Being a teenager can be hard. Being a teenager’s parent can be heartbreaking.
I have a friend, let’s call her Josie. Josie has been a mentor to me for many years. Her children are older than mine, and she’s always shown me the light at the end of the tunnel. She encouraged me through the sleepless years, telling me that it would get better. She has always been confident, perpetually optimistic, and full of spirit. Until last year when her daughter was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Suddenly the light at the end of the tunnel was not looking so bright.
I have other friends with teenage girls who’ve also divulged stories of anxiety and depression, and even self-harm. According to a Mission Australia Youth Survey in 2018, young women are twice as likely to suffer from psychological distress than young men and roughly one quarter of girls aged 15–24 suffer from anxiety. Other people, people more capable than I, are looking into helping our girls, but I want to know – who is helping our parents?
PARENTS TRY TO HELP THEIR KIDS BUT IT ISN’T ALWAYS ENOUGH
Josie knew that her daughter Coco* was anxious from a young age. It was a foreign experience to Josie so she read all the books she could and kept her eye on Coco. But everything appeared to be fine. Coco was the girl that everyone liked. She did everything well and always with a smile. Until Coco started to be anxious about going to school. Josie and her husband were advised to keep sending her.
Josie says, “She had been covering up her panic attacks and increasing depression extremely well so by the time we discovered how bad it was, she had become very depressed and was having trouble engaging at all. Everyone, including her psychologist and the school, assured us that the worst thing we could do was keep her from going to school, as once she stopped it would be hard to get her back. She started struggling to leave the house and was really afraid of everything and just very sad. She went from the kid that seemed like she could do anything, to being unable to leave her bedroom.”
A SYSTEM THAT STRUGGLES TO SUPPORT GIRLS AND LETS DOWN THEIR PARENTS
Finding the right help wasn’t easy. They decided medication would be a good option for Coco, but couldn’t book in to see a psychiatrist; the first available appointment was four months away. While Josie desperately searched for more immediate help for her daughter, Coco told her parents she didn’t want to live any more.
Seeing Coco crumble before her eyes was terrifying, gut-wrenching and heartbreaking for Josie. And the most surprising part? Throughout it all, Josie was not once offered support. “It amazed me how many of the professionals were constantly trying to understand if we had caused the problem and never asked if we were OK (at times we were barely coping).” Josie and her husband were given scrutiny instead of sympathy.
Josie says, “As all this unfolded, I came to doubt everything I thought I knew about parenting, about how much I knew my kids and about being a parent. Many of the psychologists I have encountered asked question after question about how I raised my kids and what she was like as a child. It happened enough to leave me doubting everything. Ironically, having gone through life feeling mostly fearless, I now live with constant low-level anxiety and fear, and am working on my own anxiety.”
THEIR PAIN IS NOT A MEASURE OF YOUR PARENTING
Karen Young, former psychologist and parenting educator from Hey Sigmund, has a strong message for parents. “Know that what your child is going through isn’t a measure of them, you, or your parenting. It’s a measure of the fact they’re human, and as humans sometimes we hurt too much.” It’s OK for parents to feel heartbroken and confused, so acknowledge that it’s hard. Karen says to accept your own pain, and understand that your experience and your child’s experiences are shared with many other parents and children. You’re not alone.
Perhaps the hardest thing is that we can’t take their pain away. Karen says, “As parents, it isn’t our job to lift them over tough experiences, but to walk alongside them as they build their capacity to get through those tough times.”
HOW TO BE THE ROCK YOUR CHILD NEEDS
Karen says that the greatest help you can give your kids is to be calm. The rock in the face of the storm. Easier said than done, but Karen says this can be a real circuit-breaker. You need to look after yourself – get as much sleep as possible, eat well, exercise and stay in touch with friends.
Josie is fit and healthy, but throughout this period she was deeply sad. She found her support through her husband and friends. Even when they had no answers, the simplest response helped them the most.
With Josie as her rock, Coco takes her time processing and healing as she continues along her mental health journey. “Ultimately, we have focused on ensuring she knows she is loved and that we are all here for her and that is really what has gotten us through.”