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18-year-old teen here with no children, I'm asking this question here on how to better communicate with my parents.

My mental health took a massive dip during the Pandemic and I'm still working on it. It got to a point where I had a crippling internet addiction just to fill the void of being socially isolated for so long. Every time I would come to talk to them about it, I would be met with being told I have a good life and I shouldn't complain, yelled at, or told something along the lines of "do better" or "work harder" (or worse, have the conversation loop around to stuff unrelated to the topic but I usually see as an attack on my character, I.E. my anxiety about trying new foods).

I sometimes feel like I can't communicate these things with my folks in a way they understand, so how can I articulate my thoughts and feelings with them about this and not have the conversation end with so-so feelings or with me feeling more shitty but silent about it.

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    What a great (and important) question. What you want from your parents may dictate your approach. Do you want solutions (helpful ones, not answers that make you feel worse about yourself), or do you just want to be heard and supported? Feb 7, 2023 at 17:17
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    @anongoodnurse Bit of both, If that's not selfish Feb 7, 2023 at 17:23
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    It's not selfish at all. :) Feb 7, 2023 at 17:38
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    Have your parents had any exposure to or shown any acknowledgement of mental illness or depression in adults (closer to their age) or with a non-digital manifestation? I'm trying to find out which part they're dismissive of: depression as a mental illness in general, internet addiction, or the thought that their child is struggling with a mental illness, or the idea that any struggle on your part is their fault. You're going to have to know which part they're not understanding before you can address it with them.
    – Flater
    Feb 8, 2023 at 3:56
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    @redfrogcrab Given you see a therapist, what did they say on the topic? They're a much better resource than internet strangers. Maybe your parents will be more receptive when the therapist tells them?
    – Flater
    Feb 8, 2023 at 22:00

5 Answers 5

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There are some problems common to many parents:

  • parents might think they have a responsibility to fix things, not to feel things with you.
  • Parenting styles differ. Parents with Authoritarian parenting styles might feel that supporting you emotionally when they're also annoyed at some of the things you're doing that they disagree with is tantamount to "coddling" you, or sends mixed messages.
  • when kids are suffering, it hurts the parents, too. They might feel guilty for somehow failing you. This makes it hard for them to really hear you.
  • They might feel defensive, misunderstanding your desire to have a discussion as a critique of an aspect of their parenting.
  • They may not want to believe there's a real problem (it scares them) so they're quick to dismiss the idea with an unhelpful response.
  • They may be distracted by responsibilities that don't necessarily involve you.
  • They may not understand an empathetic response is what you're looking for, because of a lack of modelling that kind of response in their family of origin or a number of other factors (e.g. a mental illness of their own.)

One approach is to write down all the responses (all of them, not just the hurtful ones) that you can remember. Evaluate them to see if they might fall into any of the above categories. If they do, categorize them, and see which are the most used methods of responding. Then preempt the "canned" responses up front. If you've removed a barrier to communication, you're more likely to make progress. (Give them credit in your calculations for the good responses.)

Easy example: if they might be preoccupied or short on time, ask them before you start a conversation if this is a good time to talk about something that might take some time. If they admit that it's not, ask them to schedule a block of time in the near future for a discussion with you. (We did this twice a week with our kids to discuss any issues we or they had with each other; we all listened, then we brainstormed.) Then write it down somewhere to remind both parties (the refrigerator works.) Make sure there are no conflicts close to that time!

Parents who think their main roll is to solve problems will take that approach first, so, early in the conversation, tell them politely and kindly what you're not looking for - any quick solutions. If they resort to a quick solution anyway, gently remind them that you are asking them for (something deeper/to be heard/taken seriously about your struggles.) Then continue to tell them about your struggles. Repeat as necessary.

If they feel guilty in some way, they might engage in blame shifting (implying that your actions, not theirs, are responsible for your feelings.) This is harder. It might help if you put them at ease before you get into the gist of your issues by telling them (if it's true) that you're grateful for everything they do for you, and give some real, concrete examples. Let them know that you take responsibility for your actions, but you want this to be about your feelings. (This preempts blame shifting. No one can truly control how they feel. People feel what they feel.) If they change the subject and blame your actions, let them finish their sentence, tell them you heard them, then remind them that you asked them for something different. Repeat as needed or it becomes obvious that it's fruitless to continue on this occasion.

Parents who haven't had empathy from their own parents will struggle with it themselves unless they made a conscious effort - before becoming parents - to avoid repeating the mistakes of their parents. The responses they make are painful. It takes a fair amount of courage to let them know that a response hurt you. It's completely fair to say (as gently as possible) that a response hurt your feelings, makes you feel put down or criticized (whatever the truth is), and that you're looking for help with your feelings, not to feel worse. ("Gently" means you're not interrupting them, you wait a moment before responding, then quietly proceed, first telling them you heard them and you understand what they're saying and why they think (what they've expressed), then owning your feelings (e.g. along the lines of "I have a problem with my self image. I feel bad about myself. When you say... I feel even worse, like I've failed again... I'm not looking for you to fix my feelings, but I am looking for some help with them.") Ask if they can just listen. Ask if they can understand that you feel, and then maybe think of something more helpful. (Be forewarned: if you try this and they perceive an accusation, the "conversation" might immediately be shut down by a more vigorously hurtful response. You can try again later when you're feeling stronger and they've calmed down.)

If parents are frightened of your pain (this is something they probably don't even know themselves; these are people who simply don't believe you have a problem, because they don't want to believe you have a problem. It's too scary to tolerate.), you probably can't have a meaningful conversation with them. The same is true if they have a mental illness themselves that prevents them from seeing things from another person's viewpoint. In that case, I would simply tell them you're struggling and would like to see if speaking with a therapist would help.

If that's out of the question, then start looking for a therapist or a kind ear in an adult yourself: your school psychologist (if there is one), a guidance counselor, a favorite teacher, or other. You can even make use of hotlines for people with serious depression or call Crisis Intervention (if it exists where you are) to ask if there's any help they can give you in finding affordable therapists. Some kindhearted therapists do pro bono (or nearly so) work. If all else fails, try a helpful self-help book (my go-to recommendation is Dr. Kabat-Zinn's Wherever You Go, There You Are. Although it sounds new-agey, it's a great resource for depression. Dr. Kabatt-Zinn refined his practice recommendations when asked to start a clinic for dealing with depression in terminally ill patients.)

You're far from alone, and I can certainly relate. If you have questions, please comment, and I'll try to deal with it with an edit. Good luck, and vow now not to repeat their mistakes with your own kids.

Edited to add: If they believe they know why you're depressed/other, and they think they know the solution, they'll keep trying to convince you of that. You need to tell them that you've heard them, and acknowledge part of their perception: "Maybe you're right that I would feel better if ("...") but I'm struggling now with my feelings, which get in the way of doing ("...") Can we focus on that for a while? On how (lonely/depressed/hopeless/alone/other) I'm feeling? Because they might think you're just not hearing what they are telling you is the problem.

Also, if they start straying and telling you what other stuff they're upset about, if's fair to tell them that they're changing the subject, or to please not pile things up on you right now, you're already overwhelmed by your feelings. It's not easy, but it's quite fair.

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    If they say they don't care about your feelings, they won't mean it; they'll be expressing something else (in a very unwise way.) If they blame your feelings on actions or outcomes, you can tell them again, you can control your actions but not your feelings; your feelings are real, they hurt, and you need help. Your actions are hard to control, you're playing video games to distract you from your (name it: depression, loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness, whatever is real) and tell them you need help with your feelings. If they can't help, you'd like to see a doctor. Feb 7, 2023 at 19:28
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    This is a great answer because it is empathetic to both the OP and the parents. It's also realistic about the difficulties that both face. Feb 7, 2023 at 23:19
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    Do you think that "do better" or "work harder" (or worse, have the conversation loop around to stuff unrelated to the topic but I usually see as an attack on my character part of the question may be caused by the fact, that the parents firmly believe that the root of OP's problem is either in what seems to OP an unrelated topic or in OP's character, that the parents are desperate for OP to improve? Feb 8, 2023 at 8:10
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    @AndrewSavinykh I'm sure that's part of the "fix the problem" mentality. It's not addressing feelings, it's addressing a solution to what they think the problem is. Feb 8, 2023 at 12:56
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    This is one of the best posts I've ever seen anywhere on the network. When are you going to compose all of these little tidbits into a book so I can start recommending it to people? Feb 10, 2023 at 18:35
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Maybe your parents aren't the right people to talk with about it. Not that they don't care, but there might be better chance to get what you need from other people - friends, or a support group. I have a friend who's been in a support group of equal peers for 20 years - their purpose is to help each other navigate the waters of life.

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    This. Recognizing - and treating - mental health issues is a thing most adults aren't capable of, and I'd even say it's worse with parents and children, because of all the additional parental concerns ("what did we do wrong?" "How will that affect us in the long term?" "I'm overwhelmed, but as a parent it's my job to find a solution"). Feb 8, 2023 at 12:54
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    I agree that it might be fruitless. However, the OP specifically asked for help with communicating with their parents. As such, this doesn't answer the question. You can offer your (valid) opinion, but your answer should also provide an answer to the question. Otherwise it's just a frame challenge. Feb 8, 2023 at 13:35
  • If the OQ is living in the USA and on their parents insurance, its quite possible they in fact do need to talk to their parents about it. All health insurance by law has to include mental health coverage, but actually using that coverage involves hitting against the insuree's limits, deductibles, health flex $, etc.
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 10, 2023 at 21:18
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I am answering only because I am not allowed to comment and didn't want to let @Andrew Savinykh's comment stand undisputed under @anongoodnurse's excellent answer.

It is common in patients with depression to internalize bad things ("Something bad happened? Of course it did, I am a failure after all.") and externalize good things ("Something good happened? Must have been sheer dumb luck/that was mostly the doing of person X that helped me. I contributed hardly anything."). Combined with the lowered stress tolerance and general psychological instability of a depressive episode oftentimes things are perceived as attacks that in no way were intended as such. For example I perceived the diagnosis "depressive episode" as an attack on me, dismissing my struggles as "just having an episode", when in reality it is simply the medical term for depressive symptoms lasting for longer than two weeks.

Secondly I sincerly doubt that OP's parents are qualified to identify the root of OP's problem. Speaking from my own experiences contrasting the advice from my parents and professional psychologists/psychatrists, they probably latched onto some easily observable symptom or minor contributor instead of the often very hard to identify actual root cause. I think this is especially likely since according to OP previous attempts at deeper and meaningful conversations about their struggle failed. This will however not stop OP's parents from still firmly believing that they of course know the root cause.

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    I think it's a good thing for the OP to recognize that the problem he's facing with his parents' responses may not be about him at all. That's really hard to do., but very much worth doing! Also, the OP specifically asked for help with communicating with his parents. Can you offer something that also provides an answer to the question? Thanks. Feb 8, 2023 at 13:40
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    The succinct way I typically see this put is "Depression is a liar".
    – T.E.D.
    Feb 10, 2023 at 21:19
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As a parent of 3 kids with diagnosed anxiety, depression, and ADHD, I can tell you what I went through from my experience. That might help you get a handle on where your parents are coming from.

  1. Stigma.

When I was growing up, people with mental health issues were considered weak and/or defective. Intellectually I know better now, but that doesn't change the fact that my current understanding had to be erected on top of the rotten foundation my upbringing left me with.

(suicide trigger warning)

This is a very real issue, and can be a killer. I had a friend who couldn't accept that his depression wasn't his fault. Unbeknownst to me, he spent years trying to pray his depression away, and finally accepted that it was futile. He left us behind a note apologizing to everyone for having such a weak faith.

In fact, having lived through this with my kids, I'd argue that it makes you a better person. My son scoffs at this, but there's simply no comparison between myself at his age and my son. I was arrogant and self-centered and judgemental. He knows better than that, because he's had the struggles I never had.

  1. Guilt.

OK, suppose I accept that its not my kid's fault for being weak. What's that leave me with? Yes, all 3 of my kids have mental health issues. That's clearly not a coincidence. Whether you believe in nature or nurture, either way I'm responsible because their mother and I raised them and chose to bring them into the world. I'm still happy the're here, but doesn't that make me a bit selfish too? They've got a problem that I helped give them.

This is, IMHO the #1 reason why a lot of parents can't get past the stigma. What's on the other side for them is very scary and hard to deal with.

  1. Ignorance

People can't be experts in everything, so people who've never had to seriously deal with mental illness are completely uneducated about it. This is fortunately the easiest part to fix, but unless you are a professional teacher, you may not be the best person to directly educate your parents about it.

On the plus side, assuming they love you and can accept you for who you are, you will in the long run give them the best education they could possibly have, just by living your life and dealing with this.


So I'd say if you're trying to have a conversation with your parents about this, the points I'd be looking to make are.

  1. This is not your own fault, and you don't choose to be like this. They'd like you to take steps to get better? Well, with professional help, that's exactly what you're doing.
  2. This isn't their fault either. You don't blame them, you love them, they didn't fail you in any way that matters, and you wouldn't want any other parents.
  3. It would help you if you could discuss this with them from time to time. You're not looking for answers from them, that's what the pros are for. Its just that this is part of your life, and you feel like family should be there emotionally for each other. At the absoule least, you shouldn't have to hide it from them.
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Communication is difficult. Communicating with someone you expect know you intimately is filled with assumptions, which does not simplify the situation.

Different points of view

You may experience something with someone else and come away with two different points of view, and you may with time remember things differently.

Don't Project.

Keep to Your experience and Your feelings

It is vital (in my opinion) that you "stay at home" instead of projecting or using 3rd party phrasing like "People do..." or "It is normal to...".
Use "I think..." "My feeling is..." "I experience this as..." "I experience your reaction as..." instead of stating items as absolute facts. You might see things as black and white, others may se things in greyscales (or vice versa) - be aware of this.

Know your audience

Keep your different backgrounds in mind. The wording of your question leads me to assume that your parents may be less technical. Consider parallels that make more sense for them. Speak "their language" but with your point of view.

It is my experience that communication with a focus on you, rather than the counterpart will avoid many land-mines. (For example: "I feel that you are angry." is not as provocative as "You are angry")

Set up the conversation

Expected outcome

Before you start a conversation, think about what it is you want to achieve. Decide beforehand what you actually need your parents to understand. Make it clear what you expect from them, to avoid them going off at a tangent. As has already been said, if you are looking for understanding, consider other people than your parents.

Environment

Choose the time, place and environment so it suits you. If you feel vulnerable, it is vital that you have the energy to tackle feedback.

Mediating

Consider bringing someone who can mediate. Priests, student counsellors, doctors could be candidates if you don't know anyone who is not emotionally involved.

If a part of the problem is interruption, consider a speaking token - the person with the token is allowed to speak.

During the conversation

When you do talk to your parents, use short sentences, keep it clear and concise. embellishments and too many examples will muddy the issue. If you need their support and consideration, say so. Make it clear what you need from them. Ignore the internet aspect of your addiction. Addiction is addiction, no matter if it is drugs/alcohol, cutting, food or some other action you become addicted to.

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