We know there is something wrong but they just won’t talk — to anyone. Many times, the first time we notice our teen is different is when they withdraw from us and their life. They seem to spend so much time in their room, watching YouTube or playing video games and rarely seem to be going out with friends or doing their usual hobbies. They barely talk at dinner and seem to be only momentarily engaged with family and friends. Or as I call it, the “‘needs to know’ basic mode”. Walking around with their “Do Not Disturb” sign activated.
One of the first signs we are not coping or feeling mentally well is to shut down, it’s the body’s way of saying “Hey I need to figure this out so I need to preserve my energies.” Unfortunately for a teen this can be self-perpetuating. The less they do, and therefore the worse they feel, the less they can problem solve. Coupled with immature problem-solving skills, this combination can create its own momentum and getting out of it gets harder over time.
Feeling mentally low, can leave us feeling that it takes too much cognitive and emotional energy to talk, we need to be economical with it just to have enough reserves to function, or we just don’t want to feel vulnerable, weak, or exposed, or a burden to others.
You know there is so much going on in his smart introspective head but you can’t access it! It can be frustrating, especially when you pride yourself on being a present parent. He won’t talk to a counsellor either. What could you do to assist him to open?
- The key here maybe to find his language to make this process easier. What has he enjoyed in the past Writing? Drawing? Basketball? Football, Cooking, Music? These are potential facilitators to access his thoughts. Straight talk therapy can often be too confronting and a pain for a teenage boy when they are what I call in the ” grunt” stage. This happens even when they are not sick! Face to face “agenda ” discussions can be too confronting. So, what could you do?
- Firstly, find his vehicle. If it’s basketball, shot hoops with him, half an hour or even 15 minutes early evening. At first, talk nothing keep it to safe topics, sport, techniques, basketball players he admires, whatever. This may go on for a few weeks, slowly introduce talk of how he is faring in life in general. Opening dialogue with safe topics can often be a foundation and catalyst for deeper topics further down the track.
- Make sure he does the activity with someone he respects, trusts and admires in the family or network ( , grandpa, uncle, cousin etc) Better if it’s you or your partner but other family members or close friends can be a great resource.
- Ask him if he could write down his thoughts if he loves to write. He may not want to share this with you initially but it’s a start to a potential communication avenue in the future. A journal of his experiences would be a great way for him to articulate his feelings
- Tell him that many people go through what he is going through and will in the future, so you never know when his content could be become a resource for self-helpful book. His take on things and his experiences are unique, worthwhile and important. It may help others in the future.
- Tell him his insights are like poetry there is always something worthwhile to share. You can ask about them from time to time, if you show enough gentle interest from time to time without pushing him, he may open when he’s in a good mood.
- If he likes writing lyrics for songs or raps – even better! He will be more inclined to let you hear this as any potential artist would! Praise the work before you start asking probing questions.
- Maybe, if he is a reader you could buy him some books on self-help. There are many great self-help books specifically for teens that are cool and reader friendly. The Secret to Teen Power by Paul Harrington is a teen help best seller and will at least give him food for thought, and maybe points of discussion when he is ready to open.
- KEEP AT IT. Hoping he will suddenly snap out of it, is not a strategy option. Acting early, and across time will see some benefits and it is an investment in his future mental wellbeing.
It is so hard for us as parents to put ourselves first when our instinct is to wrap our arms around our precious children and make everything better.
I remember when my brother became sick with mental illness. My mum cried and said ” if only it was me who got sick instead of him, I could deal with it better” It broke my heart.
There is a saying “you are only as happy as your unhappiest child.” There is a vulnerable truth to this. For that reason, finding as much support and self-care you can is imperative to stop you going under too.
Talk to other parents and find out how they approached this with their teen and how they coped. There is a wealth of experiential parenting knowledge out there, do not think you are alone in this.
Stay strong and take each day as it comes. Small steps can build on one another and your consistent incremental efforts will foster a pathway to bringing your teen back to you.