Reader Request: Explaining Mental Health Status to Parents

This is a reader request (Thank you again, by the way). This post will cover 1)Doing some self-reflection to sort out what is making you want to talk to your parents about your mental health status, 2)Figuring out how safe the situation is for this, 3)Preparing for the talk, 4)Ways to go about having this kind of conversation with your parents, and 5)How to make your own safety plan in case things don’t go as well as you’d like. I want to make sure that whatever you decide to do, it is a decision that you thought all the way through, that was not made in a rush or impulsively, and that your safety and health is a priority.

#1: Self-Reflection  

What is making you want to tell your parents about your mental health status? This is a great time to reflect on what is motivating you to want to make this decision. It’s hard to figure out what to say if you don’t have a clear idea of what the end goal is here. Like writing an essay or making any persuasive argument, it’s always good to have your goal in mind from the very beginning. That will be your compass in navigating this whole thing. Are you telling your parents so they understand why you need money/financial assistance/health insurance (for medication, therapy, etc)? Or maybe because you need emotional support and/or to fit them into your social supports/safety planning? Or you want to tell them so you can set better boundaries with them? Whatever your reasons are and whatever your end goal is, you should hash that out 1st. Mindfulness techniques [101 post here] could be key here if you aren’t sure how to tap into yourself and figure out what your needs specifically are. Talk to your friends and other people you trust to get their perspective too if that will help you look at this situation from every angle possible.

#2: Assess the Situation 

How much do you rely on your parents? Are you a minor/dependent? Are they paying for your college or do you need them to fill out your FAFSA? Are you under their insurance? Do you live with them or rely on them for money? These kinds of things are what you are potentially risking if things don’t go exactly as you hope. This isn’t to scare you. This is to help you plan while looking at the pros and cons of each decision you make. The cons would be what you could be risking here by sharing your mental health status with your parents, who, depending on the situation, could have a lot of power over you. What are the realistic chances they will support you? How did they respond in similar situations in the past and what kind of support did they give you? How did you feel about the support they gave you back then? Do you have any worries that they might not support you or that they might try to harm you? My point here is to help you reflect on what they could probably do according to evidence based in what they have already said and done in their past…not what you hope they could do. 

#3: Prepping for the Talk 

Okay so you’re taking the time to do some self-reflection and you’re assessing your situation for risks and any safety concerns. Great. Now, it’s time to start getting ready for any response, including acceptance, rejection, gaslighting (A type of psychological abuse where someone manipulates another person until they start to question reality or their mental health. The word “gaslighting” was inspired by a 1938 play/1944 movie called “Gas Light”.), or silencing. Some things you can do to prepare for this talk (or any major talk) include:

  1. Safety planning: So what is the worst case scenario? No one likes to think about the worst case scenarios, but it’s important to plan for the worst (while hoping for the best). You’ve already assessed the situation and have a solid idea of the risks here. Now that you have that awareness, how can you protect yourself from those risks the best you can. Like wearing protective gear or like coming up with a Plan B in case things go left. In psychotherapy, therapists and clients work together on creating formal and informal safety plans whenever a client is in a risky situation. See my post on Suicide here for a more detailed description of a safety plan and for questions to get you started on creating your own plan. 

  2. Self Care. Self Care. Self Care. I don’t think y’all hearing me…SELF CARE. If you have not read my piece on self care here before this point, please time a couple mins to check it out. Definitely pay special attention to the reflection questions I asked in the 2nd half for help figuring out which self care strategies and habits work best for you. Self care is about being compassionate and loving to yourself in a harsh world. It is about taking the time to learn yourself and your needs and investing in yourself and in your future health. Not only is self care important for this talk, but it is key for your mental health and general life satisfaction.

  3. It’s also time to revisit the boundaries 101 piece here. I also suggest checking out Part 1 here of a 2-part boundaries 201 piece I wrote for the holidays: the setting boundaries with toxic loved ones. Just like self care, clear strong boundaries are so incredibly important for good whole body health and personal happiness. Like I’ve said before, learning how to set and maintain clear, firm boundaries is 1 of the most important skills to learn in life. Solid boundaries are armor/protection and they are permission/freedom to really be yourself with people in those relationships. Boundaries keep everyone on the same page, nurture the connection you have with them, and can bring you closer. Remember that you cannot control other people’s behavior, but you can control your behavior and, to different degrees, you can control what you tolerate in your life. Firm boundaries are an important part of self care and part of your safety plan. Regardless of how your parents react, your top priority is the protection of your mental health. And this is all easier said than done. It can be hard to set boundaries at home, especially when setting boundaries was never taught at home and/or your parents have fragile, vague boundaries themselves or even no boundaries at all. But this is worth it. Again, you are worth the effort.

  4. You could practice what you want to say and/or role-play with friends or any other trusted person in your life. This could be helpful to make sure that you are getting your point across in a clear, easy-to-understand way. In therapy, therapists and clients also role-play to help clients work through any anxiety they might feel leading up to a talk like this. Or practice by writing down everything you want to say in advance and reading it out loud and/or emailing it to a friend.

#4: The Conversation 

Ultimately, how you want to do this is up to you. No one knows your life like you do. You are an expert on your life and your situation. That’s why I put so much emphasis and went so hard on the importance of self-reflection, mindfulness, setting boundaries, talking/reflecting with people you trust, and self care earlier. Tapping into yourself and digging deeper is going show more revelations and pieces of wisdom than I think a lot of people would give themselves credit for. What I do want to cover here is some suggestions I have for when you are finally ready to have the first actual conversation with your parents about your mental health status:

When?

  • I’d suggest having a private conversation ideally when no one is in a rush to be somewhere else. You want as much of the focus and attention to be on you as possible.

  • If the person isn’t reasonably making time for you, that already says a lot about where their priorities are at (And if people tell you who they are…). That’s new information added to your situation right there. Assessing your situation is never a 1-time thing. Your plan, etc. can always be updated with any new information.

How?

  • You could write a letter/send an email or text. I personally prefer looking into someone’s eyes and seeing body language when having serious conversation, but I can definitely understand the necessity for other ways of communication, depending on the situation and your safety.

  • Another option is writing a letter/text/email as a kickstarter to the in-person conversation (“Read this when you get a chance. I wanna talk about it when we’re both free.”). Assuming the person reads it, this can be a great way to get your points across in an organized, lower pressure way with less chances of being interrupted.

  • Talk in person in private with talking points. Have an idea of what you want to say going into the conversation . This is where all that planning and possibly role-playing helps.

  • You don’t have to go it alone. Tell other people in your family who could help you have this conversation. Maybe, for whatever reason, this isn’t a 1-person job. That’s cool. Who are some allies you could get to help you break this down to your parents? I’m assuming these people were on your safety plan so maybe part of the support they could give you is help you speak to your parents in the moment. Try to find a balance between them helping you and them speaking for you. This is your conversation, not theirs. 

  • Talk in person with a medical/mental health provider in the room with you. The provider could help you explain the medical specifics if you personally have trouble with that. Or if your parents value and put a lot of trust in authority figures, you have someone like that in your corner. 

What?

  • Break down your symptoms in basic language and what it means for your everyday life. For example, “I’m dealing with this, that, and the third…and that is why you see me struggle with xyz or that’s why I’ve been doing abc”. The goal here is to help make your symptoms easier to explain, but also putting the focus on you, your health, and how they can support. 

  • Research and/or find supportive quotes from religious texts if you think your parents would be open to that.

  • Be specific about the kind of support you need from them. This is tied to knowing yourself and having clear communication and clear boundaries. If you don’t know what you really need, it’s hard to ask for help from others. 

The Blame Game: A quick note about blame. When dealing with shocking and/or upsetting news, it’s pretty common to cope with the situation by trying to find the first thing to blame.  Feeling out of control in the face of this new information, it’s very human to want to change the focus and energy on something else as a distraction and/or to feel more in control. Parents, the humans that they are, could react to the conversation by looking for someone or something to blame. Whether they chose to blame themselves, something you did or didn’t do, etc., it actually has nothing to do with you. It is how they’re deciding to cope with the update of your mental health status.  Putting it plainly: This is their mess. This isn’t you. This isn’t even for you. This is for THEIR comfort, not yours. The blame game distracts from the real focus of all this: your very real, life experiences and what you need from your parents here and now.

So, how are you feeling about all this? I know this is a lot to think about. I hope with this piece, you can begin to reflect on your situation and make informed decisions. By making time for self-reflection, taking a step back & looking at your situation closely, doing what you need to do to prep for the talk, including making a safety plan in case things aren’t ideal, setting firm boundaries, etc. you are making yourself and your health a high priority. Always weigh the pros and the cons. Study the benefits and the costs. Assess the risks. You are worth the effort.


Thanks for reading. The next piece will be Part 2 of the 2-Part Boundaries 201: Bringing the Skills Home series in time for the holiday season, focusing on using boundaries as tools to build and make all the relationships in your life even stronger on Sunday 12/23/18.

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