Diagnosing a teenager with a mental illness is a very big project. By the time a diagnosis is reached, the teen and his or her family have likely been through meetings with teachers and school psychologists, family doctors, specialists, and outside therapists. There have likely been insurance company calls, notes from teachers, and possibly even disciplinary actions from school because of behavior issues resulting from the unchecked illness. As a parent, all of these things can be difficult to handle, but manageable. And once there is a diagnosis, some of the stress of not knowing can back off a bit as a treatment plan falls into place. But for the teen, getting that diagnosis might very well be the hardest part.
Remember What Being a Teenager Entails
For a teenager, the primary task that he or she is faced with is the creation of an identity. The teen years are when most people develop a sense of self and start turning into the people they are fundamentally going to be. That is not to say that people cannot changes as they age. There is much evidence to support that people do change as they get older and are exposed to different situations, but the teen years form a basis for the things that are yet to come or overcome. Identity creation is a crucial step in the development of a personality and helps pave the way to adulthood.
While teenagers are trying to create an individual identity, they are also trying to find ways to fit in. This is why things like trendy hairstyles, clothes, and piercings are so important to teens. They are both trying to fit in and trying to develop a personal style. Teenagers rely heavily on their peers to help them co-create and delineate their growing and changing identities. They are who they are in relationship to other teenagers. For most teenagers, anything too far outside of the acceptable spectrum of different-ness creates a barrier between the teen and his or her peers. Mental illness, at least in the mind of the teenager, will set him or her so far apart from his or her peers that fitting in will no longer be an option.
Most commonly with teenagers, mental illness is uncool. It can make a teenagers feel like an outlier with no peers at all. It could be compared to the stereotypes of the hopelessly uncool teenager who does not have any friends or the highly intelligent teenager who is too smart to have friends. In either situation, these are outliers, and mental illness can make a teenager start imagining him or herself in that light. A mental illness diagnosis can be like a slap in the face for a teenager’s fragile self-esteem. He or she has just had his or her worst fears confirmed. “There is something wrong with me.” And while mental illness does not imply that a person is in any way damaged, there is likely to be no explaining that to the delicate sensibilities of the fragile teenage psyche.
So what is a parent or guardian to do to help a teenager with such a difficult diagnosis?
Parents should continue to do what parents do – be a parent. Keep to the limits and boundaries that have been set up in the past. Enforce rules and consequences when rules are broken. Respond to behavior. Make an effort to love the person but deal with the behavior. It is going to be difficult and messy. Things are going to be hard for a while. But the teenager will eventually grow and learn how to manage his or her own illness. The job of the parent is to build a good foundation of support and information so that when the teenager is ready to go out into the world he or she is equipped with everything to be able to live a long and healthy life.