by ELIZABETH TUCKEY
This week I became the mother of a teenager.
As certain as death and taxes, when someone finds out you have a teenager (or soon to be) you will be bombarded with comments like “wait for the trouble to start” or “poor you” or “don’t expect anything but grunts for the next five years”. By all accounts when a 12-year old hits the magic 13, all hell breaks loose.
Now I’m only a few days into being a mother of a teenager as I write this, but when my daughter emerged from her bedroom this morning she hadn’t grown a set of horns. She gave me her usual huge hug and kiss good morning. Mind you, her hair did seem a bit more unruly than normal, so perhaps the change has begun.
Being a parent is by far the most difficult thing I have ever done. Don’t get me wrong. I am lucky to have three amazing kids (daughter 13, son 10 and daughter 6 going on 27) who cause me no heartburn, they love school, do their chores without complaint and eat their vegetables . But how a child behaves, in my mind, is the least of my concerns. My philosophy has always been that if they see positive behaviour around them, then that’s what becomes the “norm” for them.
The thing that literally keeps me awake at night is worrying whether my kids are going to be OK. Working at the National Youth Mental Health Foundation headspace for the last nearly three years has been both a blessing and a curse.
A blessing because I know what’s available to young people who need help and my awareness about youth mental health has increased tenfold. I feel far more equipped to face the challenges my kids will go through than ever before.
But every day I also see or hear stories of young people who are struggling, who feel isolated, who turn to drugs and alcohol to cope or, at its worst, don’t cope and take their own life. And it’s those stories that frighten me. One in four deaths in young people under the age of 25 is through suicide. It’s sobering to think that my teenage daughter is highly likely to lose at least one of her friends in this way before she reaches Year 12. These things scare parents.
At a focus group headspace did with parents a short while ago we asked them how they talked with their kids about mental health issues and if they felt their kids were honest about their feelings. Almost every parent said that while they weren’t sure what to say, they felt their children told them everything anyway. We asked the same question of their kids. Their answers were the complete opposite. They rarely told their parents about their feelings.
The most interesting thing to come out of those groups – apart from the revelation by one mum that she finds all she needs to know by reading her daughter’s secret diary –was if their first attempt to broach the subject with their parents was met with the slightest disinterest or, at the other end, mum just wanting to fix things, then the conversation rarely happened again.
I often get asked by friends how I, as someone who works in youth mental health but is not a clinician, talk to my kids about mental health. I do what works for them. I don’t talk at them or offer solutions or pretend I have all the answers. We also talk as a family around the dinner table about issues young people face in general, how they feel about that and what that might mean. In other words, we talk about mental health. A lot. All the time.
My oft repeated line to my kids is that if they are having a problem they should always talk to someone. And it doesn’t have to be me. It could be the other parents in their life (I have a very complex family), their best friends, a teacher, a coach or headspace. I give them permission to not talk to me and I give them the tools to understand how they can find help that suits them. What’s not negotiable is not talking about how you feel.
I once read a beautiful book aimed at helping women raising boys. It said as a boy prepares to cross the bridge into adolescence his mother must be prepared to let go of his hand and allow him to cross. But instead of walking alongside him, or leaving him to navigate the bridge alone, the mother should take an alternative route – still close at hand so the son can see her, but far enough away that he develops his own sense of independence.
I take that approach with my son and my daughters. When it comes to their own mental health and wellbeing, my job is to equip them to cross that bridge. My job is not to cross the bridge for them, because they will never learn how that way.
And I remind myself each and every day not to be scared, because fear will stifle all conversation and honesty.
Although I will admit to being little scared of the day my amazing teenage daughter falls in love the first time.
Elisabeth Tuckey works for headspace, the youth mental health foundation. You can find her on Twitter here.