Communication between parents and teenagers can be difficult on the best of days. Between generational differences, normal teenage development, common mood changes in adolescents, and the pressures that parents face, misunderstandings and poor word choices are a common occurrence. You might feel that talking to your teenager is even more difficult, now that he or she is in an adolescent mental health treatment program, but it’s more important than ever to keep the lines of communication open. As you know, using certain words and phrases can cause teens to shut down. Here are some words to avoid using with your teen while he or she goes through mental health treatment.
“If I were you, I’d…”
Giving advice to any teenager is tricky business: Many times, even the sweetest and most reasonable teen will see your advice is irrelevant, out-of-touch, or just plain ridiculous. Adolescents, by nature, often assume that their parents don’t know what they’re talking about, which is frustrating for all involved when unsolicited advice is doled out. If your teen is in a treatment program for mental illness, the stakes are even higher.
The truth is, it’s likely that you don’t really know what’s going on with your troubled teenager. Unless you have also been treated for the same condition, you might not fully understand his or her range of emotions or thoughts. Even if you have been through similar treatment, every person reacts differently to events, so your proposed solutions to your child’s complaints might be unreasonable in this situation.
Harvard Business Review offers tips for listening without giving solutions. Try asking open-ended questions when your child comes to you with concerns, and refrain from judgment and blaming. Instead, allow your teen to come up with his or her own solutions, with the help of their counselor, physician and support staff.
“You are going to…”
As a parent, you’ve been making decisions for your teen for the past 13 to 18 years. When he or she was a toddler, you decided what they’d wear. You chose your child’s school, decided what to make for dinner, and determined at what ages certain activities would be allowed. Now that your teen is becoming more independent, it can be difficult to let go of that role in his or her life.
The fact is, while you can certainly force your child to have treatment for his or her illness (and you should do so under certain circumstances), your teen’s recovery is ultimately up to them. You know the saying about leading a horse to water; you can absolutely use your parental authority to get your child into treatment. Once he or she is there, however, threats and ultimatums from you are not going to help.
Rather than try to force your child to open up to his or her therapists or follow along with mental health treatment, have the long-term goal in mind. In most cases, this goal is recovery. Your teen’s mental health professionals will be working to help your child get well, but he or she has to want to make the change. Sharing your thoughts on how things can feel for your teen once recovery has begun to take place might give him or her an incentive to keep working hard to get better.
“This is your fault.”
If your child were diagnosed with diabetes, cancer, or asthma, you would not allow anyone to imply or state outright that the illness was due to something that your teen did wrong. Mental illness carries a different stigma than other illnesses, but it’s unacceptable to blame your child for his or her diagnosis. Nothing your child did or did not do caused mental illness. If your teen expresses concern that he or she could have caused the illness, assure them that that is not the case, and encourage them to speak with a counselor or doctor about these thoughts.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
It can be very hurtful to find out that your teen has been confiding in someone other than you about important, even life-or-death, matters. Most teens will begin confiding in their peers more than their parents at some point during adolescence, but many will still go to their parents about the biggest issues in their lives.
When a child is in treatment for a mental health issue, however, he or she might stop sharing those big concerns with mom and dad. Part of the reason might be that they don’t want to worry you. Another is that they don’t want to betray the confidence of one of the friends they’ve made during treatment. Also, your teen might choose to share his or her deepest thoughts with those who are going through similar trials.
Try not to take this personally, and don’t demand that your teen keep you informed of every detail of mental health treatment or what he or she is thinking. Remember that treatment is confidential, and that your teen might not be up to sharing at this point. That might or might not change in the future, but don’t impose guilt on your teen for not telling you everything.
It’s normal for your teen to express concern that his or her mental health treatment isn’t working, particularly in the early days, when everything is new and different. If they are on medication, it will likely take weeks before the doctors know that it’s the right medication or the right dose. Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is not a quick fix, either, though some people do begin to feel better right away. If your child is in treatment for an eating disorder or a drug addiction, there will be physical side effects to contend with, in addition to the emotional and mental effects.
If your teen is concerned, brushing away these worries will not help. Encourage him or her to speak to the doctors and counselors on their health care team. These professionals are familiar with common concerns and can give your teen more information about what to expect from the treatment plan, including how long it might take to see results.
Parenting is difficult under the simplest circumstances, and knowing what to say and what not to say during stressful times can be difficult. Don’t be afraid to ask your child’s mental health care team for tips on communicating better with your teenager during mental health treatment. Also, if you have said any of the phrases listed above, all is not lost. Apologize to your child, if warranted, and move on. Part of the recovery process is to accept the past without dwelling on it, so model this behavior yourself to set a good example for your teenager.
Paradigm Malibu is an adolescent mental health and drug treatment center dedicated to identifying, understanding and properly treating the core issues that impact teens and their families.