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When Your Teen’s Friend Has Mental Health Issues

Jun25

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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.

About the author

Mir Kamin

http://wouldashoulda.com/
Mir Kamin began writing about her life online nearly a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she's become one of those people who talks to her dog in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she's continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she's bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.


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24 Responses to “When Your Teen’s Friend Has Mental Health Issues”

  1. SKM Jun 25 at 6:00 pm Reply Reply

    This was very interesting to me because I’ve had a Thelma and I experienced some painful life lessons when a friend of mine suffered through a period of eating disorders when we were both in high school. Both have molded me to who I am today and while I wouldn’t trade those experiences for the world – I have to be honest. Both girls made my high school life a living hell – “Thelma” because … well, she was Thelma. And she was mean. As for my other friend, it was difficult being a plus size teenager and have a friend who was binging and purging her way to “perfection.” And then to have that friend dump me cold when I did my best efforts to “help” her. (i.e. – told my mom what was going on, etc.)

    Despite it all – compassion is always the best choice. And luckily, high school doesn’t last forever. I am sending positive thoughts towards your daughter!

  2. Cheryl S. Jun 26 at 11:55 am Reply Reply

    My brother went through this. He was the one with the mental issues right after HS. Sadly, becausee of the continued stigma around mental illness, he found out quickly that he probably needed to “edit” his story a bit. I would warn your daughter not to be too open. A passing explanation, yes, but not everyone needs details.

    As for Thelma, I applaud your daughter for trying to move past it, but I hope she can see when/if she needs to let go.

    Best wishes to you and her.

    • Isabel Kallman
      Isabel Jun 26 at 12:00 pm Reply Reply

      How do we move past the stigma of mental health issues if everyone is editing their history? That is what I think about. And, it makes me sad.

      • Mir Kamin
        Mir Kamin Jun 26 at 12:04 pm Reply Reply

        Right, that’s the question. I will not encourage my child to be dishonest to make other people more comfortable. I will simply advise her that not everyone is trustworthy and/or compassionate, and she has to decide what she’s comfortable having out there in the world. Not everyone is entitled to your life story, but neither should you change your story to suit others, y’know?

        • Isabel Kallman
          Isabel Jun 26 at 1:40 pm Reply Reply

          I think the folks at Child Mind Institute are brilliant and I once read this from them:

          “thoughtful media coverage is the enemy of stigma”

          Let’s push for more of that.

        • Arnebya Jun 26 at 2:01 pm Reply Reply

          This, absolutely. Also, thank you. There may be things none of us need be privy to, but why should anyone have to purposely omit/edit her story? While I understand Cheryl S.’s comment at its base, it does lend itself to altering/editing turning into lying and I’ll be damned if I want my kid to feel she has to lie to be accepted.

          As for Thelma, as young teens, I think they “get” more than their parents give them credit for. And as the saying goes, “hurt people hurt people.” Maybe this Thelma is hurting and maybe Chickie’s friendship is her salvation; maybe Chickie knows this? Regardless, I have unfortunately seen one of my daughters be the not nice girl and it hurt because I know I’ve taught her better. We’re working on it.

        • Cheryl S. Jun 27 at 10:54 am Reply Reply

          I hearltily agree. That’s basically what I meant. You have to be careful who you give details to because (sadly) many people don’t understand and won’t try.

  3. June Jun 26 at 1:08 pm Reply Reply

    I had a Thelma in high school. She was my best friend at the time (I had self esteem issues so I put up with it) but we had a falling out right after graduation. We ended up reconnecting many, many years later on Facebook and she sent me a heartfelt message asking for my forgiveness and explaining how much my friendship meant to her while she was going through a really difficult time. She gave me some details about her dysfunctional home life (I only knew a small part of the story at the time) and while that didn’t excuse her actions, it gave me insight into why she acted the way she did. We have since become close friends again and she is one of the sweetest, most compassionate people I know! 

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Jun 26 at 1:30 pm Reply Reply

      June, I’m so glad for both of you and so happy you shared this with us. What a great story!

  4. jennifer Jun 26 at 1:20 pm Reply Reply

    I am so glad you wrote this.
    Also, I want a “Be kind or be quiet” t-shirt. 

  5. Christina Jun 26 at 1:31 pm Reply Reply

    I love this post. Sadly, we have encountered some Thelmas and more so Thelma’s parents. My daughter has several different things going on that make her a little bit different and no one ever bothers to try and understand unless they too have a child with special needs. She gets bullied and the parents think she just needs to learn to brush it off like other kids, but she can’t do that when it is constantly a group of the same kids against her, AND she lacks the ability to do that anyways.
    I shared the information when my daughter got her first diagnosis, wish some people I thought were my friends, whose kids my daughter adored and played with regularly. The response I got ranged from it’s none of our business to your child obviously lacks the love and affection she needs to how dare you consider medicating your child you terrible terrible people. My daughter quit getting invited to things. Since then, I have tried to be more careful how much information I share with people, because I don’t want my daughter suffering any more. She knows she has Asperger’s, she does not know all of her diagnoses. She will happily tell people she has Asperger’s and that is about all I will readily share with people I do not know very well or who ask.

  6. Christina Jun 26 at 1:32 pm Reply Reply

    Oh, just an FYI, my daughter is not quite 9, so I understand our situation is a little different. I would expect more understanding from teens.

  7. Karen in Missouri Jun 26 at 2:36 pm Reply Reply

    APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE! One of your very best messages ever, Mir, and that’s saying a bunch!

  8. Aimee Jun 26 at 3:27 pm Reply Reply

    I hardly know where to start, so I’ll just pick someplace and go. I love this post, I love be kind or be silent. I have had to deal with a few Thelmas in my life, and I’m happy to say that I don’t think I have any right now. Your daughter is a warrior, plain and simple. I think it’s beyond amazing that she has done so well, that she walked into school with her head held high and has enough compassion, herself, to not give up on this particular Thelma. Finally, I just have to mention that my sister Steph and I JUST had a conversation about how much we love “A Bargain for Frances.”

  9. Kati Jun 26 at 5:18 pm Reply Reply

    Thelmas grow up to be, well, Thelmas. I had a Thelma cut me from the herd, so to speak, durin a weeklong teacher seminar. It was like being in middle school again – she cut me from the seat i had selected for the first two days, she cornered me alone on the last day to essentially “put m in my place,” etc. the skills your daughter is learning now will still be valuable in adulthood.

  10. Nancy R Jun 26 at 8:48 pm Reply Reply

    I think Brené Brown says something to the effect of ‘you have to earn the right to hear my story/truth’. I can totally see that being the case here- if a person shows themself to be a compassionate friend then they’re share-worthy.

  11. Sheryl Jun 26 at 9:24 pm Reply Reply

    My daughter had a Thelma in her life a couple of years ago (she’s since moved to Turkey). We had many conversations when she would get burned by her friend along the lines of, “Well, this is how M behaves, and we know this from past experience. If you want to keep being friends with M, forewarned is forearmed.” She decided she did want to be friends with her, and she did a pretty good job of dealing with some pretty crappy treatment. Good practice for future Thelmas, I guess.

  12. Nance Jun 27 at 8:48 am Reply Reply

    I’m going to share this with my kiddo.  She has several Thelma’s in her life, and is struggling with why they push her away when she just wants to be friends.  It’s hard to be a teen, and harder to be one struggling with mental illness and other issues.  Some understanding from other teens would go a long way towards helping her develop better self-esteem.

  13. Cathy Jun 27 at 10:57 am Reply Reply

    I must say that I’m actually pleasantly surprised that there have been significant problems with only one friend (that I know of, of course). That gives me hope that there HAS been progress in the attitude towards mental illness.

    Also, while it was a shame to have the “friendship” break up over mental illness, it sounds like it was headed for the rocks. Who of us didn’t have a friendship end disastrously as a teenager even though we thought that person was a close friend? It sounds like any excuse would do, and your daughter’s experiences last year came to Thelma’s hand.

    Your daughter sounds wonderfully brave — I hope she knows that she has anonymous Internet people pulling for her!

  14. Melissa Jun 27 at 3:12 pm Reply Reply

    Mir I have to ask if you ever talked to chickadee’s friend’s parents? I’m legitimately curious because my DD has a friend who I consider a “bad influence” and now I am wondering if I just don’t realize what is going on with her friend. Maybe I am mis-judging the friend, and if there possibly is a mental health issue that I don’t know about.

    Or maybe her friend really is a creep ;)

    • Mir Kamin
      Mir Kamin Jun 27 at 4:50 pm Reply Reply

      I have not spoken to them specifically about this incident, but there was a time in the past where I called both these parents and another set because all three of our girls were doing something that wasn’t okay with me and I wanted to alert all of the parents once we knew what was happening. The other parents asked to come over to our house and sit down and talk it through with us and the girls, and were generally awesome. These parents seemed confused as to why we were calling them, threw out several lame “kids will be kids” sorts of platitudes, and later bought their child’s story about how really, she wasn’t even involved (even though we had hard proof that she was the instigator of the entire thing). Soooo… let’s say I don’t consider the parents too involved/aware.

      As for your daughter’s friend, if she is somehow coercing or otherwise influencing your kid into poor behavior, you absolutely have a right (and a duty) to be concerned. What I’m talking about here is simply rejection of a kid who’s struggling but is in no way affecting other kids’ behavior. 

  15. Valerie Jul 04 at 10:46 am Reply Reply

    “No backsies.” I first found A Bargin for Frances when my (now 17 year old) daughter was very young. I continued reading it to my boys and it has remained on the shelf for future generations. Wonderful story and message. Thanks for the poignant reminder. 

    I love your thoughtful advice – don’t change your life story to make someone else feel more comfortable. Kuddos, Mir!

  16. Lynda M O Jul 12 at 5:23 pm Reply Reply

    Your column hits home and makes so many good points, Mir, thank you for writing and publishing it. Chickadee rocks the house and you have so much to be proud of where both your kiddos are concerned. Kudos to Otto on the pantry redo as well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Don’t be a Thelma | Woulda Coulda Shoulda - Jun 26

    [...] chances are your kids are eventually going to have friends struggling with mental health stuff, and I hope you’ll help them to be good friends rather than encouraging them to be judgmental [...]

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