“I just want them to be okay”
I often get contacted by parents who are seeking a therapist for their child. The kid is usually 18 or 20. They are struggling with transitions and stress. The parents are concerned that they have sent this fresh new adult into the world with excitement and have realized they are not coping well. They have offered every comment and supportive Mom thought they could. They share with me the crying phone calls and the worrisome text messages they get. How they spend their work day being distracted by their own worries about their kid. They thought they had reached the finish line of parenting but launching out into the world is turning out to be a lot of work that they weren’t prepared for.
Do you want to know what I tell them? Do you want to know how it all works out for these other families? Many parents find my site because that is exactly what they are looking for. Hope. And a plan.
As a mental health therapist for college students for over a decade now, I have had a unique front row seat to the inner lives of the 20-something set. The counseling office is where they, over time, begin to put their defenses aside and open up. Sometimes they say things that they have never told anyone before. From my seat, this is a wonderful thing. Sometimes they surprise themselves at how open they become. They joke that their morning coffee must have a dash of truth serum.
Would you like to know what they say? Or better yet, what they wish YOU would do for them?
I’ll tell you. But first let’s review what else might be going on:
Growth: The brain development of 18-25 year olds is much more rapid than meets the eye. They are choosing or being pushed into new life skills whether they are ready or not. Some of these changes produce logical fears and worry for them. Sometimes they are pushed into things without a discussion of a Plan B. Their parents aren’t to blame – everyone gets it figured out, right? My point is this: this person you have raised will not be the same in May as they were the previous August. Sure they will still be the kid you know and love. But they will have grown. And since every family works like a system, that means the family unit will be stretched to grow a little as well. Maybe they bring around new friends to sit at your dinner table. But maybe you also have to tolerate new opinions and worry as they decide if their values are going to continue to match yours. At the moment, this can feel like a lot. Growing can be fun AND scary.
The Changing World: Your child is experiencing social dynamics that did not exist when you were their age. Jobs that you and your parents trained for are disappearing, and being replaced with career options that didn’t exist before. Life looks different so the move into adulthood may be different too. This hits some families harder than others.
I will delay no longer. Here is what your kids need:
- They need you to take care of YOUR mental health.
Are you a worry wart? A proud helicopter mom? Has your child pointed out that you can be pessimistic? Have you seen a counselor in the last year? Why not?
Look, no one wants anything to be wrong with them. And maybe nothing is wrong. But why not check it out? Proactive counseling for yourself is truly a beautiful thing. Maybe it is unnecessary (spoiler: it isn’t). Trust me, there is ALWAYS something we can be working on. Many times people feel relief from just making that first appointment. And maybe the first few times you have a therapy session you don’t feel like it is very productive. But if you stick with it, identify some goals, and develop a relationship with a counselor, you will be surprised at how good you can feel. Counseling is an investment of time, money, and letting people in. Do you want your child to hesitate to get themselves help when they need it? You are modeling healthy behavior when you show your family that you are willing to address your own needs.
- They need you to get clear on your relationship with LABELS.
Most of the clients I work with have had some kind of mental health thing happen in their childhood. Maybe it was biting their nails, maybe it was hopelessness about friend drama, or maybe it was even some suicidal thoughts. Worried they might make a mountain out of molehill, parents often downplay these events in their kids’ lives. Their intentions were good, but now their child is remembering some hard stuff and doesn’t know why. I have found in my years of working with young adults that this is an ideal time to reflect and figure out what actually happened. Making sense of their past is always helpful, and sometimes it comes with labels. My clients say things like:
“Now that I think about it, I was pretty anxious”
“I think I was a depressed kid”
If you have been avoidant of embracing the names of mental health challenges, fear not. Do my clients make these statements with a flood of negativity and rage at their parents? No. They feel relieved to give their pain a name. It gives them a plan and hope. If naming something is scary- that is your concern. Not theirs. I promise you that allowing your child to label their childhood and their mental health accurately is freeing to them.
- They need you to keep parenting them, just DIFFERENTLY.
Over the years, I have seen parents choose every version of parenting their young adult kids. Some families use the sink or swim approach. Parents wave as their 18 year olds drive away and say “See you at Thanksgiving!”. They believe in the power of making your own mistakes. And secretly, they can’t help but feel relieved that the tension in their house is going to be lifted for a while. It isn’t that they won’t miss their kid…they just won’t miss the tough parts of living with an emerging adult.
The other end of the spectrum is the parent that calls and texts multiple times a day. They offer to, and sometimes do, contact professors to explain why they think their grading is unfair or that their kid needs an extension on an assignment.
These are just a few steps a parent can take for their college student. As I see a growing need for supporting parents when their child is experiencing a mental health problem, I am now offering coaching for parents all over the U.S. If your son or daughter is exhibiting panic attacks, generalized anxiety, or you suspect OCD, consider connecting them with me. Online therapy has proven to be extremely effective with college students. And if they aren’t interested, you can meet with me. (Parent sessions can take place no matter where you are located in the U.S. If I am meeting with your child, they should be located in Tennessee where I am licensed.)
Jody Dianna, LCSW, is a Tennessee therapist specializing in young adults. She is a recovering perfectionist and a Dog Person that is currently coexisting well with 2 cats.