Opinion: Eight things your teens tell us on the crisis hotline that they don’t tell you
Parents must listen more, dictate less for children to consider them a go-to person
We are the people your teens reach out to when they are in crisis and they can’t or won’t talk with you.
Together, we have spent thousands of hours speaking to teens in distress. And we, like some of you, are parents of teens (six between the two of us).
We work for EveryMind’s Crisis Prevention and Intervention Services. As trained volunteers and professionals, we answer calls, texts and chats through the Montgomery County Hotline, Youth Crisis Line, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the EveryMind Chat Portal.
Here are eight things your teens tell us that they might not tell you:
- They think you don’t recognize that mental health problems are real and you think that people should just “suck it up.” They might have internalized your attitude and feel ashamed that they don’t feel “normal.” They are worried about being labelled “crazy” and embarrassing the family. They might also feel selfish putting financial stress on the family for needing professional help.
- They are cutting themselves in places you won’t see. The stomach and inner thighs are especially common. Non-suicidal self-harm comes in many forms: They might burn or punch themselves or bang their heads. When you do notice, they make excuses, such as “I accidentally did this while trying to shave hair off my arm.” They might both want you to know and try to hide it from you.
- They feel tremendous pressure to perform well in school and extracurricular activities. Their seeming lack of motivation might appear to you as laziness when they are actually paralyzed by a fear of failure and dread the look of disappointment on your face.
- They have friends from around the world on various social media platforms, such as Discord, Reddit and 4Chan. Teens are well versed in evading your detection and parental controls. These platforms have become their primary avenues for sharing and venting and where they encounter other teens who might be self-harming or suicidal.
- They have eating disorders, and are experts at disguising their binging and purging. They feel ashamed but also compelled to repeat the process over and over, as it is the only way they know how to gain relief from stress.
- They are agonizing over lewd pictures or videos of themselves in other people’s hands. Many times, they have willingly sent them out. On rare occasions, they resulted from coercion or assault. Your teens are too mortified to tell you.
- They are struggling with gender identity and sexuality issues and don’t think you will provide a non-judgmental safe space for them to talk things through.
- They are experiencing suicidal thoughts. They see that you are under a lot of pressure and they don’t want to be an added burden on you. These thoughts make them feel worthless. They say others will be relieved when they are gone.
Like many of you, the two of us have faced our fair share of challenges and made plenty of mistakes with our teens.
We know they need access to a variety of helpers, from teachers to school counselors to therapists. But as parents, we want to be in the equation as much as possible, to be in the loop and to guide them if they’ll let us. For that, they need to be receptive.
Our experience has taught us not to trade the possibility of influence for the illusion of control. While our teens do need some limits, when we try to control too much — when we are in perpetual lecture mode — they go underground. If we listen more and dictate less, we have a fighting chance of being their go-to person and “first responder.”
Keep the channels of communication wide open by talking to them about the small, mundane things in their lives. They’ll be more likely to approach you when something big comes along.
When they do come to you in distress, resist the temptation to fix them or solve the problem. Simply be open and empathize with what they are experiencing. If they sense you are not listening or you don’t understand, they’ll likely clam up.
Make it the goal of every conversation to have the next conversation.
Even if we do everything “right,” teens being teens, they might still hold back. If they do, rest assured we at the Crisis Prevention Hotline will be there for them on the other end of the line.
Dipika Cheung is the manager of crisis prevention and intervention services at EveryMind (Follow her on Twitter @CheungDipika) and Alicia Ching is a call and chat specialist at EveryMind.Call the 24-hour Montgomery County Hotline at 301-738-2255 (phone or text message) and chat at https://www.every-mind.org/chat National Suicide Prevention Week is Sept. 6 to 12. September is National Suicide Prevention Month.
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