Teen to Teen: How to Support a Friend Who’s Away in Treatment
We recently received a sobering question from a teen, and what I really want to do is give her a big hug, but since that’s impossible (and would probably be construed as creepy, even if it wasn’t), I’m just going to answer her question here. She writes:
Hello, I have recently found out that my friend has an eating disorder and suicidal thoughts. She has been going to residential and daily hospitals, so I never get to see her. I want to let her know that I am thinking of her because she needs it. Could you help me figure out what is appropriate to give to her?
So, first things first: You are awesome. You’re a good friend and I bet your friend already knows that. When my kid was in and out of the hospital a lot, a lot of her friends just sort of fell away, plus a lot of their parents encouraged them to keep their distance, so you’re already several compassionate steps ahead of what is likely happening elsewhere in her life. Thank you for that.
While she is hospitalized
After this came in, I did a quick check-in with my daughter to make sure that my impression of what was the most touching/helpful/nice during her difficult times was actually correct. We both agreed that the very best things she received during that time were letters while she was at the hospital from one particular friend. Now, hardly anyone writes letters anymore, of course, but it was the only communication allowed when she was in the hospital, so there was the novelty of envelopes and stamps and written words interspersed with doodles. But the most interesting thing here is that this one friend wasn’t actually one she would’ve characterized as a BFF beforehand; they weren’t super-close, but they were part of the same group, if that makes sense. What made this particular girl’s letters so great was that they were… normal. Chatty. Little bits of news and fluff from school and about people they knew in common and random stories about unimportant things. They were not all about my daughter or all about the writer. They did not mention the fact that she was in the hospital or struggling. They were not sad and worried or overwrought. They were light and funny and endearing, and the only nod to the circumstances surrounding their creation was a simple, “I can’t wait to see you back at school again soon. I hope you’re feeling better!” at the end.
You don’t have to use that as a template for your correspondence, of course—surely you and your friend have your own communication style and favorite topics—but the point is that nothing feels normal while you’re hospitalized, and a little normalcy and silliness can go a long way, in that environment. It was simultaneous reminders that 1) not everything is so serious, 2) her friend was thinking of her, and 3) she was missed, all neatly wrapped up in Hello Kitty stationery and gel pen doodles. When she’s hospitalized, send her whatever your version of that kind of letter would be. (If you don’t have her address, trust me when I tell you that her parents will be delighted to hear that you’d like to write to her and happy to share her address.)
I understand that you may feel the inclination to send gifts or items of some sort, but most hospitalization programs of this nature have very strict rules about what you can have “on the inside,” so I’d discourage anything other than correspondence at this time. If nothing else, there’s a risk of an item being lost or destroyed, so best to skip it for now.
While she’s in day treatment
Correspondence of the “I am thinking about you even though we’re not seeing each other but also I am not placing any pressure on you to answer questions or otherwise meet expectations at this time” variety is going to continue to be the very best thing you can offer, although once she’s no longer inpatient, the form may change. Start by checking in either with her or her parents to find out what venues are acceptable—will she have her phone? Is texting okay? Does she still have Snapchat? Does she have Internet access, and if so, is it limited in any way? (Often when a teen is struggling with self-destructive ideations, limited/restricted Internet access is one of the first things to be put in place, because the ‘net offers no end of dark corners where the struggling will gather and make poor choices.)
If she’s allowed to use her phone (and that’s a normal avenue of communication for the two of you), a check-in each day reminds her that she’s on your mind. If you don’t know what to say, Snap her a goofy picture of yourself or text a meme or a funny gif or a joke she’ll appreciate. If she is still free to use the Internet, you could do a “today’s site suggestion” message or something like that. I don’t know if teens use Twitter very much (do you?), but I really enjoy @tinycarebot popping up in my feed here and there—all of the tweets are things like “get some fresh air please” and “please remember to take a second to drink a bit of water.” I am also all about WeRateDogs (they also have a Snapchat). If you have Tumblr suggestions for her (I’m sensing a theme, here: my favorite at the moment is f*ckyeah-cuteanimals), send those, too.
If she is currently not allowed to explore online, consider making a Tumblr where you reblog things you think she’ll enjoy and just add to it every day even though she can’t see it. Give her the URL once she’s off restriction. While it won’t help her in the moment, I promise she’ll be really touched to see how much she was on your mind during that time.
Don’t underestimate the power of positivity, here. I don’t mean pom-pom waving, you-can-doooo-it kinds of empty cheering, though. I’m talking about tiny little targeted reinforcements you can share as reminders that she matters and she is enough. I remember one very difficult period of time when my daughter wasn’t here at home and she became furious with me and said she didn’t want to talk to me anymore. Instead of insisting that she talk it through with me (which, honestly, is what I really wanted) or getting mired in my own feelings, I started just sending her a “one thing I love about you” note every day. They were short. Some were serious, some were silly, but all of them sent the same message: I see you, I love you, you matter to me. (She started talking to me again in just a few days, but asked me to continue the messages.) For a recent birthday one of her friends gave her an assortment of envelopes with letters in them for different occasions—things like “open me when you’re sad” and “open me when you need encouragement,” etc. These are the sorts of ways you can offer up meaningful support in a manageable package, both in terms of producing it and allowing her the space to process during a time when everything feels difficult.
If you want to get her tangible gifts at this point, obviously you can, but stick to small things (during hard times, even gifts can feel overwhelming) and/or things you make yourself. One of my daughter’s friends makes darling little amigurumi critters and another does pieced origami creations—both, at different times, gave her little gifts just because. Yet another friend gave her a rock at some point (there was a story to go with it, I’m sure, but it was a small, unremarkable rock, nonetheless.) Do remember (I’m sure you know this) that food gifts are not a good idea at this point, even if it’s something you know she normally loves.
Finally, anything that feels “normal” is likely to be welcome. So ask her when you can see her, and stress that you’re happy to just come hang out and watch Netflix or whatever. It’s possible she has some free time but isn’t up to going out and so isn’t reaching out to friends, figuring she’s “no fun.” And if she can’t (or doesn’t want to) get together just yet, that’s fine. Let her know you’re going to keep asking, periodically, and you’re looking forward to seeing her when she’s ready/able.
The world needs more teenagers like you. I’m so glad your friend has you in her life.
Photo source: Depositphotos/savageultra
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