay for them to feel worried and let them know that you want to keep the conversation going. This is best accomplished by setting aside quality time together so that you can brief them on how you are doing, and give updates on how you are coping with the situation.
Let your teens know that if you get to a point where you can no longer be there for them, you have developed a support system of other adults whom they can turn to. Domingues adds the importance of being mindful of your expressions and the words you say, trying to model “distress tolerance” using positive self-talk and problem solving to set a good example for your teen.
Lastly, she advises that “By having these conversations in a meaningful way, your teens can increase their ability to separate their own emotional responses from their parents’ behavior and begin to build and maintain trust in a caring adult.”
Children of Parents With Mental Illness (COPMI) suggests that before you speak to your teen, consider these questions
• How might your behavior be affecting your teenager?
• How might your symptoms and behavior impact on your relationship with them?
• Which behaviors appear to be the most challenging for them?
• How might this impact on their involvement with community activities, friends or peers?
• What concerns might they have about their own mental health?
• How might your symptoms and behaviors be affecting their decisions?
• What information could help your teenager to understand what they have observed about your behavior?
In both mental and physical illness, make sure your teens keep up their normal routine, rules and boundaries. Let them know that you will probably need more help than before, but don’t overburden them and make sure to show them your appreciation.
Over the last two and a half years I have been writing the Parenting Column for The Jerusalem Post originally co-authored with Dr. Judith Posner. We have received many comments, inquiries and thank-you emails from our readers telling us the value of each subject we covered.
The Parenting Column is being discontinued, so this will be my last article. I would love to hear any feedback you have yet to share and to continue the dialogue. Parenting teens and young adults can be beyond challenging. I hope this column has helped to guide you in some ways through the many topics we discussed.
The writer is a teen and young adult counselor specializing in addictions and working with youth and their parents for over 26 years.,