Why is it so hard to tell your parents that you feel anxious, worried, or depressed? Well the reasons are many and varied but some I’ve come across include:
- the tension between wanting to stand on your own two feet and turning to parents for help
- uncertainty about whether your parents will understand what you’re trying to say
- fear that parents will overreact and want to take you to a shrink
- embarrassment that you’re somehow letting them down
- assumptions that parents won’t care or may get angry
- fear that parents will take it as a personal failure
- not knowing if everyone feels this way at some time and whether it will pass
- exposing yourself as weak-minded
- concern over accusations of seeking attention
- simply not knowing where and how to begin
The important thing to point out is that these are examples of fears, not necessarily realities. In my experience it’s unusual to find that parents haven’t already picked up the fact that you’re not yourself. They may already have asked you what’s wrong but don’t want to push you into a corner by repeatedly questioning you.
Others may have wondered if something is wrong but have put it down to teen moodiness. My point is that parents tend to notice because you’re important to them. Even if they haven’t — or if they’ve got it wrong — it doesn’t mean they don’t care. What it sometimes means is that you’ve become good at hiding your anxiety because you fear what it may mean.
Parents aren’t perfect and they are not always right, but in most cases I would say they are far more sympathetic and understanding than you give them credit for. The important thing here is to speak out because the sooner you do, the sooner you’ll start to feel better. Here’s my advice:
Pick your moment
The best time to talk is when everyone is relaxed and you’re unlikely to be interrupted. You’re about to enter into a conversation where various questions are likely to be asked because your parent or parents will want as clear an understanding as they can get. Expect questions like: “When did this start?” and “How long has it been going on?” They might want to rule out some slightly embarrassing questions about whether drugs, alcohol, and sex are involved.
Find your voice
One of the hardest things about explaining feelings is choosing the right words. My advice is not to try self-analysis or self-diagnosis because this tends to get everyone tied up in knots. Keep it simple. It’s often easier to describe the way you’re feeling and how this is affecting you: “I’m waking up really early in the morning worrying about school,” or “I feel sick and shaky when I’m in class,” or “I feel so tired all the time and I just don’t care about anything.” At this stage the words you choose are perhaps less important than starting the conversation.
Don’t feel you need to pin everything down in one go. Your parents might want to get a quick fix on what’s happening because they want to help. It’s a pressure point you may not be able to avoid, but it’s only because they have your best interests at heart.
It may take a few conversations before you manage to get across the things you really want to say. Be bold and say you’d like to take time to think and speak to them again when you’re ready. You may need to steer and direct the conversation in order to prevent your parents doing what comes naturally to them, which is to try and fix things.
You may also find that your parents want to normalize your issues. This is both normal and natural. They might say things like: “Well at your age things often feel worse than they really are,” or “Don’t worry; it’s normal to feel anxious or down. It’ll pass.” It’s really up to you to say it’s more serious than that and that maybe you need some help (if that’s what you feel).
Other people can help
There may be reasons why you choose not to speak to your parents. I won’t go into the possible reasons for this other than to say some teens find it more comfortable to speak to an adult other than their parents. Another trusted family member can be very supportive, as can a school counselor or even an anonymous person via helpline.
You may not think it now but having a problem that affects your feelings and behavior is quite commonplace. Solving problems is the key to making progress and once you’ve taken the first step, you’re more likely to be on the road to recovery.
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Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.