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How to talk to your parents about your mental health

Panic attacks are terrifying. The first time I had one – when I was 14 – I thought I was losing my mind. I had no idea what was happening to me, so naturally I went to my parents for help. And even now, many years later, I still feel sad at the way they responded. They told me they didn’t have time to deal with me, and to stop making a fuss. I felt hurt, frightened and alone.

I had more panic attacks in the weeks and months that followed, and every time I tried to speak to my parents about what was going on, they shut me down. It took a long time for me to get the help I needed.

Now I’m older, I understand that their response probably came from a place of denial and confusion. It was easier for them to dismiss the problem than to deal with something that could be painful and difficult for them as well.

The fact is, if you’re dealing with any kind of struggle, you want your parents’ help and support. And it doesn’t really matter what kind of relationship you already have, talking about your mental health can be tough and uncomfortable. But it’s really important that you have that conversation with them. So I spoke to Dr Nihara Krause, who runs young people’s mental health charity Stem 4, for some advice on the best way to approach the subject.

Be proud of yourself

First things first, it’s really easy to keep things bottled up in the hopes the problem will just go away, but it’s never a good idea to try to manage mental health issues on your own. Making the decision to talk to someone about your feelings is a big step, and you should feel good about that.

Do some research

Look for articles, books and videos that will help your parents understand what you’re dealing with. Having something to refer to can be helpful if you get tongue-tied, or if you feel like you’re not explaining things properly. Plus, it gives your parents something to follow up on and revisit after your conversation.

Practice the conversation

Whether it’s in front of a mirror or with a friend, practice saying what you want to say to your parents, so you can make sure you include all the important bits and are prepared for how you’ll feel when it all comes out. If you’ve been dealing with these problems by yourself then you might end up feeling quite upset when you say it all out loud.

Visualise the different ways the conversation could go

It can be stressful for parents to hear that their child is dealing with mental health issues, and there are lots of ways they might react. So when you’re practicing your conversation, imagine a few different scenarios and how you’ll manage them, so you’re not caught off-guard.

Choose a time that works for everyone

Pick a time and place where everyone is relaxed and there are no time constraints. You want to be able to say the things you need to say without your parents keeping an eye on the clock.

You don’t need them to understand exactly how you feel

Your parents might ask you why you feel the way you do, and that’s usually because they’re trying to understand where you’re coming from. But this might mean you end up getting bogged down in very specific details, or that you try to justify your feelings. You don’t need to make them understand exactly how you feel. Tell them, ‘I’m going through something really difficult right now, and I could do with your support’.

Remember that your feelings are valid

If your parents are dismissive of your feelings and say something like ‘You’ll grow out of it’ or ‘It’s just a teenage thing’, it’s totally normal to feel hurt or even angry. But just because somebody doesn’t understand your feelings doesn’t make them any less valid. How you feel is real and important, regardless of other people’s responses.

Communicate in other ways

If you’re very concerned about talking to your parents face-to-face, or if you’ve spoken to them already and they weren’t supportive, you could try writing them a letter or email. This lets you take your time with your words, and gives your parents the chance to reflect on what you’ve said before responding.

Be ready with the next step

Your parents might need a little push in the right direction when it comes to what happens next, so if you feel like you’d benefit from talking to a doctor, tell them that. If you want to explore options for therapy, tell them that too. Or, if you’re not sure, ask them for their ideas. This kind of conversation can be quite unexpected and confusing for parents, so giving them an action plan can help keep them focused.

Talk to other adults

If your parents really aren’t taking your worries seriously, speak to someone who will be able to help both them and you. This might be a trusted teacher at school, a family friend or even your doctor (you can see your doctor at any age without your parents being present, and they’ll keep the appointment – and everything that’s said in it – confidential). This person may be able to act as a ‘bridge’ between you and your parents, which could help them better understand how to support you.

Look after yourself

While you’re feeling things out with your parents, remember to take good care of yourself. Do your best to eat well, stay hydrated and get lots of rest.

Remember you’re not alone

Mental health issues are frightening and stressful, but they affect a lot of people, so you’re not alone. There are lots of charities and resources available to help you cope with your issues, and they can give you more advice on talking about things with your parents, too.

Beat: The UK’s eating disorder charity with a dedicated helpline for under-18s (0345 634 7650).
Childline: Support and advice online and on the phone (0800 1111, 24 hours).
Frank: Confidential info and advice about drugs and substance abuse (0800 776 600, 24 hours).
Headmeds: Straight talk on mental health medication for young people.
Stem 4: The teenage mental health charity with lots of resources for young people and parents.
The Mix: An information and listening service for young people under 25 (0808 808 4994, 24 hours).
Young Minds: A young people’s mental health charity with lots of advice on finding help.

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