Tell us what we can do?” This is something parents ask me very often, particularly when their children are struggling with mental-health difficulties. It is not easy being a helpless witness to our children’s daily torments, particularly when there are suicidal experiences, addictions and they start shutting us out of their lives. Rather than listening to them, we turn to professionals to advise and guide us. However, as a narrative therapist, I do not subscribe to the view that we are experts in the lives of the persons who consult us. We have the honour of receiving their stories of suffering and being witness to their small steps of resistance in not letting these hardships define them. This is what makes them stand up for what they believe in and reclaim their life.
Young people are experts in their lives and they carry insider knowledge of lived experiences that mental health professionals — including psychiatrists, psychologists and therapists — can overlook, because we have been trained into pathologising our clients as disordered, deficient and even deviant, leading to marginalisation. No wonder the so-called “healers” end up misusing their power and privilege to hide behind their textbook expertise over the know-how of the people.
Therefore, I interviewed some young people, who I work with, to understand what they would like their parents to know:
This is what they had to say:
* I know it is tough for you to see me so low but can you please not make it about yourself? Because then I have to go and hide in the bathroom and cry as I know you will start crying, too. It is hard enough for me, so stop taking it personally.
* Sometimes, the pressure you put on me is implicit. You tell me that it is okay that my grades have dropped, but I can make out from your expressions that you are disappointed in me. You tell me that if I tried harder, I could still catch up. I am done with the “catching up” game. Please just let me be for some time. Just living one day at a time is all that I can manage right now.
* Don’t be ashamed of my problems and tell me not to talk about them to my friends. My friends get me, and it helps me to know that they know what I have to live with every day. It is okay with me that you don’t want to tell your friends about it — that is your choice.
* It would help me a lot if you could just listen to me with an open heart. It will mean that you are listening to me from your heart and not your ears. Ears can be judgemental, maybe because they are close to the brain (I am joking!). Listening from the heart means that you accept me as I am, without trying to fix me or advise me.
* There are times when I have thoughts of hurting myself or even ending my life. I wish I could talk to you at those times without you going into a panic or immediately calling up the psychiatrist. Just talking about it and having you understand and listen to what I am going through can really help. I know you worry about my safety, but can it not be the only thing we talk about?
* What I am going through is not a reflection of your parenting skills. So please stop beating yourself up by constantly talking about your “failure”. That makes me think that you think the same about me. Depression is persistent in nagging me into believing that I have failed at life, and your words just make it a lot worse.
* I know it is not easy for you to see me like this, so please take care of yourself. Do what works for you, meditate, take a break, go for therapy. Knowing that you are okay will ease my heart.
* Can I please be excused from the productivity race, where I have to constantly show my worth according to what the society thinks is worthwhile? I am exhausted, so please don’t push me.
* If you have no idea what to do, just ask me how I would like to be supported or how you can help me. It means a lot as then I know you really care to find out rather than just assuming or believing what others are telling you to do.
* We don’t want to hear all these things – “It’s all in your head”; “cheer up”; “think of people far worse than you”; “what do you have to be depressed about?”; “happiness is a choice” ; ”just do yoga” and definitely any sentence beginning with, “at your age…” or “when we were young”.
* I wish we could have more fun at home, laugh, sing, do all kinds of silly things we did earlier. Why is everybody so serious all the time and walking on eggshells?
* Don’t guilt me into getting better by saying, “Please do it for me.” I am wading through the thick darkness of depression and your saying that makes it even more difficult.
* Stop shaming me with your constant jabs about my weight, my grades, how I do not have friends. I know you are disappointed in me, so stop gaslighting me every time I bring it up by saying, “You are too sensitive. You just read too much into everything.”
* Can you please appreciate the small things I do every day? It might not be big but keeping in mind how much effort it takes me to do them, it would be great if you could just acknowledge them rather than dismissing them with, “you need to try harder”.
* I know seeing me like this pains you, as every parent wants their children to do well and be happy. But I hope you can see that I am more than my problems. It will make a world of difference to me.
* I am not doing this on purpose. I feel so trapped by this anxiety that robs me of all things that give me happiness and meaning. But if you believe in me, I will learn to slowly believe in myself and be the person I know I can be.
* What will help me most is to know that you are there for me, like a rock, steadfast and strong. That even if I mess up at times, you have my back. No matter what.
(Dr Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, co-founder, Children First, writer, and, in this column, she curates the know-how of the children and young people she works with. Write to her email@example.com)
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