Martin stands up first. He's nervous. The shame emanating from him. He tells us his son came out to him last week, and he didn't respond well. He worries he's damaged their relationship and isn't sure how to proceed, afraid he'll say the wrong thing again.
There are murmurs of support from the circle.
It's my turn next. My palms are sweaty, and I can feel my pulse in my temples. I know I'm going to cry. I stand up, tell everyone my name, and then just say it: “My 12-year-old started cutting herself and is having suicidal thoughts daily. I feel like it’s all my fault for keeping her home in online school during the pandemic.”
There is relief in finally saying it out loud to a room full of other parents, people who get it and who are deep in it, too. This is our safe space to let it all out.
The scene above is all in my imagination, but wouldn’t it be great if such a space existed for parents? Somewhere we could meet in person, set up chairs, and drink the coffee someone brought in one of those big, cardboard containers. We’d all wear name tags with just our first names. There would be an introduction and a version of the serenity prayer (because we definitely need one). The rules would be simple: we’re here to share and listen, never judge, and know we are not alone. Meetings would be a different kind of PTA - Parenting Teens Anonymous.
Every stage of parenting is more challenging than the last, but I've never felt more lonely and unprepared than right now while mothering teenagers. I miss the days of babies and toddlers, Mommy & Me groups, and support networks of parents all going through the same struggles. I miss places where we could meet and commiserate about all of the good, the bad, and the messy bits of parenting.
We lose many of these earlier supports as our kids grow up. In-person groups disappear as school, extracurriculars, and spending our time driving kids to and from all the things take over. We stop sharing our parenting struggles and start worrying more about privacy and how much we can share about teenage struggles — both theirs and ours.
So much shame about whether or not we are getting it right continues to be attached to parenthood. We think we are supposed to have figured it out by now and that we’ve done a bad job if we haven’t, but neither is true. I’ve never been a mother to teenagers before. I’m just as new to this as they are, and we are all stumbling through these awkward teen years.
Add in a global pandemic, and we’re tripping over ourselves even more. A whole generation of middle and high school-aged humans who haven't had an expected adolescence. They’ve missed countless rites of passage we all took for granted. My own teens spent one semester, then another, and then a whole year doing junior high online while never seeing their peers in person. This was a necessary decision for our family’s safety, but it was rough on all of us, and we continue to deal with the consequences.
I know we are not the only ones struggling. Even before the pandemic, the mental health and happiness of Canada’s youth were not faring well relative to other economically advanced countries. Canada ranked 31st out of 38 high-income countries using measures of well-being that included feeling positive and being in good mental health.
The pandemic definitely added to our youth’s deteriorating well-being, but what about their parents? How are they doing? The answer is “not great, Bob.” Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a significant number of parents reported deteriorated mental health (44.3%) compared to those without children at home (35.6%). (2)
There is help for parents and teenagers if you look hard enough, but most resources are still online. There are private Facebook groups where parents share and ask for advice, and local health departments and mental health organizations offer programs for parents and teens. I found an online Caregiver Education Series through our Health Authority here in Alberta helpful. It’s free and includes sessions like Mindfulness for the Whole Family, Technology and the Teenage Brain, and, the one I’m most interested in, Caring for the Caregiver: Resilience in Parenting.
My own (unsolicited) advice is to reach out to your peers who are also raising this next generation. They are likely feeling this loneliness and lack of support, too. We can recreate those playgroup vibes of old and help each other again, but this time let’s leave the kids at home and figure out how to get through our teens’ teen years together.