Welcome to BuzzFeed’s Mental Health Q&A, where we consult with experts to answer your biggest mental health questions. Have a question about mental or emotional health, happiness, relationships, stress, or anything else? Hit us up at MentalHealthQs@buzzfeed.com.
This week’s question: How do I talk to my parents about tricky mental health stuff?
Q: What do you do if you’ve tried and tried to talk to your parents about your depression and anxiety, but every time you get too nervous and end up saying everything is fine? I just get paralyzed with anxiety and I can’t seem to say anything. It’s been happening for about two years now and I just don’t know what to do anymore. I know I need help but I’m too scared to ask.
Hey Anonymous! Thanks so much for asking. First all, you should know that you’re not alone. We received dozens of questions from people dealing with pretty much the same thing and for good reason — talking to your parents about this sort of thing is really hard.
To help answer your question, we talked to clinical psychologist and adolescent specialist Jerry Weichman, Ph.D., and clinical psychologist Jamie Howard, Ph.D., director of the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center’s Trauma and Resilience Service at the Child Mind Institute.
Here are their tips.
1. First, remember: You don’t need your parents to understand exactly what you’re going through. You just need them to know you’re struggling so you can get the help you need.
A part of your anxiety might be coming from not being able to express yourself in a way that makes it clear how you’re feeling — but you don’t really have to do that. Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues aren’t always easily described, especially to people who don’t have personal experience with it. What’s important is that your parents know that you’re not well and need to see a professional, even if they don’t grasp the nitty gritty of it, says Howard.
2. You can help reduce the anxiety of the conversation by planning out what you’re going to say.
Howard suggests writing out a script if you’re feeling overwhelmed. But if you’re worried it’s going to be a high-pressure situation, don’t try to memorize a whole speech — a few bullet points are fine.
When coming up with talking points, focus on how your symptoms have been impacting your life. It’s normal for everyone to feel sad or anxious from time to time, so you want to make sure it’s very clear to your parents what you’re going through. “Tell them that you’re feeling so anxious that you’re avoiding things that really matter to you,” says Howard. “Or that you’re feeling so depressed that you’re not spending time with your friends, or turning in your homework on time, or enjoying life.”
You can even come with reading material for them if you think it would help. Something as simple as printing out an overview and a list of symptoms that highlight what you’ve been experiencing can make it a more tangible thing for your parents to grasp, says Weichman. The National Institute of Mental Health or the Anxiety and Depression Association of America are great resources for this stuff.
3. Think about the different ways this conversation could go so you don’t get derailed by their reaction.
You don’t want to overthink it to the point that you get stressed out and back out of the conversation, but Weichman says that mental preparation is important so you’re not caught off guard. These are some situations you can prepare for:
- Guilt-tripping. Your parents might say something like, “You have the best life! You have a roof over your head/lots of friends/whatever. You shouldn’t be depressed!” If they do, respond with, “Yeah, you’re right. I agree. I shouldn’t be feeling this way, and that’s how I know I need help.”
- Minimizing the situation. They might say, “All teenagers are moody sometimes. You’re just having a bad day. Stress is normal!” In which case, you can respond with something like, “I understand what you’re saying, but this is more than that. This is having an impact on me and my ability to live my life. I don’t know how to manage it on my own and I need help.”
- Making it about them. Think, “I failed, I’m such a bad parent, I can’t even raise a kid who is happy.” In this case, you can say something like, “It’s not that you’re not doing enough. I’m not saying that anything in our family or my school or our environment needs to change, it’s that I need help.”
4. Once you’re ready to have the conversation, choose a time that’s good for both you and your parents.
Maybe instead of right after work when they’re cooking dinner, you go with a Saturday afternoon when there’s nothing going on. “Pick a time when you have their full attention and they’re more likely to take it seriously,” says Howard.
Also, bring it up at a time when you’re feeling good and not in crisis, so you don’t accidentally undermine your message. “If you’re agitated, your parents might say, ‘Oh, you’re just upset, you don’t know what you’re talking about,’” says Howard.
5. It might help to ease into the conversation by asking your parents about their experiences.
Asking your parents if they’ve ever been depressed or anxious, or even just had a time in their life when they felt sad, hopeless, or stressed is a great icebreaker if you’re feeling nervous.
“What that does is helps you see that your parents might relate to what you’re about to say more than you think,” says Weichman. “It also makes those feelings fresh in your parents’ minds and prepares them for the conversation you want to have. Even if they say no, it’s at least a little bit of an intro that can make things easier.”
6. You don’t have to discuss it in person — writing them a letter, email, or even texting them is possible, too.
If you’re super anxious or have a bad relationship with your parents to the point that you’re putting off this conversation, writing it out is a great way to start a dialogue. “This helps because they can’t start arguing, interrupt, or derail the conversation,” says Weichman. “They have to be present and take in what you’re saying to them.”
7. A school counselor can help pass the message onto your parents if you don’t want to have the conversation by yourself.
Whether you need someone to practice the conversation with or want someone else to reach out to your parents to tell them what’s going on, a school counselor is a great person to have in your corner. “They will also follow up with you and your parents to make sure you get the help you need,” says Weichman.
8. Another option is to find an excuse to see your pediatrician so they can have the conversation with your parents instead.
A school counselor is preferable since they’re more equipped to follow up, but in case you don’t have that resource, this is another option. You might have to come up with another excuse to go if you really don’t want to tell your parents what’s going on. Either way, tell your doctor about the symptoms you’re having — they’ll be able to relay the message to your parents and give recommendations for local providers. “Sometimes parents will listen more seriously to a person in a position of authority,” says Howard.
9. Once it’s all out in the open, make sure to hold your parents accountable for getting you help — because they might put it off.
Weichman warns that you might have to do some of the legwork yourself to really get the ball rolling. If your parents are dragging their feet, he suggests using the Psychology Today therapist finder, where you can find providers that take your insurance, specialize in the issues you’re having trouble with, and are near you. Find some options to show your parents to give them the push they need.
10. In the meantime, definitely take advantage of other resources available to you if you need them.
You shouldn’t go without support just because you haven’t taken the step to talk to your parents. While they’re not a replacement for professional help, these are some excellent resources to be aware of:
- Crisis Text Line is a texting-basis crisis resource that pairs you with a live, trained crisis counselor to text with. Use it by texting START to 741-741
- 7 Cups and IMALIVE are free, anonymous online text chat services with trained listeners, online therapists, and counselors
- The US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. A list of international suicide hotlines can be found here
- Vent and Paralign are community-based apps where you can express yourself anonymously and connect with people who might be going through something similar
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