How To Help Your Teenager Cope With a Troubled Friend

Give your child tools to support their friend without being overwhelmed


Source:  Better Humans

By: Mary DeVries

Date: Jan 28, 2021


Chances are high right now that your teenager has a friend in crisis. It could be anxiety, depression, or suicidal thoughts. Maybe they are being abused or struggling with questions of sexuality or gender. Your child wants to be a good friend and help but they are in way over their head.

As a parent, I’ve been on both sides of this situation.

I’ve watched my child almost go under as they struggled to hold up the weight of a friend’s burden. I found myself in the role of researcher, scrambling to learn how to support them while they supported their friend. I was torn between pride in my child’s desire to help and my fear of where it might lead them.

Later, I found myself on the other side of the equation with one of my own children being the troubled one. It is hard to be the parent of a child who is struggling, to see them rejecting your help yet rapidly blowing through their friends’ ability to support and unintentionally wounding people in their wake.

Some of their friends got overwhelmed and faded away. Those who stayed tended to be the ones whose parents were able to support them through the experience. I am eternally grateful to those friends and their parents.

Please equip your child to be a supportive friend without burning themselves out. You may save a life in the process.

Based on CDC data from 2019, over the course of a 12-month period, one in six teenagers reported thinking about suicide and one in ten attempted it. If you look at the data for minority or LGBTQ youth the rates are even higher. And these numbers are pre-COVID lockdowns and restrictions. So odds are high your teenager has at least one friend in some level of crisis.

Be Proactive

You might not be aware that your teenager is struggling with bearing a heavy burden for a friend. Most teenagers don’t want to break a confidence. If the friend is facing conflict with their parents, they may be distrustful of adults in general and begging your child not to tell anyone, especially you.

Grab teachable moments

Look for teachable moments to signal to your teenager that you are open to helping them bear the weight of supporting a friend. These could include TV shows, news stories, or conversations that come up.

Asking general leading questions usually works best. For example, imagine that a segment on self-harm comes up in a program you are both watching. Turning to your teen and asking, “Is cutting a problem for kids at your school do you think?” is better than asking, “Do any of your friends cut themselves?”

The goal is to get the conversation rolling if possible. The reflex action of most teens is going to be concealment. They don’t want to get themselves or their friends in trouble and they know that if they answer yes to the second question you are going to want to know who.

Asking the more general question also recognizes your teen’s expertise in their own environment. Since most teens are pretty convinced the adults around them do not understand modern teenage life, giving them an opening to choose to explain a tiny piece of it on their own terms can be valuable.

Your job is to be non-judgmental, gentle, and keep the conversation going as long as you can. Ask follow-up questions but back off when you sense you are pushing your teen too hard. Express sympathy for the struggles teens face.

Throughout the conversation, you are trying to signal the following to your child.

  • I respect your expertise on what it is like to be a teen at your school
  • I am open to talking about hard things
  • I will not try to force you to share more than you are ready to tell me
  • I realize that teenagers have serious struggles and I’m sympathetic
  • I genuinely care about you, your friends, and your classmates
  • You can come to me to talk about anything and I will listen

Create teachable moments

Natural teachable moments are harder to come by now that most family members consume media individually from their own devices. You probably aren’t all sitting in the living room together watching the same TV shows. If you aren’t finding teachable moments naturally you can bring up the topic.

“I was listening to a podcast today and they said 30% of teenage girls in the U.S. self-harm. Do you think the number is that high at your school?”

Don’t try to do it all

Don’t feel like you have to accomplish everything in one conversation. Think of it like the sex talk. Experts tell us that multiple little conversations spread out naturally over the years are much better than one big embarrassing sex talk. The same holds true here. You are planting many seeds of trust and approachability over time.

Absent any signs that this is an urgent need in your child’s life, err on the side of too little rather than too much. Remember that your key goal here is to position yourself to be a safe person for your teen to turn to when they are overwhelmed by the needs of their friend.

What if it is your own child in crisis and not a friend? While that is not the focus of this article, the signals you are trying to send of openness and non-judgmental listening are an even more important foundation to help your own child through turmoil.

Signs Your Teen’s Friend Is Struggling

Keep your eyes and ears open for signs that one of your child’s friends is struggling. This was easier before a pandemic forced us all to seriously cut back if not cut off entirely time spent with others. However, there are still signs we can look for.

Watch for emotional cues when you see your child texting. Do they seem to be getting a higher volume than normal? Will they stop everything to read each one when it comes in? Are they regularly looking concerned while texting? Are they getting lots of texts at odds times of the day? Most importantly, has their behavior changed? All of the above could be completely normal and nothing to worry about, but if it is new behavior it might signal a problem.

A gentle question here is appropriate. Take care that you don’t make your child feel like you are spying on them. “Hey, I noticed you seem upset after texting a lot recently. Is everything OK?”

When we are able to safely mingle with others again, look for opportunities to spend time in proximity to your teenager’s friends. Driving teens around town is an excellent way to gain a window into their world. Encourage your child to hang out with friends at your house. Give them space but note the group and individual dynamics. The better you know your child’s friends the better you are positioned to help, but you shouldn’t try to force yourself into spaces where you are not welcome.

Share Your Own Stories

All of the advice above is aimed at positioning yourself to be a trusted person to turn to in times of need. One additional step you can take, particularly if you suspect a need, is to share your own stories when appropriate. Use the advice above on teachable moments to work your way up to a story.

“I had a friend in high school who was always complaining about the way her parents treated her. Sometimes it was really bad like slapping her for disrespect. She begged me not to say anything to anyone so I didn’t, but it was hard to hear all her stories all the time. I really didn’t know how to handle it. I wish I had gone to someone for advice.”

Don’t Jump to Conclusions

Your child is hearing one side of a story. Their friend may be in a desperately dangerous situation, may have loving, caring parents doing everything they possibly can to help their troubled child, or may be at any point in between. When your child does confide in you, do not be quick to judge either the teen or the parents. There is likely a great deal going on that you are totally unaware of.

If you have interactions with the parents, perhaps at school events or other social occasions, be kind and don’t pry. Depending on your relationship, consider sending the parent a message of support. “It seems like Junior is going through a tough time. If we can do anything to help let us know.” Be gracious with whatever response you receive, even no answer at all. This is a family unit under pressure and they may not have the emotional bandwidth at this point for even a simple, “Thanks”.

Continue to treat the parent and child as normally as possible under the circumstances. Remember that circumstances could put you in the same position. Someday you might be the parent extremely grateful for the support your troubled child is receiving from their friends and their parents.

Be Explicit

If you have been doing all of the above, you have serious concerns, and your teen hasn’t confided in you, you might need to be explicit. Consider the following:

“I’m really worried about how hard this whole COVID thing is on you and your friends. How are you all holding up?”

“Are you OK? It seems like maybe you are trying to carry some very heavy burdens for your friends. I’m here to listen any time you want to talk.”

Once your child has shared their concerns with you, you want to help them navigate this difficult road.

Help Set Boundaries

People who fail to set boundaries in their lives tend to burn out. This is true for teenagers helping their friends. It is very easy to say to a friend in crisis, “I’m here for you any time of day or night. Reach out whenever you need me.”

But it’s a bit harder when your sleep is being disrupted night after night and the texts are non-stop during the day. It’s hard to cope when someone else’s dark thoughts are being poured into you on a regular basis.

Technology makes it possible and often expected to be available 24/7. A teenager in crisis probably won’t be the best judge of how much help is reasonable to ask of a friend.

Suicide presentation campaigns encourage those considering suicide to reach out and tell someone. They encourage others to reach out to someone hurting and be a friend. Teenagers can easily internalize these messages to mean that is it their job to be always available for whatever a friend wants at any given moment.

Remind your teen that their hurting friend needs them in their corner for the long haul. A common pattern is for a teen to make themselves totally available and encourage any kind of unproductive pain dumping that a friend wants to do. At some point, the helper can’t take it anymore so they ghost or reject the hurt friend outright and are no longer available for any level of support.

Brainstorm with your teen what appropriate boundaries might look like. Here are some possibilities to consider.

  • Use do not disturb mode for your phone during nighttime hours
  • Prepare a phrase ahead of time for when you need to walk away from the conversation. “Thank you for sharing all this with me. It sure sounds like a lot to cope with. I have to go now but remember that I care about you and we’ll talk again soon.” The key to any phrase is to follow it up by not responding to texts for a little while.
  • Have resources to point your friend to. “This is a lot of deep stuff you are sharing. I feel like I’m in over my head. Maybe you should talk to a professional about this.” Options include suicide hotlines or other phone mental health services, school counselors, pastors, and therapists.
  • Use parents as an excuse if that is helpful. “Sorry, my mom makes me keep my phone on do not disturb every night or I lose phone privileges.”

Analyzing the Level of Crisis

Discerning the difference between a friend in a genuine crisis requiring intervention and a friend just blowing off steam can also be a challenge for young people with limited life experiences. You can help your child think through the distinction.

While in high school, a friend of mine was close to someone who texted her frequently with serious complaints about his life and his parents. One day, in particular, scared her deeply as he texted that he wanted to kill himself to make it all stop. She encouraged him to consider therapy and shared how much that had helped her. He didn’t respond to her texts or calls for the next couple of hours throwing her into a panic.

She thought about calling the police but didn’t know where he lived. Hours later he finally responded to her frantic texts and calls to say that he had taken a nap and felt much better. He never apologized for the stress he put her through.

As she analyzed her relationship with him she realized that this episode, while extreme, fit a common pattern. He would contact her and vent about all the frustrations in his life. She would listen, empathize, and provide suggestions for improving things. He would give her all the reasons no action was possible and continue his complaining. At the end of an interaction, he felt much better and she was exhausted and frustrated.

It is easy for anyone, but especially teens who are naturally prone to drama, to get stuck in this kind of pattern. Arm your child with some scripts they can use to prevent and break the cycle.

“Are you just venting or are you looking for advice?” We all need to vent sometimes and if your teen doesn’t feel pressure to fix things it will be easier to lead a sympathetic ear without getting too emotionally swept up. If the venting is constant though, further action will probably be necessary.

“It sure sounds like you are facing a lot of pain. I don’t think I could handle all that. Are you ready to think about what you could do to make things better?” If the answer to this question is yes, your teen can try giving advice if the problem is simple enough or help their friend seek professional help.

“You say you’re ready for advice but you are shooting down everything I suggest, including getting help from others. I care about you and I’m finding it too painful to just listen to your problems that I can’t fix. Let me know when you are ready for help, but until then I need to take a little break from listening to your problems when you won’t let me or anyone else help you.”

Point Towards Professionals

Help your teenager research and think through what resources are available to their friend and how they could encourage the friend to use them. Consider the following options.

Telephone or text support lines

Compile a list of numbers that can be given to a troubled friend. This will make it much easier for your child to back off and take a break when overwhelmed or in over their head.

School counselors

Some schools have mental health professionals available for students to talk to. It might be helpful for your child to offer to go along with their friend the first time.

“I’m worried about you and I don’t know how to help. Why don’t we go to the counselor at school tomorrow and see if she has any good advice?”

Trusted teachers

If the school doesn’t have a counselor consider turning to a trusted teacher. Teachers are not therapists but chances are reasonable they have received some in-service training and may well have a list of resources they can point you towards.

Clergy

If your child or their friend has a connection to a faith community this might be a possible source of help. Most clergies have at least some training and experience in counseling and should also have resources and connections to point towards additional help as needed.

Be extremely cautious here, especially if dealing with LGBTQ issues, abortion, or abuse. Even if you personally have had very supportive interactions with the faith group, if it is historically not welcoming and affirming, has rigid abortion stances, or a strong tendency to support parental rights at any cost, a visit with the clergy member may do more harm than good.

Still, in the right circumstances, a faith group can provide a huge range of resources and support, often for free. Consider reaching out ahead of time to pose a hypothetical to the faith leader before suggesting this option to your child.

Therapist

A well-qualified therapist who connects well with their patient can be life-changing. This is the gold standard and the ideal scenario for taking the pressure off your child. If their friend already has a therapist, your child can use this fact in conversation as needed. “Did you talk to your therapist about that yet?”

Your child can also suggest therapy to their friend. If they can share any positive therapy experiences they have had or know of, this will help.

The friend might desire therapy but believe their parents wouldn’t approve. Your child should gently push back on this. “Have you told them that you would like them to find you a therapist?” The friend may be tossing out hints that the parents aren’t picking up.

If the parents truly are resistant, or the friend is resistant themselves, the other sources listed above might be a good place to start. Most of them will be better prepared than you to encourage your friend and possibly their parents to seek additional help.

Side note: consider carefully what messages you are sending to your child about therapy in any offhand comments you have made over the years. Speak of therapy in general as something that benefits many people and not just an extreme measure taken by crazy people. This will make it much easier for your child to consider therapy as an option to recommend to a friend or seek for themselves.

Seek help for your child

If despite your support your child is really struggling with their role as a friend, consider a visit with a therapist or one of the other alternatives listed above. Even a one-time visit could give your child perspective on how to be a better friend in need. This is especially true if you think your child needs to back off and interact less with a troubled friend.

Provide Rescue

Your child might ask you to take in their friend in an emergency situation. This puts you in a very difficult spot. You may worry about giving offense to the child’s parents who could be your friends. Or you might worry about an angry parent showing up on your doorstep and causing harm to your family.

If it is a question of risking upsetting parents, even parents who are friends of yours, versus the risk of harm to a child, always protect the child. Every situation is different but providing a safe place for a teen to land temporarily while you all sort things out could be a lifesaver. If at all possible, you should contact the parents to let them know that their child is safe and with you.

If you don’t feel like it is safe to contact the parents, you should be contacting child protective services. Be open with both your child and their friend throughout this process. Depending on the age of the child and the laws in your area you may have a responsibility to contact the child’s parents or law enforcement at some point.

Understand Your Own Boundaries and Limitations

Despite everything you and your child do to be supportive, the friend’s issues may be beyond your ability to help. Remind your child and yourself that while it is important to be loving and helpful within healthy boundaries, it is not their job to heal their friend.

You may need to cut off contact with someone who refuses help. You may be helping and a friend commits suicide anyway. These are hard realities. While we can do things to help prevent suicide, we are never in control of another person’s actions or feelings

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