When Your Teen’s Friend Has Mental Health Issues
My very favorite children’s books are the Frances series by Russell and Lillian Hoban. Frances is a badger, but if you’re willing to look past that, she’s a typical little girl who deals with a lot of run-of-the-mill kid problems (albeit in a humorous way) in the books. They cover everything from picky eating to sibling jealousy to not wanting to go to bed at night. In my humble opinion, the best book of the lot is A Bargain For Frances, in which Frances is forced to confront the reality that one of her friends really isn’t very nice to her a lot of the time.
Frances announces that she’s off to play with Thelma, and her mother says, “Be careful.” When Frances questions this, her mother gives her several examples of times when Thelma has been mean to her, and ends her admonition with, “Whenever you play with Thelma, you always get the worst of it.” The story—and in particular, how Frances resolves things in the end—is of course entertaining, but I think I love this book mostly because we’ve all had a Thelma in our lives. I’ve thought a lot about it, over the years; as I went from kid to teen to adult and then to parent, I wonder how much of that sort of behavior comes down to the kid herself and how much of it has to do with how she’s being raised.
My teenage daughter has a Thelma in her life, right now, and while this young woman isn’t the first (and probably won’t be the last), I am struggling because of the nature of the issue. You see, my kiddo has had a rough couple of years. She has struggled with depression and other mental health issues, and she spent a significant portion of last year hospitalized, and in the aftermath she decided she “needed a change” and went to live with her father for a while. She then came back to us in the middle of the spring semester and, in my opinion, did an amazing job of jumping right in, reintegrating socially and academically, and moving her life forward in a positive way.
Was it easy? I’m sure it wasn’t. Problem-free? Not entirely. There have been issues and bad days and a lot of hard work yet to be done. Brave? Listen, this kid is the bravest person I know. Her peers know what she’s been through, and there’s been some whispering and pointing, and she still walked into that high school with her head held high (as she should’ve). For the most part, her old friends welcomed her back with open arms. Except… well, let’s just say that Thelma has always run kind of hot and cold. I haven’t been overly impressed with Thelma’s ability to display, shall we say, appropriate empathy. But teenagers, man. What can you do? They’re immature by definition. I figured Thelma would eventually come around. My kid is the same person she’s always been, the same friend she’s known for years; surely at some point this other girl would realize she was being insensitive, right? And in the meantime, they seemed to be working it out.
Well, last week was kind of a tough one ’round here, and I wasn’t sure why (or if there was a reason at all). Out of the blue—and in that casual way of hers that suggests to me she isn’t feeling casual about it at all—my daughter shared with me that Thelma told her that her parents don’t want the girls hanging out together. When my daughter asked why, Thelma told her that her parents said she’s “a bad influence.” We talked about it, some. I stayed calm, and I pointed out to my daughter that Thelma doesn’t exactly have a spotless history of being truthful, for starters. I also mentioned how people fear what they don’t understand, and there’s still a lot of people who believe that mental health issues are the result of poor parenting or flawed character, and those people are ignorant, but it’s an unfortunate reality. And finally, I simply asked my daughter if she was getting anything out of this friendship, because from where I sat, Thelma isn’t looking like much of a friend.
The girls have since moved on, I think, and I’m giving my kiddo space to make her own choices there. But because I have this space and a well-loved soapbox, indulge me while I share this handy crib sheet for fellow parents (or just, you know, fellow humans):
Mental illness is not contagious.
My depressed child is not going to make your child depressed. A kid with an eating disorder is not likely to lurk around corners in a fedora whispering, “Psssst, wanna skip lunch?” Overwhelming anxiety from OCD may be weird and even scary to witness, but it’s not communicable. Etc. Mental illness is already heavily stigmatized in our society; if someone lies, steals, is violent, or otherwise makes terrible life decisions, and encourages your kid to do the same, okay, I can see ruling them a bad influence. But if you’re talking about a kid who is simply unwell/unhappy? You do realize that’s not catching, right? (Would you tell your kid to stay away from a peer who had cancer…?)
If you don’t understand, you can ask.
My daughter is pretty open about her struggles, and when her friends have wanted to know more, she’s forthcoming. These sorts of issues leave a person feeling isolated, and the best way to make a person feel less alone is to say, “Help me understand.” If you have a child asking you about a peer, encourage them to speak directly to the kid in question. But let them know that there can be a fine line between “I want to understand” and “why are you so weird?”, and therefore the asking needs to be done mindfully.
Compassion is always the best choice.
It costs absolutely nothing to be a nice person, either in money or (most of the time) effort. It’s the best bargain around! If your teen has a friend who is struggling in some way, the best thing they can do is to be kind. And—as the wise saying goes—if they can’t be kind, they should be silent. In our family, my children know I have a zero tolerance policy for cruelty. Be kind or be quiet, period. You don’t like that kid? Fine, walk away. Quietly. I don’t believe there’s ever a justification to increase the burden of someone who is clearly already in pain. I’m sure that what my daughter went through last year was foreign and scary to her friends. Most of them didn’t know what to say, and some of them never discussed it at all, but they continued being her friends. That’s enough. That’s everything, really.
As for us, well, I hold to the mantra that we can’t control how other people act, we can only choose how we react. This particular Thelma, and quite possibly her parents, are going to make their own choices about what to believe and how to act, and in many ways, that’s not our problem. It’s counterintuitive, but in spite of it all, I’m proud of my kid for not writing off this friendship. Maybe Thelma will learn something.