I write these words without judgment, as I too am a South Bay parent and struggle to do my daily best by my own family. Parenting adolescents is not for the faint of heart, but it can be done with awareness, acceptance, empathy, and a sense of teamwork. I witness in my office how meaningful these shifts are and how life-saving they can be for struggling teenagers.
My hardest days at work are the ones where I am sitting with a suicidal teenager. Unfortunately, it is far more common in the South Bay than many people would guess. Sometimes, teens have a biological depression that is extremely difficult to shake…and sometimes teens have been through a trauma of some sort -- abuse, harassment, bullying, divorce, a parent’s alcoholism or addiction, sudden loss, academic failure, or social isolation. Their despair is understandable to me. Due to my training and experience, I understand how to work with these types of challenges and how to help the adolescent stay safe and stable. We make a plan, enlist more support from home and school, identify new coping tools, and keep reminding them that the black cloud of depression will eventually lift if we all work hard enough. Usually the cloud does lift, the teen navigates the rough patch with extra support, and we work towards prevention and increased coping.
There are other situations where adolescents are highly anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, and suicidal without a clear reason that we can identify. In general, there is a feeling that these adolescents feel misunderstood, isolated, and that no one “gets them.” They are lonely, overwhelmed, and highly stressed by school and parental expectations. They feel as if they don’t belong—at school with their peers…and, even worse, at home in their families. Their suffering feels as real to them as for the kids that have experienced a trauma, though it is harder for them to articulate their suffering or gather much empathy in the community (as often their suffering is silent and unnoticed). These types of kids end up in my office far too often—for reasons that are entirely preventable. If you have a sensitive child like this or know someone who does, I am going to give you a generalized glimpse into their thinking…in the hopes that this will promote healing.
In general, these teens are working hard at school and at home and rarely get into trouble. These teenagers desperately want their parents to accept them for who they are—not just lip service, but actual unconditional love for who they are. They want to feel heard and acknowledged. They want less criticism. They want their parents to help them manage their school and extracurriculars in a balanced way and help them to say “no” to commitments that no longer serve them. They want their parents to understand that harsh words hurt their hearts because they actually do want to please them. They want their parents to pay attention to them, smile, and give them far more hugs than they are getting. They want their parents to be less invested in their successes and failures—it puts tremendous pressure on them. They want their parents to take away their devices so that they can get a break and some sleep—and they have trouble self-regulating this themselves. They want less comparison with their siblings. They want their parents to care less about them being popular and be less critical of their physical appearance. They want to feel understood and not judged—no matter their sexual identity or whether they are college bound or not. They want their parents to understand that it’s difficult to be a teenager today—no matter how privileged their lives are. They want their parents to trust them. They want their parents to slow down and spend time with them. Often the adolescent’s perception is accurate and there is room for improvement within the family system.
Of course, I have ideas about how our schools, communities, and society at large can do better by our adolescents. I also think that teenagers need to own their feelings and actions—and despite hurts from family, peers, and schools—they have to make a conscious choice to prioritize their own health and make good decisions. This is all important work. However, this article is written for parents. As parents, you have an incredible role in the shaping of a young person’s life—don’t underestimate your power in their lives. Use the power as a good influence and an example of the kind of parent they may want to emulate someday.
Leah M. Niehaus, LCSW
Don't miss Leah at our upcoming Families Connected event, On the Minds of Teens