Recovery is a slow process of learning how to manage your mental health, and there are many ups and downs along the way. Moving out of the darkness is more like a gradual sunrise than a light switch suddenly flicking on.

If the person on the journey is your teenage son or daughter, it can be confusing, distressing and heartbreaking to watch. There will be many times when you feel stuck and don’t know how to help. There will be days when anything you do just seems to make things worse.

Remember, every parent or caregiver feels like this at times.

After ensuring your teenager is receiving professional support, keeping a positive relationship with them is a powerful way to further protect their mental health.

Keeping the relationship strong is about understanding the delicate balancing act of being supportive but not taking control. The exact point of balance will be different for every parent and teenager – and may shift over time, particularly during situations when you need to take control in order to ensure their safety.

Young people want space and independence. They’re preparing for adulthood. This is why many young people don’t seek support for their mental health condition at first – they want to prove to themselves they can manage by themselves.

But teenagers still need you around to help troubleshoot problems, especially when they’re experiencing a mental health condition. Because it’s hard to predict when your teenager will be in the mood to talk, being around as much as possible increases your chances of being there when they do need you. Psychologist Andrew Fuller believes talking to a young person about their mental health is like fly-fishing. You may need to cast the bait in front of their nose many times before they take a bite.

A mother and daughter sit in a cafe by the window

When a teenager opens up about an issue they’re facing, the natural tendency is to jump in with solutions and try to fix things. But young people want to be in control and feel that you respect their ability to make decisions.  They don’t want to lose this independence just because they’re experiencing a mental health condition.

It’s also important not to drill for the deep and meaningful conversation every time. Snack-sized conversations count, and add up. Showing that you’re not going to smother them or over-react when they open up will encourage them to do more of the same.

Here are five ideas to remember for keeping the balance when your teenager is experiencing a mental health condition:

  • Be around – but not in their face.
  • Seek solutions – but let them take the lead.
  • Ask how they’re feeling – but not all the time.
  • Hold your standards – but pick your battles.
  • Celebrate progress – but expect setbacks.

Instead of providing a solution to the issue, trust that they understand the issue better than you at this stage. Ask questions, be curious, reflect back how they’re feeling, check your understanding, ask what they’ve tried already, if they have any ideas – and only then enquire if they’d like some help coming up with more ideas for dealing with what’s going on. The key thing is that they’re in the decision-making driver’s seat but they know you’re with them in the passenger seat. 

Parenting is a balancing act, and getting the balance right can be difficult. You’ll make mistakes and feel guilty about it. Be kind to yourself and try to put your energy into repairing the relationship when it’s off balance. Keeping this balance helps you get on the same side with your teenager against the mental health condition, not letting it create a wedge in your relationship.

You were there when they took their first steps. And even though they might not fully realise it yet, they need you now as well.

Another fantastic resource is the BRAVE Self-Help Program, an free interactive, online program for the prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent anxiety. 

Related reading: When someone you care about won’t seek support

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