One thing that happens with teenagers is that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees.
It happens with parents, teachers, coaches, and everyone who works with teenagers.
But it hits parents the hardest.
You might think your teen is doing fine. They have ups and downs, sure. Their behavior changes – typical. Their clothes change – typical. Their focus shifts from the things they loved doing in elementary school and middle school to new, different interests – typical. Kids who were into sports might get into the arts. Kids who were into the arts might get into sports. A teen who never once cared about fashion, clothes, or appearance may reverse course and become trendy and appearance oriented.
All typical teenage stuff.
Combined with the propensity of teens to disengage from their parents – especially during the early teen years – this can create a situation where parents back off on communication, accept the one word, semi-sarcastic answers laced with teen irony and a touch of attitude, and assume that underneath all the changes, the kid is okay and going through their version of differentiation.
Just to be clear – differentiation is the process of identity formation that’s a hallmark of adolescent development. Teens form their own personalities, ideals, and moral and ethical standards. They develop their unique way of experiencing and interfacing with the world, separate and distinct from their parents and siblings.
Differentiation is both healthy and necessary.
It’s a big part of how teens become themselves – and allowing teens the time and space for differentiation is healthy parenting.
That’s why parents can get blindsided by the fact that under the changes – those they thought were typical teen behaviors – something else was going on.
In some cases, what’s happening beneath the surface is a developing mental health, behavioral, or substance use disorder.
Start Now and Move Forward
It doesn’t always happen in an extreme or dramatic way, but sometimes it does. Reality intrudes and changes everything – in an extreme and dramatic way.
For instance, take a thirteen-year-old boy who on the surface is – fine – but below the surface is dealing with things he doesn’t understand. There’s trauma from the past his parents don’t know about. Inside, he’s angry, confused, and in pain.
He has no tools to deal with the things he feels.
He quits playing sports because “I can’t relate to those jock dudes anymore, mom.”
That’s really the only notable change. Aside from the typical teen one-word answers, the time spent alone in his room, and a shift from wearing shirts with buttons to retro t-shirts. His grades are fine. He doesn’t get in trouble at school.
Then, one night, he sneaks the family car out of the driveway, meets up with friends, gets someone to buy them beer, gets drunk, gets back behind the wheel, gets in a high-speed chase with the cops, and wrecks the car into a ravine.
He comes out physically fine. Lucky. No injuries to him, his friends, or the officers. We won’t mention the legal fallout, here, because while it is significant, it’s not the point. The point: a blood test reveals marijuana, alcohol, and benzodiazepines (Xanax) in his system. A full biopsychosocial evaluation reveals early trauma.
And the parents had no idea – about the marijuana, alcohol, benzos, or the early trauma.
They feel terrible. Awful. Guilty. Like they failed their child.
That’s understandable – and it’s okay to feel like that.
But not for long.
Focusing on what happened during the months – or maybe years – leading up to “the night” is not what’s important.
Right now, you need to focus on the now.
One Step at a Time
When something like this happens, what’s important is accepting and acting on the reality of the situation at hand, rather than looking back at what you could have done differently. And in this case, the reality is that your kid is suffering and needs your support.
And since you’re reading this article, you already know they need professional support – and we hope you followed up on getting them the help they need. Now – assuming you’ve done that – let’s move past the specific example above and generalize about where you are and how you might feel about what’s going on with your teenager.
What we mean by miss the forest for the trees in this context is that while your teen was experiencing difficult thoughts and emotions that led to a dramatic watershed moment, you were probably focusing on the basics.
You kept food on the table, kept them clothed, and kept a roof over their head. You helped with homework and made sure their grades matched their ability. You tried to talk and connect, but when they gave you the teen treatment – the one-word answers and retreated to their room – you gave them space. You recognized their need for independence.
You saw the trees and focused on them. That was not a mistake. That was you, parenting. There were big-picture things happening beneath the surface – the forest – but the details of day-to-day life kept you busy. Getting them up for school. Getting them to school. Making sure they had breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
All that time you were doing the right thing.
But now you’re in a new place – and it may be very uncomfortable.
After you recognize and accept where your teen is and what they need, you can help by recognizing where you are and what you need.
The Power of Your Example
Right now, you may be overwhelmed with emotion. You may feel guilt and shame, and you may feel like a bad parent. You may be angry at yourself, your spouse, and your other children, if you have them. You may be angry at your struggling teen because they didn’t tell you what was going on with them.
All those emotions are valid. Even being angry at the teen who needs your support: valid. However, all those emotions are not going to help your teen. There’s one type of emotional input your teen needs from you right now: love.
Your teen needs your fully committed and unconditional love.
We’ll get to what you need in a minute.
For now – and we’re assuming you’re somewhere toward the beginning of your teen’s treatment and/or recovery journey – what your teen needs is for you to show up, be present, and participate in the treatment process. Go to every family therapy meeting. Go to parent support groups to learn from people who’ve been there before. Read and learn about their diagnosis, whether it’s an addiction or a mental health disorder like depression or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Show them you’re there to do the work. Willingly. Show them that helping them heal matters more than looking backward and asking how, when, and why. Right now, if you show up and do the work – even if it’s hard and you cry a lot – you teach them how to face things head on. You teach them how to be brave and strong – even though you don’t always feel so brave or so strong.
You accept who they are, where they are, and what they need. When you do that, it increases the likelihood they’ll accept who they are, where they are, and what they need.
How to Help Yourself
There’s a balance to strike, here.
Your teenager needs your support and attention as they navigate their treatment journey. However, your teenager isn’t the only one in the equation. You’re part of it, too. You need to be whole in order to help them become whole again.
That means you need to take care of yourself, starting with all those emotions you feel – and felt – when the watershed event happened. You also need to keep yourself healthy and whole as they progress through their treatment. That’s true whether they receive outpatient, intensive outpatient, partial hospitalization, or residential treatment. If you develop a healthy set of default habits that double as self-care and psychological coping mechanisms, then you set yourself – and your family – up for success not just in this phase of life, but in the future.
Here are five things you can do to handle the guilt you feel about missing the fact your teen was struggling:
1. Get a therapist or counselor.
If you have strong emotions around the situation and don’t know what to do with them, a therapist or counselor can help. That’s what they do. They can help you process the emotions, teach tools to handle them when they come up again, and give you tips on how to apply what you know to your family life.
2. Restore lines of communication.
This may mean resurrecting family dinners, setting aside specific times to have serious talks, or planning family activities together. Teens may resist the family time, but you’re the parent, and you get to decide: sometimes the talks that happen during shared activities are deeper than the ones that happen when you’re supposed to be checking in about the big stuff.
3. Cover your basics.
Make sure you get the sleep, exercise, rest, healthy food, and personal time you need. Again, this helps keep you whole so you can help them become whole again.
4. Lean in.
To parenting, to supporting, to therapy, to treatment, to learning, to your child. You can learn the best way to do this in consultation with your child’s therapist or treatment team, or with your own counselor or therapist. Granted, every family, every parent, and every teen is different, but generally speaking, this is not a time to disengage and give your teen more space. This is the time to learn to lean in while giving them the figurative space, time, and respect they need to learn who they are moving forward.
5. Participate in all aspects of family treatment/therapy.
This is a specific aspect of leaning in. And although this point appears to be about your teen, it’s about you. It’s about you doing everything you can to stay connected to your teenager. When you do everything you can to support them and participate in treatment, you prove to yourself that you’re doing everything you can. Therefore, when you look back on this period, you can look back without guilt, shame, or regret that you could have done more.
What we want you to take away from this article goes back to the title. That is, if you missed the fact your teen was struggling with a mental health or substance use disorder and you feel guilty, beating yourself up about it is not going to help anyone. It won’t help your teen heal and it won’t help you support your teen. An honest debrief of the history of your family routines may be appropriate if the goal is to take what you learn and use it to restore, renew, and reconnect with your family. However, fixating on what ifs, could haves, or should haves will likely keep you in the past. We know letting go is not always easy, but in some cases – like this one – it’s a necessary step to take in order to move toward a healthy and balanced future.