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Rejected Teen Student

When Your Teen’s Friend Has Mental Health Issues

By Mir Kamin

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.

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About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over 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 ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over 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 dogs 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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SKM
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SKM

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… Read more »

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[…] 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 […]

Cheryl S.
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Cheryl S.

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
Admin

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.

June
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June

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… Read more »

jennifer
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jennifer

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

Christina
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Christina

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… Read more »

Christina
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Christina

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.

Karen in Missouri
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Karen in Missouri

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

Aimee
Guest

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… Read more »

Kati
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Kati

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.

Nancy R
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Nancy R

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.

Sheryl
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Sheryl

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.

Nance
Guest
Nance

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.

Cathy
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Cathy

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… Read more »

Melissa
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Melissa

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 😉

Valerie
Guest

“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!

Lynda M O
Guest

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.