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When struggling adolescents seek support, they go first to their friends. So it’s no surprise then that as mental health issues among teens rise, and traditional measures of resilience lowers, more teens are feeling pressured to “be there” for their friends in ways that cause unhealthy stress for “helper” teens.
Even more teens are asking me in counseling sessions, “What do I tell my friend when they tell me they don’t want to live anymore?” Even parents ask “How can I help my daughter whose friends are constantly talking to her about their problems, which are often pretty serious. I can see it affecting her and she worries constantly about them?”
So how can we as adults help our teens help their peers through difficult times? Here are a few tips:
- Ask your teen. Many teens won’t voluntarily tell adults how stressful and burdensome it is to be the “designated therapist” in their friend group. It won’t hurt to ask and in most cases you’ll be glad you did. “Hey, I’m just curious. Do your friends ever open up to you? Do your friends ever confide in you? Like when they’re going through a rough time, do they ever lean on you and talk to you about it?” Most teens will say “Yes” and look at you like you’re clairvoyant. You’ll earn major props with the teens in your life by anticipating their need to talk about this major stressor. I don’t know, I just remember when I was a teen I was the one that people approached, or I remember how much I leaned on my friends and how helpful it was. Looking back, as helpful as it was to me, I wonder if it was stressful for them…if they worried about me. So I just thought I’d ask you.
- Validate them. Let your teen know what honor that it is and what it must feel like for them to be trusted by their friends with sensitive issues. Tell them what a compliment it is to them that a peer would be so vulnerable with them. You might even ask them “What feels good about your friends approaching you for help? I would imagine it’s stressful too, but before we get to that, what feels good about it?”
- Listen to them and reflect back to them what you hear. “So it’s like, wow, “my friends must think highly of me or really see something in me that would make them trust me by sharing with me their struggles.” While giving them a smile of pride and admiration say, “that…is so cool. It’s really cool to see that your friends see you as trustworthy and caring.”
- Ask your teen about the burden. You might say “As good as it feels, I know if it were me, (or when it was me) that it was also stressful.” Does that make sense? Is it ever stressful for you?
- Ask “What’s the most stressful part about it?” Many teens will say something like, “Well, I just never know what (I’m supposed) to say. It’s like I don’t want to mess them up anymore or make it worse by saying the wrong thing!” or “I hurt for them. I mean I know their situation sucks, and I want to help but I don’t know how to help them. How do I help them?” (Don’t answer that question…yet
- Reflect the powerlessness and helplessness and imposed sense of responsibility. “So wow I can only imagine how powerless and helpless you might feel in those moments, feeling like because my friend comes to me I’m supposed to know what to say or do to make their situation better or to at least make them feel better” The teen will be bobbing for apples nodding. Again, you’re a genius!I thought you were completely stupid but you’re showing signs of brilliance, Mom!” I would imagine that they’re even times when you might even feel responsible for your friend and for getting them out of their situation or fixing their problem.
- Ask the teen: “When was a time you went to a friend to talk about a tough situation or a rough time you were going through?. You don’t have to tell me what it is, but I just want you to think about a time. What did you expect from your friend? What did you want from them? What did you really need from them? Did they fix it? Did they give you advice? Did it help? Did you really feel heard, like they really understood what you were going through? Really listen to their responses. Reflect back what you hear.
- Ask: “Did you expect your friend to solve your problem? Did you expect them to fix the situation? Was it helpful just to have someone who actually paid attention to what you were saying and really listened to you without thinking about what to say?” I don’t know about you but for me, when I’ struggling, what I now know I want most from my friends is a listening ear, assurance that they love me and care about me and that they’ll stick with me through this. I’ve learned that as bad as things get, when I feel like I’m alone in it, is the worst part. Just knowing someone cares about me enough to listen really helps me. There’ve also been times when that person could point me to someone, another friend, but when I was your age, an adult who could really help me to find ways of dealing with my struggles.
- Assure the teen that no one is totally responsible for the life of another. This is important. Tell them “You know this might not seem really meaningful to you right now, but I have to tell you this so you can chew on it and think about it and find whatever truth there is for you in it. When you were a child I was responsible FOR you. If something bad happened to you I was responsible for it. As your parent it was my job to make sure nothing bad happened to you and if it did, to deal with it. Today, I’m really not responsible for you because you have the opportunities to make choices that have nothing to do with me. But I’m still responsible to you. And that means I stick with you even when you make bad choices, or bad things happen to you outside of either of our control. I’m responsible to you to make sure you have access to the resources you need to succeed and deal with your problems. In a very similar way, you’re not responsible for your friends. No matter how bad it gets, no one, and I mean no one is totally responsible for the life of another person. I’m here and am always willing to help you figure out what it means for you to be responsible to your friends. Does any of that make sense?
- Help the teen generate alternatives. So, I’m wondering, in addition to listening to your friend, what else could you do that would help you to feel like a better friend, not quite as helpless??? Who else could be helpful to them? What resources could they access (even if they don’t want to) that could be potentially helpful to them? What else could they do to make their situation better? What would you do differently in their situation? In situations where it’s a life or death matter, and it’s clear that you and the teen need to notify the authorities or the parent/guardian of the other teen, your teen will feel like a rat and disloyal. This might not seem like much to you, but to them it’s a really big deal. Acknowledge that. “I know that for you, telling his parents that you are really worried about him and that he’s told you he’s thinking of killing himself feels like a major betrayal of trust. I mean we just talked about how good it felt to have someone trust you with that and now you’re faced with the likelihood of having to break that trust. I bet you’re afraid that your friend won’t talk to you again or won’t tell anyone what’s going on and that will make their situation even worse. You know, I’d probably feel the same way. And honestly, your friend may very well feel betrayed…at first and maybe even for a while. And the thought of that for you I bet is really scary. But..what’s the alternatives? You don’t tell his parents and nothing happens, or the situation stays the same and doesn’t get any worse. Yep, that could happen. But it could get worse and the worst could happen, wouldn’t it? What would that be like for you? You know, for me, it’s picking the lesser of two painful prospects. It sucks, but here’s what I do know. If this person is really your friend, really your friend. In time, they’ll see what you did as an act of love and care. They’ll realize how hard that must have been for you and thank you for it. It happens all the time. In most cases the teen or your/teen can approach the school guidance counselor who can make an inquiry with the teen and protect their confidentiality. OF course many teens will say “they’ll now it’s me.”
- Assure the teen that you’re in it with them. Just as you told your teen, knowing that they’re not in it alone helps them. It eases their fear even if it doesn’t and likely won’t remove it entirely.
- Check in with your teen and ask “How’s that situation with ________ going?”
- Remind yourself that Adolescent relationships are messy. More to come on this, but just know that the relationships your teens are having today are incredibly more intense, complex and nuanced than in our years in school. If it feels messy, it’s probably because it is. But let the messiness be a signal to you that you’re out in front of this issue by proactively talking to your teen and offering to support them.