To Parents With Teens Who Struggle With Mental Health: I See You

To all those with teens who struggle with mental health issues: I see you.

As my daughter’s freshman year in high school comes to a close, we scramble, nag, and beg her to get enough work finished and turned in to at least pass her classes. I never thought I’d be in this position.

I was a straight-A student, always obsessing over school work, preparing for my future, and now I’ve got my fingers crossed, hoping my daughter manages Ds. It isn’t that she’s struggling with the material, she’s perfectly capable and perfectly intelligent. It’s that she’s in the grips of a detrimental mix of anxiety, depression, and apathy.

One particularly troubling aspect of her anxiety is selective mutism, which means there are many situations in which she doesn’t speak. “How are you?” someone will ask, and she’ll just stare back. “Are you okay?” they’ll ask, and she just keeps staring.

Teen girl looking sad
Parents with teens who are struggling with mental health: I see you. (@rohane via Twenty20)

Our Daughter Has Mental health Issues

Her plans for her future consist of evaporating into the ether after graduation. In class, she’s usually withdrawn, refusing to work with anyone else, and has been known to sit there doing nothing during tests or assignments. She spends her days after school in the basement on her computer, either playing various games that involve designing fantasy creatures, or creating digital art. She supposedly has friends, but never does anything with them outside of school hours.

As her parents, we see a kid, whom we know has hidden talents, whom we want to believe in, but who isn’t developing all of the basic life skills and competencies that will lead her into a functioning adulthood. I used to dream of college for her, and now I’m just hoping she makes it through high school and doesn’t live in our basement for the rest of her life.

At this point, I would consider it a success if she’s on her own in a rundown apartment and working a minimum wage job by the time she’s 30. Of course I want more for her than that, but how does she get there from here?

She struggles with so many things–getting her school work completed and turned in, interacting with teachers, ordering food at restaurants, even going on a short weekend trip will invariably include some sort of breakdown either as we’re trying to convince her to get out of the house, or when we’re miles away from home and she’s just suddenly unable to cope.

And it’s all we can do to convince her to shower more than once a week and actually use soap and to change her clothes. We even had her get her driver’s permit so she could work towards independence, but had to drop out of drivers ed because she just couldn’t function in the class and the instructor deemed her unsafe to put behind the wheel.

Time and time again, we throw our hands up in the air, feeling like there’s no hope, and that we’ve already tried everything. She’s been through four therapists in five years, and half a dozen different medications. We’ve tried being strict, being lenient, bending over backwards offering to listen, to do anything-please-just-say-what-it-is-you-need-from-us!

We’ve worked with the school to get a 504 plan in place. We’ve redesigned her bedroom into a sensory sanctuary with weighted blanket, tent bed, and even a beloved ball python. We go back and forth wondering if we’re doing too much and enabling, or doing too little and letting her fall deeper.

I often tell people that if you’re going to have kids, have more than one, that way you’ll see that it’s not you. Our 12-year-old son will start jr high in the fall, participates in taekwondo, is working toward his black belt, and hangs out with friends. He even took it upon himself to apply to the school’s AVID program so he can prepare to go to college. Our 8-year-old daughter is precocious, has been skipped a grade, and is already far more independent and socially capable than her much older sister.

We see glimmers of inner world in our teenage daughter. We see her produce amazing art and amazing stories with obsession and passion, but she rarely shares it with anyone. She just hides–in the basement, inside an unwashed hoodie, behind greasy hair.

It is sad, maddening, frustrating, tiresome, endless. We cling to any small improvement or victory, all the while seeing the shadows of what more she has to overcome in the periphery rushing down like an avalanche. And it’s all we can do right now to keep trying. On to the next medication, on to the next teacher meeting, on to the next therapy strategy, and on and on.

I hold an image in my head that she is a caterpillar in a chrysalis, hiding behind some hard-featured exterior, melting, but morphing, and one day–maybe, just maybe–she’ll emerge and spread her wings.

This author has chosen to remain anonymous. 

You Might Also Want to Read: 

Does Your Teen Have Anxiety? Here’s How Parents Can Help

To My Youngest as You Start High School: 9 Things We Want You to Know 

About Grown and Flown

Mary Dell Harrington and Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan are the co-founders of Grown and Flown the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. They are writers (Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author), moms, wives and friends. They started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and are co-authors of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Grown and Flown

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.