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“But Everyone Gets Sad Sometimes.”

How parents can help their teens who are struggling with their mental health, instead of fueling isolation and invalidation.

The biggest problem between parents and their kids is miscommunication. A generational difference makes this even harder to avoid. But words can change everything in the relationship between a parent and their kid, especially in their adolescent years. Adolescents struggling with their mental health, an issue most of all prevalent in Gen-Z, often feel invalidated and isolated by their parents in regards to their mental illness. 

I posted polls and questions on my Instagram account story and received an astounding amount of answers that were honest, vulnerable, and hopeful. I hope these answers open the eyes of all parents who read them. 

Poll questions 

1. When your parents ask how you’re doing, and you’re not in a good place mentally, do you tell them “I’m fine” or do you answer them honestly? 

Of the 170 adolescents who responded, 109 (64% of those polled) said they tell their parents “I’m fine,” and 61 (a mere 36%) say they answer their parents honestly. 

2. If you’re dealing with a mental illness, do your parents know about it? 

Of the 106 adolescents who responded, 63 (59% of those polled) said their parents did know, and 43 (41%) said their parents did not know they were struggling with a mental illness. 

Ryan, 18, said: “My parents know, but refuse to acknowledge it… I know they’ve seen me in my lowest stages, but they pretend everything is okay.” 

3. If you have been clinically diagnosed, did your parents disagree with the doctor?

Of the 80 adolescents who responded, 57 (71% of those polled) said their parents agreed with the doctor, while 23 (29%) said their parents disagreed with a doctor diagnosing them with a mental illness. 

Kelsey, age 18, said: “I have been diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder for over a year, and they [my parents] still think I am just eating too much sugar.” 

4. If you have been clinically diagnosed and told by a doctor you need medication, were your parents open to the idea or against it? 

Of the 68 adolescents who responded, 43 (63% of those polled) said their parents were open to the idea of them using prescribed medication for clinically diagnosed mental illness and 25 (37%) said their parents were against the idea of them starting medication to help them with their mental illness. 

Open Ended Questions 

1. If you could tell your parents something to help them understand what you’re going through, what would you say? 

“I mean my parents understand to an extent but they think that it’s a phase and isn’t something that’s constantly with you. While yes sometimes things aren’t as bad, that doesn’t mean it’s completely gone. That’s the main thing for me.” – James, 19 

“I’d definitely tell my mom that a lot of the tme I could be depressed and not know why. She’s kinda aware of my habits when I’m depressed but it’s a lot harder for me to function some days than others. Some days I can pull myself out of bed and other days I’m not in the mood to do anything, even eating.” – Jordan, 19 

“I bought my mom a picture book called “thin slices of anxiety” to help her understand what it’s like for someone who is struggling with anxiety.” – Amanda, 19 

“My mind is constantly turned on and whenever I feel a little inch of happiness, the sadness and stress and anxiety creeps back into my mind.” – Jack, 20 

“Just be patient and not try and force their way into things. When I am ready to talk with you, I will.” – Jessica, 19 

“Just as much as you want the old me back I do too; I wish you could see that I’m trying to get her back, but I need your help to do it.” – Shelby, 19

“Just listen to the whole rant first before cutting me off and turning it into a lecture.” – Valentina, 19 

2. What would you like your parents to change about how they treat you to help when you’re struggling with your mental health? 

“Just be patient with me, cause I am trying. It’s a hard struggle but I’m doing the best I can at the moment.” – Jordan, 19 

“They just seem to only focus on the things that I do wrong and never seem to notice anything I do to help. Getting yelled at for every little mistake I make and never thanked for anything I do to help is just really demoralising and just doesn’t help my self esteem at all.” – James, 19 

“Please don’t see me as damaged. Don’t ignore it. Ask me about it. Help me understand.” – Shelby, 19 

3. What do you think parents could do overall to help adolescents with their mental health? 

“Read about teenage mental health and what your kid could possibly go through. Also being supportive and constantly reminding kids that they can always depend on parents to come whenever they need help.” – Cecilia, 19 

“Always checking in, having open and honest conversations.” – Amanda, 20 

“Just hug us now and then and tell us everything is gonna be okay and that they are there for us no matter what. It’s sometimes counterproductive to tell children to suck it up or that it’ll get better if you just try to see things differently or make things better for yourself.” – Jack, 20 

“Listen without judgement or trying to ‘fix’ anything. Just hear me; we all want to be heard.” – Shelby, 19 

“Don’t be too quick to judge. Understand that we all deal with it definitely and some of us just need a little extra push to get going. Understand where the child is coming from because no one chooses to be in a mental state of depression. Inform your child that they are very much loved and just be their number one in times of need.” – Jordan, 19 

“Listen first, then speak.” – Valentina, 19

So as a Parent, What Can I Do? 

Words mean everything. Even the littlest things have the biggest impact, like wording and tone. Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. This makes the world of a difference— “you” statements instigate defensive retaliation and cause negative emotions to surface. “I” statements 

show your kids how you feel, and levels you to each other— it gives us more of a space to explain how we feel. 

Try not to use words such as “lazy,” “excuses,” “selfish,” “ungrateful,” and other terms that invalidate true symptoms of mental illnesses that we just can’t help. This points a finger as if it’s our fault, which just makes us feel so much worse, and will not help the situation at all. Instead, try to be understanding of how we feel and why it’s making it harder for us to function. Try to help us become more motivated with encouraging words, a positive attitude, an open mind, and letting us know you care. 

Check in— and really listen. It’s hard enough for us to admit it to ourselves that we are struggling. Even if the first couple tries we are shut down, we really do want you to know how we feel. We want you to ask us how we’re doing, but we need validation from you that you’ll really listen and allow us a safe space to be honest without thinking it will turn into a lecture. Stop assumptions. No one wants to be mentally ill. Pushing it away or trying to make our symptoms seem less severe than they actually are is counter productive and makes us feel worse. Blaming external circumstances and only judging what you can see is going to make us feel bad about ourselves because we will feel more alone. Know we are trying. Even if you don’t see what we’re going through, even if you don’t see that we’re doing our best, just try to understand that that doesn’t mean we are fine, and it doesn’t mean we aren’t trying.

Celebrate small victories and be mindful of negativity. If you notice us doing better, or going out of our way to change our behavior in a healthy way, please tell us. This will reinforce what we’re doing and help us continue to do more to help ourselves get out of our heads. And most important of all— show us you care by telling us you care. It means the world to us. Trying your hardest to change your ways to be more positive and open minded, plus a hug, telling us you love us, or telling us that you recognize us working hard, is so meaningful to us. We appreciate these gestures in our darkest times as much as our better times.

Image Credit: https://kidshelpline.com.au/parents/issues/responding-disclosures-child-abuse

The views, opinions, and stories expressed in Promly Garden articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or policy of Promly.org. We aim to give Gen Z a voice and welcome articles and opinions from Gen Z contributors who want their voice to be heard. Please send any articles, poetry, or artwork you’d like to see published on the Promly Garden to heypromly@promly.org.

With immense gratitude, the Promly Team

Published by Rita Russo (she/her/they/them)

Rita is a sophomore at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles studying Psychology and Philosophy. In her spare time, she enjoys writing, playing guitar, reading tarot, and being outdoors. Rita hopes to one day work as a therapist with a focus on alternative and spiritual healing, incorporating other aspects of spiritual practice including tarot reading, meditation, and crystal and chakra healing into therapy.