Your teenager has been struggling lately. You are not sure if they are depressed, experiencing anxiety, or both. They seem sad and irritable. You suspect they may be self-harming, but you are lost as to how to help them stop.
You’ve tried your best to talk to your teen, setting aside time for quality interaction in addition to meeting any immediate needs. But it is not enough. You have accepted your teen needs more than you can give. You suggest it might be helpful to talk to a therapist—someone who can help your child develop skills to handle depressed feelings or anxious times. Your teen agrees, so you make an appointment with a referred therapist. You are hopeful the therapist will be able to help your teen—but you are also nervous and perhaps a bit afraid. Your family is a private one, and you don’t wish to have another adult know about your family dynamics.
This feeling is common. Most parents who bring their children to therapy worry about what their child will say about them or about their parenting tactics. “What will the counselor think?” “Am I doing something wrong?” are normal questions that float around in most parents’ minds. But because we want our teenager to feel healthy and happy again, we forego our nervous and fearful feelings for the sake of their mental health.
You may never know what your child is actually saying in therapy, unless they choose to share that with you. But I will tell you, it is usually not as bad as you imagine it to be.
Sure, I’ve heard versions of the following sentiments:
- My dad drinks too much.
- My mom yells all the time.
- My parents are hypocrites.
- I’m not wanted at home.
But I’ve also heard general themes that are heartwarming and uplifting. These themes, when explored, are likely to contribute to a stronger emotional connection between teens and parents. Let me share a few:
- “I want to talk to my mom so bad, but…” When a teenager says this to me, I often feel hopeful that a relationship can be established where a teen feels safe enough to talk to their parents and a desired outcome can be achieved. Your teen wants to talk with you! Success! Achieving this level of communication may take work, but it can be done. The desire for connection is inherently present, and that’s a good thing! I often bring teens and their parents together for a few sessions so that both parties can learn how to effectively communicate without defensiveness or disrespect.
- “I used to love spending time with my dad.” This is also a positive indicator. A desire for more time together is proof that a parent is needed and loved. By the time your child has become a teenager, they know you have to work. They understand you have business trips, meetings, and other demands on your time. But they are also aware you can use time management skills to organize your schedule and make room for them. After all, we ask teens to prioritize their time between homework and chores.
- “I don’t want to disappoint my parents.” Teenage development can bring insecurity, in addition to feelings of unworthiness and the fear of judgment. One of our jobs as parents is to make sure our children know how loved and cherished they are. We can help them move out of the marinade of negative feelings they often seem to be soaking in.
- “My parents don’t know how I feel because they didn’t ask.” This is a growth opportunity. If we learn what questions to ask our children and how to ask them, we can create safety, healthy vulnerability, and a sense of connection. Yes, it is often scary to ask hard questions. But if don’t ask, we may not find out. We cannot assume they will automatically divulge the information.
If you are worried your teen is spilling family secrets, you will have to accept that they may be. Therapists usually find out who is abusing a substance, who isn’t around much (physically and emotionally) and who yells when stressed. But they also find out how loving, how desirous of greater connection and attachment your teenager is.
Teenagers often get a bad rap. They are not all the sulking, phone-watching group we tend to think they are. A large majority of the time, teenagers want to know their parents love them. They want their parents to be happy with them and proud of them. They want to spend quality time together. They are loving, and they talk and share—often about how much they love their family.
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