Many a parent has sat in my office and told a sad or anxious or stressed out child that “these years”, whether they be elementary school, high school, or college, are the “best years of life.” (I’m pretty sure I never have and never will hear a parent claim that life doesn’t get better than middle school!) I vividly remember the very first time I heard a parent say something to this effect. It happened a long time ago, but I still recall being shocked at the lack of sensitivity the mother was showing to her clinically depressed and recently suicidal daughter. Hillary had been discharged from a psychiatric hospital, where she was taken after being treated in the emergency room for a Tylenol overdose, shortly before I met her. Her mother was having a tremendously difficult time understanding why her daughter was depressed. On paper, Hillary had it all: a loving family, close friends, beauty, smarts, and a bright future. Hillary was well aware that her depression did not “make sense.” She responded to her mother’s sentiment this way:
What’s wrong with me? Everybody tells me high school should be the best years of my life. Hillary, 16
This is a typical response to parents’ “best years” comments. Think about it. If you are miserable, so miserable that you attempt to end your life, how awful to have someone tell you that it’s all downhill from here. And seriously, how many adults really believe that the best years of their life were the teen years? Even if the child in question is simply experiencing the normal challenges of his developmental level, isn’t a better and truer message that the way he’s feeling is normal and life will get better? If, as in Hillary’s case, the child is experiencing an actual, treatable mental illness, doesn’t she need to hear that help is available and she won’t always feel the way she does now? Whether we are talking about normal developmental angst or clinical conditions such as depression and anxiety, children need to hear “Things will get better.”
As a society, we place a heavy emphasis on happiness. Parents often tell me that what they want more than anything else is for their children to be happy. What parent doesn’t? There’s nothing wrong with wanting your children to be happy overall, but day to day, it is normal and important for individuals of all ages to experience a broad range of emotions. Anger, worry, frustration, sadness, boredom, guilt – these are all healthy emotions that signal that action is needed. When we feel angry, we can act to assure that we are treated fairly. When we experience frustration, we may work harder and seek needed assistance. When we worry, we take action to reduce risk. When we feel guilty, we reflect on our own actions and change our behavior. If parents protect children from negative emotions, they interfere with the development of essential skills such as self-reflection, emotion regulation, and coping. In addition, parents who shield their children from sadness and disappointment inadvertently teach them that it is bad or wrong to experience these very normal feelings. For a young person such as Hillary, this message compounds the problem such that she is left not only feeling depressed but also defective.
When a child is struggling through a challenging developmental phase such as the middle school years or is experiencing emotional problems such as depression, it is not the time for a parent to talk a lot about her own experiences at the child’s age. The parent should not assume that his experience carries great lessons for his child. This is a time when a parent’s job is to listen more and talk less. I have seen parents do a great job with this. A particular favorite of mine was a father who had been in high school during the late sixties who did not contradict his daughter when she told him he had no idea what it’s like to be in high school when so many kids are using drugs. He smiled conspiratorially at me, but he knew his daughter needed to be heard, not corrected. He instinctively knew to validate her feelings rather than to commiserate with her.
I have also seen parents do a terrible job listening rather than talking. Nothing shuts my child and adolescent clients down more quickly than parents rambling on and on about their younger selves. The parents who do this are trying to help; I know they are. They want to help, to fix the problem or to make it go away. Sometimes – usually even – the best help comes in the form of listening. While a child is talking about a problem, he is also working on it – working on understanding it, thinking about it from various angles, maybe even beginning to form some solutions in his head. And the fact that a parent is listening and not trying to step in to make everything “right” is reassuring to a child. It sends the right message: “You are in a tough place. I am here with you. It’s okay to feel this way. You can handle it. It will be all right.”
To be honest, I spend a great deal of the time in my office just listening to young people talk. I listen. I reflect. I validate their feelings. I ask questions that help them think about their situations from different perspectives. I let them know that it is okay to feel the way they do, even if it is uncomfortable. I offer gentle reassurance that they will not always feel the way they do in the moment. I help them see that even their unpleasant feelings serve important purposes. I allow them to sit with their pain and I sit with them.
And here’s what I don’t do: I do not suggest that there is something wrong with how they feel. Even if they are experiencing a psychiatric disorder, I want them to know that, given the disorder, it is normal to feel the way they do. I do not tell them they should feel differently. I do not remind them of all of the blessings in their lives. I do not talk about people who have it worse than they do. I do not make promises about how or how soon they will feel better. I do not tell them about my experiences at their age. I never ever tell them they should be happy because these are the best years of their lives.
And when I am on my very best parenting behavior, I do and do not do these same things for my own children.