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What To Do When All is Not Well: Stabilising a Teen or Tween Who is Struggling

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For many years I ran a successful charity that supported young people and their families for 20 years. During that time parents whose children seemed to be struggling would consistently ask me the same question – “What do I do? When do I let go and when do I step in?” 

This question usually plays on parent’s minds when their children are ‘stretched’ by circumstances or are going through a transition time that demands that they grow. It is normal for our children to struggle during these times, but it is incredibly hard to watch. Parents often wonder what is the right way to respond, “Am I being too soft or too hard?  Am I expecting too much or too little?”  

Whether the issue was bullying, self-harm or self-doubt impacting their everyday choices, I found myself drawing this illustration on my office’s whiteboard. It often helped parents know how to help their young person regain their confidence and stability.  I’d love to share it with you today.

Stage 1:  Professional and Parental Support

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When parents are concerned, a young person’s life usually looks like the picture above.  They are flapping in the air, out of control with the negatives dominating their life.  They usually need the help of a caring adult to lift some of the ‘heaviest boxes’ out of the way.  You will always see the ‘big four’ when you read about poor mental health – medication, therapy, exercise and sleep.  These are usually the big boxes that need moving.  

Medication might come in the form of prescription drugs, diet changes or natural remedies.  Therapy might include talking to a psychologist, mentor or dedicated family member.  Exercise might be as simple as enrolling in a team sport or using a personal trainer.  Sleep is a difficult one to control but is usually a by-product of establishing healthy and happy day-to-day routine.  Apps like ‘Sleep Cycle’ can be used to monitor sleep patterns.

Be as creative as necessary in order to move these big boxes out of the way.  Be careful to listen to the young person so you hear what is actually working or not working for them.

Stage 2:  Self-Care

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Once a young person is balancing in the ‘middle’ position they are reasonably stable.  They are out of the danger zone.  Things could go up or down at any stage, but they are in a position where they are clear headed enough to make decisions and learn from mistakes.

This is the point where parents need to let go of caring for a young person’s basic needs, as they need to discover which self-care strategies work for them.  These are critical skills that they can’t learn if they are over-parented. Therapeutic relationships that help young people develop self-awareness, talk through heavy emotions and implement self-care strategies are usually a critical part of this phase.

Sometimes young people are resistant to caring for themselves and would prefer that others meet their needs.  They may be comfortable having parents or family members do this, but this won’t serve our children well long term. They need to develop the skills to self-care every day, and in difficult times.

Parents should also realise that self-care doesn’t mean young people are free to parent themselves.  Parents shouldn’t negate parenting responsibilities, in an attempt to ‘let go’ and they still need the same boundaries they have always needed.

Stage 3:  Self-Mastery 

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This is what life looks like when a young person’s resources for coping are stronger than their pain.  Of course, they don’t stay grounded all of the time.  Wouldn’t that be nice?!  However, they have found self-care strategies that work for them and they have the maturity to implement them consistently.  We can’t expect young people to find this self-mastery overnight.  The reality is that this position takes time and practice to master.

Remember, young people may jump between these stages as they progress. Stages can overlap. Sometimes it may seem like they make progress, only to start back at Stage 1 again. I have found that in these cases that progress usually happens quicker and with less support than previously needed.

Wherever your young person is at today, can I encourage you that small steps forward are to be celebrated?  Don’t be discouraged if you haven’t birthed an ‘overnight sensation’.  I have seen time and time again that young people can flounder a lot (and even make a lot of poor choices) well into their 20s and still turn out responsible and caring adults.  Good things can take time.

RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do To Help”. 

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