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“If teenagers no longer feel as if their own parents can be considered an emotional outlet in their time of need, many will have to deal with suppressing their feelings until eventually they just break,” writes VOX Investigates reporter Nia-Simone. 

Shh, Parents, Listen: Take Teens’ Mental Health Seriously

by share

At the age of 6, a sensitive little girl, now in elementary, believes she’s the queen of the jungle as she attempts to conquer the monkey bars. Halfway across, she falls, scraping her knee on the concrete. As tears consume her eyes, she cries for help. The teacher runs to her side, comforting her as they walk to the nurse together.

Years go by, and the fearless girl, now age 14, sits on the edge of her bed with a phone in one hand and tissues in the other, crying about her first heartbreak — a silly boy she won’t even remember in four years. By her side, her mother wipes the young teen’s tear-stained cheeks. In that moment she feels at peace, knowing she is not alone. She is loved and cared for, heard and understood.

The sweet girl is now on the edge of 17, battling a war inside her mind that consumes her thoughts with negativity and darkness. She does her best to ask for help from teachers, friends, and family, but this time no one is there to comfort her, and no one is listening. As invisible as she feels, the weight of the world rests heavy on her shoulders. She is alone, fighting against herself.

That isolated girl is me.

Teens today share a similar story to mine; however, our individual experiences differ. Three metro-Atlanta based teens shared their dilemma of feeling like they’re overlooked by parents. “When parents reject our downfalls, it discourages us,” Sanaa George, 17, said in a text.   

“My opinion and feelings are wrong in [my parents’] eyes because they’re older and know more,” said Skye Farmer, 16.

This misunderstanding between parents and their children leads us to isolate ourselves from parents and lose a sense of trust in them.

The discussion of mental health has become more prevalent in today’s society. But why are kids today more mentally ill then generations before? Is school to blame? Or is it social media and outside expectations forced upon us? Either way, one in five teens struggles with a diagnosable mental health condition, but less than half get the help they need, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

If teenagers no longer feel as if their own parents can be considered an emotional outlet in their time of need, many will have to deal with suppressing their feelings until eventually they just break. The American Association of Suicidology recorded 6,252 deaths by suicide in 2017 among U.S. youth ages 15 through 24, which equals an average of 17.1 deaths per day. Although suicide is the most extreme case, teenagers building up emotional angst can turn to other forms of self-harm that can be easily prevented if they had healthy communication with a parent or other family member or caregiver.

When finally getting the courage to discuss mental illness with my parents after dealing with periods of overwhelming sadness, I realized the differences about mental health between my generation and theirs. My father told me, “Back when we were younger, mental health was not really accepted, recognized, or talked about. It was considered more of an excuse rather than a sickness. We couldn’t just say something was wrong with us and get away with things, especially in Black families.” I gathered that because the discussion of mental illness was not as prevalent in my father’s generation, he did not effectively understand how to help me in my situations.  

I knew wasn’t alone when my friend Haley Shadburn, a junior at Pebblebrook High School, shared: “As a teenager dealing with getting ready to be on my own, it’s really overwhelming and difficult to balance all of my responsibilities and taking care of myself mentally. It sometimes feels like just because I’m considered ‘well-off’ in regards to my lifestyle, my parents don’t take my mental illnesses serious. They don’t see the lack of stability within but only see what’s perceived on what I show on the outside and my surroundings.”

I was then struck with the realization that parents dissociate mental illness from their children because of our young age and what’s required of us. As a child, we are expected to go to school, make good grades, and overall just stay out of trouble. Along the way, minor hiccups may come, but it should never disrupt our education.

Most parents in modern America are juggling twice as many tasks as their child — whether that includes paying bills, tackling tasks at work, or simply trying to raise their children — maybe that’s why they may feel as if their child truly has nothing to worry about. But that’s where the problem lies: The lack of understanding in the parent-child relationship constructs a verbal and emotional barrier. Parents discrediting their children’s personal struggles by comparing them to their own experiences only pushes teenagers away and prevents us from opening up in the future.

I can’t help but want to say: Your kids are trying to speak, but will you actually listen?

If at any point you feel as if the world is working against you and you have no one to turn to, please know that you’re not alone. There are other teens and young adults who have struggled in silence because of rejection from their parents or fear in general. If ever needed, I encourage you to reach out to close friends; I promise your problems are not considered a burden.

I realize some teens don’t speak up because of the uncomfortable stigma around discussing mental health with counselors. But as awkward as it may seem, school counselors are also there for more than just college prep and schedule changes; they can provide emotional support or help you connect to other resources. 

Resources for talking with Parents

Mental Health America shares tips on how to open up to others about your personal mental health journey and the reasons teenagers withhold information with their parents. I appreciated that they included the after-effects of having these conversations with their loved ones due to the sensitivity of the subject. The statement that resonated with me most was, “My parents will be sad or disappointed.” To that, I want to tell myself and other teens who share my same fear: The disappointment is temporary, but the satisfaction of finally being open and honest about not being okay will alleviate the pressure on yourself in the end.

Tips for talking

After reading tips from Mental Health America, here are some tips from the perspective of someone (me) who’s trying to learn to open up:

  1. Go into the conversation with a structured mindset. Be clear about how you’re feeling and what you may have been going through.
  2. Understand that the problem may catch them off guard, so give them time to take in the information and react.
  3. Explain and suggest how they could support you during your time of need.
  4. Express to your support party on how you would like to go about the situation and discuss it in the future.
  5. Thank and acknowledge them for listening and offering advice.
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