Do our growing teens consider us a safe place to share about their personal pain? Why is it so difficult for parents and children to talk about the challenges we face regarding mental health?
In this 2-part episode of the ParentEd podcast, mother-and-son guests Charis and Sean Patrick share about their personal battle and victory over mental health challenges with host, Joanna Koh-Hoe, CEO of Focus on the Family Singapore.
Charis is a mum of 4. She is a family & marital therapist, trainer and family life educator. Her passion is to transform the next generation by empowering parents in her generation to practice positive and healthy parenting. Sean studies business in a polytechnic and enjoys sports.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity. Tune in Part 1 here.
Let's talk a little bit about the family. We've read reports about how suicides amongst those below 25 years of age are typically associated with poor family relationships.
It could stem from parent-child discontent, may be sibling rivalry too. There's the usual boy-girl relationship issues, and academic stress. But what's key to our discussion is—What part can family play?
Sometimes family is deemed as the cause of all these mental health problems. At the same time, we know that families is so key to providing that support and safe space, that both of you are talking about.
Of course when it comes to parents, they have a pivotal role as well, not just helping their child when their child is encountering issues, but in helping children build resilience. Or if they encounter a road bump, how do we begin to process all these emotions?
Some of these things, if we talk about it may seem like, "Oh if my child's depressive, they will forever be that way" versus "Okay, maybe my child is going through a rough patch". I think you used the word episode earlier, meaning a depressive episode.
It may not be lifelong and chronic, but if I don't even acknowledge the issues and help my child through the first step, it may become chronic and lifelong. So what role can family play? Sean, if you could advise parents out there who have kids who may be anxious like you? What helps, and what does not help?
It’s not in my place to tell anyone to do anything, but I would say that the first thing that parents need to do is to understand.
To understand that your child is not bluffing, not making this up, the awareness about youth mental health has to be there first.
So whenever a child goes to the parents, which is rare nowadays, you want to seize the opportunity to not tell them what to do. But show empathy by saying you understand them, you know this is normal, you understand how they feel.
Help them feel they are in safe space, because when a child opens up to the parent, I feel that is a very, very rare thing. And some parents won't even get it in their lifetime, sadly. So the first thing is to show that you understand, and then understand the problem and not play it off as "You're just tired" and "You're just stressed". Or "It's the exam period so you're like that," you know?
I cannot stress how much awareness means to me, because without awareness, I've seen so many parents, like my friends’ parents just tell my friends "you are just lazy," "you are just tired". Or just playing it off as something lesser.
Based on what they are feeling, I feel it could be a mental health issue, so it really triggers me when I see ignorant parents and then the child is suffering from mental health issues.
I can give you an analogy because understanding anxiety is actually very difficult. How can parents understand the impact of anxiety or depression on a person if they have not had those experiences?
Hopefully this can give parents some perspective. Imagine we go into a jungle, and all of a sudden, a tiger jumps out and scares you, without biting you. So you have that psychological fear, that I call trauma.
Now you're traumatised because you didn't expect it. It came all of a sudden and was something above and beyond what you could handle. Every time you pass by this jungle, without the tiger even appearing, you will anticipate the tiger showing up, being hypersensitised to any sounds that tell you to get ready to run. The tiger may be coming any time, you can feel all the symptoms—the heart palpitating, breathlessness, getting ready to run for your life—but nothing actually happened!
So you go to the jungle and you were scared once — this is the trigger. For different teenagers, they have different trigger events. It could have been that they were bullied, or performance anxiety, where they tried very hard prepare for an exam, but lo and behold, they underperformed. The teen is so disappointed, so discouraged; the pain is so huge and not resolved, and whenever they do a test or an exam, they just freeze and blank out. They can no longer perform and that is the impact of anxiety!
While the "tiger" may not be there, the "tiger" lives in us and has a power over us. When I work with young people, I see that they have some anxiety—social anxiety, performance anxiety, generic anxiety, or feeling anxious about going into a big crowd, even COVID—it's about that!
The thing is that we cannot see the "tiger"! But it is made alive in our psychological system, in our psyche. What's tricky is that those who are afraid of this "tiger" look normal, from head to toe! They have hands, legs, and usually also very smart.
I work with very, very smart clients, they are top performing students in top schools. They don't just top the class, they top the cohort. However I find that very, very smart students also have a very huge brain capacity (I call it a Ferrari engine), and the Ferrari engine is very capable of doing one thing — overthinking.
They think deep thoughts; they think in multiple dimensions. They think many things at once and that can often be overwhelming. Then they become very tired because that saps energy.
I say all this to help parents to understand that it is not as simple as what meets the eye! Clearly, physiologically, biologically, they all look "normal", but there's trauma, internal pain, psychosocial, and emotional issues the eye cannot see!
If we dismiss it, to say "you're lazy", "you are not diligent", it's like knowing the person clearly has a broken leg yet I demand that no matter what you have to finish running a marathon. But we would never ask a person with a broken leg to finish the marathon right?
But that's what we do with people who have mental health issues. We somehow expect them to show grit, suck it up and move on. What happens when they can't do that is that they feel more guilt and shame. Yet we still say, "I really care for you but you can’t go on like that. Just get off your bed, go to school and get it done."
Or, "if you just find a way to push through, surely you can do it, I believe in you!"
With mental health issues, this kind of “ra-ra” encouragement doesn’t work!
When I run resilience workshops, I remind parents that we are not trying to build Incredible Hulk resilience—muscles, thick cubes, everything—no! Resilience is about internal strength, I can feel secure in who I am. That’s the resilience we want! So instead of just “ra-ra” them, "I believe in you, come, get up and get going", or "when the going gets tough, that’s when the tough gets going", it doesn't work for mental health issues.
But it would be good when parents can come in and just provide a safe space, be a bit more understanding. Or, if parents cannot understand what their children are saying, how about saying "help me understand?"
Sometimes when you say "I understand", your teenagers can feel it's so fake when it's clear you don't understand what they're feeling. So when we say, "Help me understand? Tell me more, educate me, share with me what’s inside your heart? I will listen and I will learn not to judge. I will withhold my judgement," teenagers will appreciate that because they see authenticity in this space, they see us being real, and we're not trying to say we can, we know what to do.
We’re saying "I'm learning, can you help me learn to understand?" and I think that's a much better space than trying to “ra-ra” them.
Definitely! Sounds like we are also not imposing solutions on them that they may not be ready for, and they don't take ownership of as well. And imposing solutions don't help them build resilience, versus helping them walking through it.
Like going through the internal turmoil, and then coming out of it better together, and your child feeling that, "Hey, I can actually have a control over the overthinking that I might be doing," or the multiple conflicted emotions that they might be experiencing.
Sean, if you had to describe your mental health journey, how would you describe it so that it could also give some vocabulary, or perhaps a voice to other young people listening in?
My battle with mental health has been tumultuous, up-and-down kind of journey. Some days, you just feel like you know you can do it, like "I'm gonna win it". But I think people are struggling to understand that my anxiety is not a one-day thing, where I wake up and I feel good and it's never going to come back again.
It will always come back, and it always seems like "I'm trying to break you down and do these things to you." I guess like what my mum said, you got to be secure in yourself. And you just got to have that driving force, while knowing what's your purpose in life, like what’s the meaning of doing all this?
Don't let other people tell you what to do in your life, because when other people tell you what to do, there's no meaning in that because you're not doing it for yourself. One example I can bring up is my so-called journey with swimming.
Swimming wasn't what I wanted to do competitively. Since I just felt it wasn't for me and after getting pushed to do it by my parents, my friends and my coaches, it brought me a lot of anxiety and depression because I wasn’t finding joy in swimming. So one thing I did was to change into another sport, which is triathlon; so even though there is still the swimming component, I can do the work.
I find so much more joy in training nowadays. As a competitive swimmer, you will know that competitions bring a lot of stress and anxiety because it's just that split second difference. But in terms of triathlon, I feel that is more relaxed. Not saying that it is not hard, triathlon is way, way hard but I just feel that sense of joy because I actually like working out.
So anxiety and depression can't really get me because I am doing what brings me joy. And it's having that joy in your heart which will help you push through these things that will come at you. I mean, it is definitely easier said than done. It's definitely not a one-time thing, where I am doing this, so I'm feeling happy right now? Then I'm free and never going to get anxiety or depression again.
It's that process where you have to work through with yourself every single day. I don't know what you guys want to do, but even just meditating or something you can do to get yourself right for the day. That’s one thing I do.
If I could ask each of you one final thing, I'm sure that there are some parents or families, who suspect that their children are not doing so well, be it mentally, or emotionally.
"There is something not quite right with my child."
Or maybe there could be a young person you know with a sibling that they worry about? Maybe they worry about themselves? So for such families where you know they suspect that somebody in the family is not doing so well mentally, emotionally. What is the first thing you’ll encourage them to do?
I would definitely say this first: if the child can feel safe with either parent or both parents to open up with them, then the first line of defence is go to your parents; or go to a trusted adult.
It's very important with mental health issues that you go to someone who you can trust and feel safe.
And I will not be surprised, many teenagers may not find their parents safe. Parents—don't take it personally, it's just a phase because you are too close for comfort. After they bare their souls, they feel very naked in front of you.
So you can, as a parent, give them the space and maybe other objective space for them to confide and pour out their hearts. So of course, if you are beginning to see signs and for some reason your children not going to you or does not want to go to you, always offer them to seek help from a professional. When you offer the help, you break the taboo!
Give them the permission to seek help. Only high functioning people, responsible people seek help, and that's a very healthy thing to do. That's why I tell all my clients "You are courageous," "You are responsible," "You are already showing self-care."
That tells me that there is a very positive prognosis because you're able bring yourself into therapy. Only high functioning people are able to do that, and when you give permission, or your child feels that permission is given, you will break the taboo and that they can fight for themselves in an objective space where they can do some self-exploration.
One way I love to neutralise it is to look at how we take care of our oral hygiene daily. Some of us even brush our teeth after every meal, that’s you taking care of oral hygiene.
It's hard to think that anyone will ask, "When will I ever stop taking care of my oral hygiene?" We buy supplements, detox, flash out all the toxins in our body—we spend thousands of dollars doing it and my question is why is it any different when it comes to mental hygiene?
So doing self-works, seeking help, going for therapy are just very nice ways of taking care of ourselves to detox mentally. We take in so much garbage daily, whether mental judgement, negative self-talk; we need a space where we can detox and we need to go to a space that someone knows how to help us detox!
And I think that's just a discipline I strongly encourage. My dream is when seeing a therapist is normal, a way of life where we take care of ourselves.
If the parents can give a response to say it's okay and don’t respond with, "You sure you have depression? Are you sure or not?" Then you look so gan cheong, so scared, and you transfer your anxiety and fear to your child, which doesn't help.
Manage your own emotions calmly and say, "Okay, I hear you. If you feel safe, talk to me. If you don't, let's find a space for you where you feel safe enough to confide in someone."
Support them in that way, and at some point, all mental health challenges can be resolved. It's human for the pain to be seen, heard and understood, and when the pain is attended to, the pain would have done its work and we become better versions of ourselves.
Hmm very good, yeah. And we're not unwittingly adding to the stigma. [chuckle] Very good! Sean, How about you?
Er, that every teenager I said, you should know that like, um, in a certain way your parents are always there for you. No matter how they might appear after that? So don't be scared to come out and approach them about the situation. You don’t have to tell them everything. They will just kind of like, say that I feel, I feel this certainly way and stuff like that. Yeah, so just be open with them. I know it's not very common nowadays. Um but yah, do try to be open with your parents about
these kind of things because you want to try to take away that taboo
And then, there after family can truly be their refuge rather than the cause of problems. Or exacerbating the problem. Thank you both so much and thank you for sharing your lives and being so vulnerable about it.