For most adolescents, the path to adulthood is twisty, bumpy and, well, crazy. Literally. In fact, mental health professionals are reluctant and, in some cases, forbidden to assign certain diagnoses to teenagers since it’s nearly impossible to separate what’s mental illness from what’s just adolescence. Sometimes the symptoms are exactly the same! That’s why it’s so incredibly hard to be an adolescent. And that’s also why it’s so hard to parent one.
If you’re the parent of an adolescent, one of the keys to effectively caring for your child, especially if her normal adolescent anguish is compounded by real emotional problems, is to effectively care for yourself. With all the energy she requires of you, it can feel impossible—selfish even— to spare any energy to build up your own resources and take care of yourself. But taking care of your own emotional health and building up your own support system is the best first step in taking care of your teen without losing it yourself. Following are some suggestions for building up your own resources so that you have the strength, calm, and support necessary to effectively improve the adolescent and parent child relationship.
See a Therapist or Parent Coach Who Specializes in Adolescent and Parent-child Relationship
You may think your teen is the one who needs to see a therapist; if you’re right about that, though, then you probably do too! Studies support the idea that we all function as part of powerful systems, systems in which the health of each part directly impacts the health of every other part. Your family is probably the most important system you and your teen both belong to. Every member of your family powerfully impacts every other in both visible and invisible ways, so when anyone struggles, everyone struggles. To the extent that your teen is struggling, you likely are too.
Seeing a therapist can help you assess your own role in the family system so that you can make informed decisions about how to effectively engage your teen as she morphs, often uncomfortably, into a young adult. Also, the more supported and emotionally healthy you are the more you’ll have the internal resources necessary to relate to, rather than react to, your adolescent child. When we want to improve our tennis game or our public speaking or almost any skill that we value, we don’t hesitate to seek outside coaching. Parenting is arguably the most important skill set one can possess; so don’t hesitate to seek outside assistance to improve those skills as well. Finally, your teen is likely to notice that you’re seeking outside help and taking care of yourself. That can normalize therapy, set an example that it’s okay to seek help and make it easier for your child herself to accept help when she needs it. Many teens are highly resistant to therapy; your example can do much to break that resistance down.
Make a Plan
If your adolescent shows signs of depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, or defiance, start understanding your options for dealing with these issues before they escalate to a crisis point. Many parents are afraid to admit that the behaviors they are witnessing in their teen could possibly progress to a point requiring outside help. This can create a higher risk that the behaviors, and the emotional struggles driving them, will fester to a point requiring a major rather than a minor intervention. Waiting for a crisis can make the process of seeking help rushed, confused, and therefore less effective.
So if you’re seeing signs of struggle, do your homework while the issues are still manageable. The internet is a fantastic, if sometimes overwhelming, resource for parents who wish to research signs of and solutions for adolescent emotional and behavioral problems. Start poking around on the internet, typing in keywords that tie into your concerns, such as “adolescent alcohol abuse,” “therapy for teenagers,” “managing a defiant teen,” etcetera. You’ll typically find free content-based resources, hotlines for teens and parents, and descriptions of treatment centers and outpatient resources. Getting a handle on these resources proactively can make the process of seeking help much more efficient and much less traumatic if things become difficult.
Engaging the services of a psychologist or educational consultant to administer psycho-educational testing can also be a great way to understand your teen’s emotions, behaviors, strengths and weaknesses. A professional analysis of these assessments can yield strategies for preventing a crisis. Testing can also give you a sense of the kind of help your child might need if her emotional or behavioral struggles do escalate. Remember that once her depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, or defiance does reach a critical point, she may not comply with this kind of testing. So it’s better to engage these services when signs of struggle first appear.
Build a Village
Many cultures understand the fact that it really does take a village to raise a child and they design their communities and customs around that fact. Cultures that have well-established traditions involving extended family and consistent community support tend to need less external mental health services, according to some studies. In the U.S. and many other western cultures, however, our love of independence has nearly extinguished our access to, though not our need for, supportive and consistent community. We’ve gotten so out of touch with community-oriented traditions, in fact, that U.S. families who attempt multi-generational living actually have a greater tendency to experience various stress-related disorders—including increased heart disease (especially for mom)! Fortunately, there are ways to build healthy community even in our highly individualistic society.
Becoming active in a church, health club, PTA group, or even an online parent-support group can help you grow your “village.” Reaching out to the parents of your child’s friends to have conversations, exchange contact information, engage in social events together, or explicitly to create a parent-support system, can go a long way toward fostering a village mentality. Holidays, while sometimes stressful, offer great opportunities for you and your teenager to connect with extended family. Often, other adults seem less threatening to your teen than you do; so create opportunities for your child to get to know other adults by planning vacations with other families and hosting/attending social events as a family. The more socially active you are and the more you involve your whole family in activities and community-based events, the larger and stronger your village is likely to be.