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How to talk about teenage mental health
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How to talk about teenage mental health
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How to talk about teenage mental health
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Articles
20 April 2016

How to talk about teenage mental health

Navigating your child through the maze of mental health.

Written by Jini Maxwell

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Adolescence is a period of life so full of turbulence, sometimes it’s amazing any of us survived. Fights, periods, family dynamics, sex— and for many, self harm, bullying, and isolation. It’s scary to live through, and can be terrifying to watch from the periphery. So as a parent, how can you help children navigate their way through their teens to land safely on the shores of adulthood?

Talking to your child about their mental health is important, but tends to happen only when their mental health is in jeopardy. It can feel impossible to find the beginning of the thread that leads into that maze.

If you are looking to have this conversation, odds are you already have an angle, a set of beliefs. But here’s the thing: you should really consider the possibility that you are wrong. Maybe not about the fact of suffering, but about its cause, manifestations and the sharp parts of it that one might need to be protected from. It is really hard watching a person you love suffer. It is downright terrifying feeling responsible for a person who is suffering. But it is mostly really, really hard being young and in pain. You can’t let your fear matter more than another person’s pain.

It’s important to relinquish some control. You can’t walk into this conversation blindly, you have to knock at the door and accept that there will be times when your child isn’t ready to answer. You’ve got to get really comfortable being totally in the dark.

If your child is trapped in a maze, they can at least see the walls of the maze. But it is important to acknowledge you’re not entering the conversation with them from outside the maze; you’re entering the conversation from inside a maze of your own. Showing compassion and care isn’t about creating an environment where you don’t feel afraid or out of your depth. This is not a conversation you can enter into as a superior. Don’t come to fix; come to listen. Take on board, as fully as you can, the depth and breadth of the limits of your perceptions of who and what this whole, complete, suffering person is, or is not.

The focus really should be on what they want from you, what you can provide them, and not on how okay you desperately want them to be. I started going to therapy when my life depended on it. I wish I’d realised earlier that good therapists are not navigators; they are compasses. The client is the navigator. And so is your child.

 

The best you can do is to gently remind your suffering child of the tools at their disposal. A therapist is a useful tool. A parent can be, a project can be, or maybe a friend. You can’t get into their maze, but you can talk about any experience you might have of endless winding corridors, and the creeping sense that you might be lost forever.

Introduce them to your brave, brilliant, solid, mentally-ill friends. Normalise lostness. Let their pain matter more than your fear. All you can hope is your child feels they have less to hide that way. Shame is a powerful paralytic.

At the end of the day, you are each in your own maze. Whether you think you know the sharp corners of your own or not, it’s true. If you go gently and carefully, with full respect to the complete personhood of your child, maybe in time, they’ll start to ask you where the thread might begin.

Jini Maxwell

Jini Maxwell is a writer, comics artist and feelings enthusiast based in Melbourne.

Feature image by Zachary Staines

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