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How to talk to your parents about your mental health

Once you've realized you may have a mental health problem like depression or anxiety, the next step is getting help. Getting help may be especially challenging if you are under 18 and need to ask your parents for help (whether that be transportation, financial assistance, consent, or just moral support). Every parent-child relationship is unique, so there is no right or wrong way to approach asking your parents for help, but here are some general do's and don'ts to help you speak up and ask for what you need.


DO


Do remind yourself that you deserve to get help, and it is worth the stress of asking. If you struggle with depression or just low self-esteem, you may think that you don't deserve to get help or that things will never get better. Guilt and hopelessness are common symptoms of mental health issues, and feeling this way is more a reflection of your mental health problem than reality. You may feel like it's not worth the stress of asking your parents, but remind yourself that things can and will get better if you can get the help you need.

Do consider writing down what you want to discuss or practicing ahead of time. If you are nervous, these strategies can help you make sure that you cover all of your concerns. Make a list of the important points you want to discuss, and bring that list to the conversation. You can also practice talking in the mirror or with a friend to build up your confidence. Although talking to your parents in person is ideal, if that seems unmanageable, remember that you can also speak to them over the phone, through text or email, or even by writing them a letter. The most important thing is that you get the message to your parents, one way or another.

Do know that most parents genuinely care and will respond better than you think. You may be surprised to know that many parents have had their own mental health problems and simply haven't talked to their kids about their struggles. Even parents who can't relate usually tend to respond better than you think they will. Most parents love their children and want what is best for them. Asking them for help and talking about what is bothering you may even end up bringing you closer.


Do focus on what you are feeling and how it affects you, rather than what you think your diagnosis may be. Some parents have trouble understanding what it means to have a depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, or ADHD. They may mistake symptoms for the everyday struggles that most people face. It is not your job to educate your parents on why your symptoms may be related to a mental health problem: that's something your doctor or therapist can help with later. Instead, focus on describing the emotions or other symptoms you are feeling and how they affect your day-to-day life. For example, rather than saying, "I think I have ADHD and I need to see a doctor," try saying, "I've noticed it is taking me a lot longer to complete my homework than it takes other people, and I think that might be affecting my grades. Can you help me talk to a mental health professional who can help me figure out why this is happening?".

Do know that you may not need parental consent to get mental health treatment. In most of the United States, minors do not need parents' permission to get mental health care, treatment for drug/alcohol use, or treatment for sexual health or pregnancy issues. This means that you can often seek mental health treatment without your parents agreeing to it. However, it can be hard to figure out the laws in each state, and some therapists or doctors may have their own policies. Consider asking the doctor or therapist ahead of time whether your parents need to be involved. It is also important to remember that just because your parents aren't involved doesn't mean they won't find out. For example, if you use your family insurance to cover the cost, your parents may find out after getting information from the insurance company. If you are worried about your parents finding out about treatment, make sure to disclose that to your treatment provider right away so they can work with you to keep your information private.


Do express what you need clearly. When we have a difficult conversation, our emotions can get in the way of understanding, and parents are not immune to this. Think about whether there are specific things that your parents could do to help you with your mental health. Do you need help finding a doctor or getting to an appointment? Do you need to be able to talk to your parents when you are feeling low? Many parents want to be supportive but don't know how, so giving them straightforward ideas can help. Similarly, don't be afraid to tell them what you don't need. For example, if their frequent check-ins stress you out, tell your parents directly so they can adjust their behavior.


DON'T


Don't blame your parents for your mental health struggles, even if they are at fault. Your immediate goal is to get your parents to help you get help for your mental health, not have them apologize or take responsibility for their actions. That's not to say that these things aren't important; they are. But bringing up your parent's shortcomings now may put them on the defensive and make them less likely to help you get mental health care. Addressing your relationship with your parents is something your doctor or therapist can help you do once you start getting treatment.


Don't be afraid to change the conversation so that your parents can understand. Some parents come from cultural backgrounds that make it very difficult for them to understand mental health problems. It may be more helpful for these parents to focus on physical symptoms, such as the aches and pains of depression or the stomach upset that comes with anxiety. Focusing on physical symptoms probably won't get them to take you to a therapist or other mental health professional. But it may get them to take you to your family doctor or pediatrician who can help with many mental health problems.

Don't give up too soon. It may take many different conversations and approaches to get your parents to help. Even if the first conversation doesn't work, that doesn't mean that you won't eventually get through. Sometimes parents feel guilty, sad, or scared when they first realize that their child is struggling. They may need time to work through these feelings and accept what you are saying.

Don't hesitate to ask someone else for help. If your parents ultimately can't or won't help you get help, it can be great to have another adult in your corner who can support you and advocate for you. Even if you live in a state that doesn't require parental consent for healthcare (see above), you may still need help paying for care, getting transportation to and from appointments, picking up medicines, or making appointments. Think about talking to an older sibling, aunt or uncle, grandparent, teacher, coach, school counselor, or another adult you trust. There are many kind adults out there who are willing to help, so don't give up until you find one. You are worth it!

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