For the last few months, I’ve been watching a young person I love fall down a rabbit hole – not fast, but slowly spiralling. We have travelled this path before he and I, and both of us are different because of it: now I have better tools to pry him out, and he is older and wiser and is starting to know the dance steps too. The biggest and therefore hardest lesson I’ve had to learn is to take a step back and to acknowledge that it is not about me. His biggest lesson to learn is that letting an adult in and telling them what’s going on helps, even if it is hard. It is essential to work to keep channels of communication open with your kid and they’ll make it hard for you, but you’ve got to stick with it.For the benefit of other people out there wrangling offspring who turned from chubby balls of smiles to messy knots of complexities, here’s what I have learned the hardest of ways:
- Ask the hard questions: “Are you ok?” and don’t brush off their response no matter how dramatic it may seem.
- Acknowledge his feelings “You seem a bit down..” “I can see you are upset…”
- Talking in the car is good – eyes front, less confronting.
- Inviting them to come and speak with you outside, sitting side by side (like in the car) facing forward, wearing sunglasses – it sounds silly but it provides a bit of cover for tears, expressions etc on both sides. I find my hammock to be an excellent place for the hard stuff.
- Try not to get frustrated with ‘I don’t know’s – it’s likely this is true…anxiety can make thinking difficult particularly for young people.
- I often discovered that it would take some time for my kid to process the things I’d said to him; even though it seemed at the time that he was disengaged and I was talking to myself, he would bring it up days and even weeks later.
- If the conversation starts to escalate – back off.
- If your child starts to deflect with unrelated tangents or accusations – remind them that’s not what you’re discussing at this particular moment and get back on track; don’t join them (that one is really hard to do and happens in lots of different realtionships!)…also later on, take a moment to process how clever they are.
- If your kid shuts down with direct questioning or conversations, use scenarios of other people to create parallel stories.
- If you can, try to keep lots of subtle touching up to create a physical connection when it’s hard to have a mental one – not smothering, mind you, but rubbing a shoulder or arm, stroking backs.
- If you are brushed off, don’t give up but don’t pester. Check in later; acknowledge how annoying they might find you but reiterate that you’re concerned.
- Ask them if they would feel more comfortable talking to someone else and figure out how you could arrange that together.
- Let them know that there are people who want to help them, care for them and support them. In a recent conversation I reminded my child that there were a great bunch of people at his school who cared and wanted to help him “Yeah, because they’re paid to” he retorted. I acknowledged that that was true but also, that they chose to do that work because it meant something to them and that very likely they were experienced and good at it.
- Let them know they are not alone.
- Let them know that you will be happy to make an appointment and accompany them (if they wish) to see a doctor or a counsellor. Sometimes chemical support is required. And let your child know, they can and should be completely honest with the doctor/counsellor – they aren’t there to judge, they are there to help.
- And finally, seek support for yourself – whether it’s through a phone line, a partner, or a trusted friend. Make sure you’re also having nice times – with or without your kid!
Remember, Beyond Blue is a wonderful organisation for supporting sufferers of anxiety and depression and their families. Reach out if things are getting serious or worrying.
The teen years are not necessarily “the best years of your life” as I was told repeatedly as a (quietly) depressed teenager – not even close. But teenagers’ brains being what they are – murky, messy and hormonal – often these guys think that where they are is where they’ll be forever; that the decisions they make now have to be the right ones or they’ll ruin their whole lives or conversely that the things they do now (drugs/alcohol/unprotected sex) won’t hurt them. Some kids only learn things the hard way and sadly, all we can do is stand on the sidelines and watch them; but we can support them and we can let them know what options they have and that we will help them if they fall. At the end of the day, they are only human – young, learning humans, and so are we – although older and greyer (or is that just me?). Flaws and all.
If you’ve read this far, I wish you all the best and I hope you wish me well also….I’ll need it. It’s a long road, but boy, I’m sure we’ll be the better for it!