Truth Talk: Parenting a Teen with Mental Health

Desperate Sad Depressed Hopeless Loss Concern

“This is Emily’s teacher, Joan Bush. You will need to come to the school immediately to pick up your daughter. She’s not doing well. It’s important that you come right away.” I pressed 7 on my cell phone to delete the message and promptly called the school back.

“Hello may please speak with Mrs. Bush? Ok, I will be there as soon as I can. Is she safe? Yes, I’m on my way.” I hung up the phone and walked next door to my colleague’s office. I could barely find my words but managed to string together a sentence or two explaining that I had to leave and update her on the work I was dropping to pick up my daughter from school.

I got the call at 10:30 am. It was just one of many emergency calls I had received at work over the past school year.  This time would prove to be particularly terrifying as I would soon learn from the school counsellor that my 17-year-old daughter had unsuccessfully tried to end her life. She had been staying at her father’s home and had taken pills two nights prior to confessing her actions to the school counsellor.

This was the worst it had been. Emily was diagnosed 2 years ago with an eating disorder and it was abundantly clear that she had been battling anxiety and depression for several years prior. Further psychiatric investigation lead to the discovery of post traumatic stress symptoms and borderline personality traits. In short, she has an incredibly difficult time coping with the world around her, managing her emotions and navigating personal relationships due to trauma. Up until this point, she had not planned or attempted suicide although she was prone to depressive episodes and suicidal thoughts.

Following the call from the school, Emily was admitted to the pediatric mental healthunit at the hospital. There, she spent a few days stabilizing on medication and reflecting on her actions. Since then, she has been relatively stable on medication and receives regular counselling.

What is a parent to do? For the last 2 years the gripping fear that she might harm herself or worse manifested itself in me like a physical illness. I wasn’t sleeping or eating well. I was battling my own anxiety and depression while trying to stay stable for my daughter. I felt like I was making all the wrong parenting decisions. I would allow Emily to validate this feeling when she would get angry and accuse me of being selfish. The constant worry was affecting my work and impacting my relationship with my partner and my younger daughter. Sometimes, I would forget to breathe.

When Emily was first diagnosed, my social work brain kicked in and I managed to connect her with all the community and clinical mental health resources I could think of. I tried to stay positive and supportive. I bought her the food she liked best and drove her anywhere she wanted to go.  Yes, I got angry sometimes. Maybe more than I realized. We would fight about her teenage-mental-health-ridden behaviour. She would tell me to stop making it about me. And I would end up feeling guilty about the way I had handled things and apologize. The more at-risk she became the more desperate I was to find a solution. Nothing was working. I felt completely helpless.

If you’re a parent of a child who lives with mental health, you know that this is an on-going and unpredictable story. So, as a fellow parenting-work-in-progress, I thought I would share a few things that have resonated with me on the journey thus far.

First, Emily was right. It’s not about me. In all of this, I realized she can only be accountable for her own mental health and behaviour and can not be expected to shoulder my hurt feelings, fear and anger, no matter how justified. Next, however flawed I think her views are, she needs her truth to be heard and validated rather than challenged. I can still hear myself saying, “I understand how you feel BUT….” Finally, I needed to let go of what was and still is beyond my control and that is, I can’t save her. The choice to do the work necessary to stay alive is all hers. Truth be known, I’m still working on this one.

If you’re an imperfect parent like me, you’ve probably felt like a failure, blamed yourself for your child’s mental health and carried the guilt of it around like an overpacked suitcase. There may be times you’ve felt exhausted and wished you could hand in your parental resignation. Perhaps you’ve felt completely alone, unable to share your struggle for fear of being judged by other parents, colleagues, friends or neighbours. Well, I am here to tell you that you are not alone. So I’m just going to validate your truth right now by saying simply this: I understand how you feel. Period.

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