Category Archives: parenting teens

Heavy on my Heart

Recently I have had the opportunity to spend time with several teenagers from various backgrounds that all have one thing in common. They are all living with, dealing with, and suffering through some form of mental illness. Regardless if they were labeled Bipolar, Depressed, Schizophrenic, or some other DSM designation, they remain children.  I think this point is often swept under the rug like so many dust bunnies. 

Treating young people like adults when it comes to mental health treatment does a disservice to everyone in treatment and the profession as a whole. 

Long ago, in a California, far far away, middle and high schools had licensed therapists on their payroll. In this land of school buses, quality lunches, and plentiful homework, children struggling with the pressures of being forced to conform to whatever definition of popularity was popular at the time, were able to reach out to a trusted professional during school hours to teach them coping skills. Today’s children have so much more to deal with and none of the support children had a few decades ago. 

In the eighth grade I was struggling with how to be who I was inside and conform to who the world wanted me to be on the outside. A teacher could tell I was struggling and cared enough to refer me to the school therapist. I remember the day I met with him…

Spring dew covered the bare limbs on the growing saplings that flanked the path from the quad to the main office. The small brick building lined the front of the middle school. I opened the door to find only one child sitting in the row of hard back chairs that lined the wall in front of the vice principal’s office. The receptionist looked up briefly from her keyboard and asked for my hall pass. I handed her the pink slip of paper and waited. She glanced at it, handed it back to me, called for Mr. Ryse, and told me to sit down. I nodded in agreement, and sat in the chair that was farthest away from that other kid. 

As I waited, I examined how the swirls on the lime green carpet wove their way under desks and down the small hallway. Soon, brown hard soled leather topped shoes smashed the swirls while walking toward me. Mispronouncing my first name, he called for me and when I acknowledge him, I was asked to follow him. He spun on his heel and led me down the short, narrow hallway to the third door on the left. The door was open and I followed him inside. A window the size of a few sheets of binder paper, faced the door.  There was a chair next to the window that he motioned for me to sit in. I removed my backpack, set it on the ground by the feet of the armless chair and sat down. He sat in a brown leather chair in front of his desk and by the door. A pen was in his right hand and a long yellow notepad in the other.

“Are you comfortable?”He seemed genuinely concerned with this detail. When I didn’t reply, he asked it again and shifted in his seat.

“I guess so,” I managed to eek out. I wanted to say I was everything but comfortable. I wanted to say that I was nervous and confused. Members of my family had mental issues. They had been labeled “crazy” and I wanted none of those labels to fall on me. 

“Good. Let’s begin with a few standard questions.”

I nodded in agreement and the flood gates of things needing answers came spilling out of his mouth.

“How old are you?” 

“13” I thought he really should know this already.

“What grade are you in?


“Ok, now tell me about your class schedule.”

“You should have it there somewhere. I’m in five honors classes, student government, and have a zero period enrichment class.” 

“I see. Are there any extracurriculars?”

“I am on the academic quiz team and a student peer leader.”

“I see, and what are your thoughts on school? He asked as he jotted down notes on his yellow pad.

“School is fine. There are a lot of things to deal with, but it’s fine.” I saw no point in lying to the man. School was okay. It had to get done and there was no alternative. 

“What are your plans for when you grow up?”

“I wanted to become President of America, but was told that black girls can’t do that.”

“And how did that make you feel?”

“It is what it is. If I can’t be president, I want to become a judge for the supreme court. I know that no one black has done that yet, but I will be the first.”

He continued to write his notes down and ask me a few more questions. After each question, his notes seemed to take longer to write down. One question really stood out to me and comes to my remembrance often. He asked me if I feel like I’m smarter than other people. My response was yes. I knew this to be true because I was getting A’s in honors classes and had a desk full of medals at home that proved I was at least smarter that most of the 7th and 8th graders in the County.

The doctor then asked me if I thought I was important like Jesus? I said that I was important but I didn’t know how important. And being a smart ass, I asked him how did he know that I wasn’t Jesus? My level of sarcasm clearly sailed clean over his bald head. About an hour into this line of questioning, he placed the notepad on the desk and asked me if I had ever heard of bipolar manic depressive disorder. I said that I had and that my mother had it. He said that made sense because it’s transmitted in families. He said he would write a report to my parents for me to get started on medications.

I remember leaving with a sealed envelope to take home and give to my mother. I wasn’t really sure what had happened as I made my way to my next class. The class was PE so I doubt I made much effort to get their quickly. Nerds hate PE. 

I went home that day and gave the letter to my mother, who quickly read it and said there was nothing wrong with me as she balled it up and tossed it in the trash. That ended my middle school mental health services. 

I spent the next four years dealing with depression and thoughts of ending my life with no one to talk to or support me through those times. At the age of fifteen, after being sexually assaulted, I tried to take me life. It would be four years before I ever told anyone that. Ironically, it was a therapist that my college mentor suggested I see when I was struggling with my course load. At the age of 19, I found a sounding board of all of the dark and terrifying thoughts I had over the years. This therapist worked for the college and saw me regularly during my time there. She referred me to a psychiatrist and my two years of taking the mood stabilizer lithium began. It helped to stop the mood swings but did little else for the general sadness.

I’m not saying that medications don’t help. They help some people a great deal. They just didn’t really help me. It was the years of talk therapy, support groups, and boundary establishment that helped me the most. 

Today, I feel that we are way too quick to not really listen to our young people. We are quick to throw drugs at their problems instead of taking the time to really be present in their lives. 

I try to make time and listen to any young person who wants to talk to me. I try to listen without prejudice or judgement. I strive to be a safe place for them to share what they are going through. I am the mother of two teenage children. They have tons of friends who confide in me. They know I’m going to “keep it real”.  They tell me all sorts of things they feel they can’t tell their parents. If it’s a big life altering thing, I comfort and encourage them to tell their parents. I have even mediated some of those discussions. Most of the time, they just need a sounding board. I am happy to fill that role and wish someone had done that for adolescent me.

It Gets Better

As you wait for the second pink line to form on the one test that will actually change your life, you begin to dream and wonder all the what ifs.  What if it’s positive? What if it isn’t? What if it’s a boy? What if it’s a girl? What if it’s twins? The three minutes pass slowly at a quick pace. Congratulations! The second line is bright pink! You are pregnant!  Yay!?!

Now what. You spend the next seven to nine months watching in awe as your body transforms to accommodate the growing life inside. You shop for clothes, diapers, strollers, and cribs. You have showers and parties with family and friends wishing you well. You read books on what to expect while expecting and how to cope with the first few years. You think, no problem, I’m ready, I got this. And you do, for a while. 

You change diapers. You chase them when the walking starts. You cry at the first day of school. Years pass by and your little one grows and blossoms into a skillful, charismatic, navigator of the world. There are times when the two of you are inseparable and as you watch a movie on the couch with this wonderful little person that you made, you think that life can’t possibly get any better.  In a few years, you learn that you were right, life was as good as it could possibly get. 

Suddenly the unlucky number 13 descends on your household like a tornado on a sunny clear day and you are tossed into the disaster of being a parent of a teenage monster. Gone are the days of loving adoration for the tasty meals you make them or the selfless way you put their needs above yours. Never no more will you see the joy on their faces when you pick them up from school or have those deep car conversations on the way home. Their hellos will be replaced with a series of grunts and sighs. Getting details about their day will require pliers and a well placed stack of C-4.

 No one tells you of these days when they suggest that having children is the greatest adventure you’ll ever have. When young parents think about the joys of parenthood, they think of the first steps, first words, and the first day of school.  No one ever thinks about the first time they slam the door on you or the first time they roll their eyes and suck their teeth at you. You can be the best parent the universe has ever seen and still have teens fighting you as they try to figure out their place in the world. This doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong. Chances are, you’ve done everything right. You’ve given them the comfort and confidence to test their boundaries and discover who they are. Think of the teen years are part two of the exploration of the toddler years. They mean no harm or disrespect. They just have to figure out where and how they fit in. It’s annoying. But, as I have been blessed to observe first hand with my older nephews, this stage passes and on the other side, a butterfly emerges from that sticky cocoon of adolescence. Once the late teens and early twenties take hold, the rebellion eases and they start to value your existence once again. So, hold on, it  gets better.