We can all agree that mental health is important. One of the most positive and healthiest signs of our current culture is how much more open and accepting we are about discussing mental health needs, including seeking therapy, establishing boundaries, and what it’s like to experience anxiety and depression. This receptivity to mental health can be confusing to older folks, including the sandwich generation’s parents, who aren’t accustomed to addressing mental health needs let alone divulging it. The difference in opinions and perspective to mental health can be taxing to Millennials who want to talk about their mental health with their parents but don’t feel supported enough to do so.
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“Therapy may be a normal part of life for millennials, but it’s still somewhat of a taboo subject for older generations” says Ray Sadoun, a London-based mental health and addiction recovery specialist. “Parents may believe going to therapy is a sign that you aren’t strong enough to handle problems on your own, as they may have been taught to repress their emotions and ‘soldier on’.”
Seeing mental illness as highly stigmatized is another part of it, says Dr. Gail Saltz MD, Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry The New York Presbyterian Hospital and host of the “How Can I Help?” podcast from iHeartRadio.“Parents of Millennials think their child should be able to just ‘right themselves’ and think therapy is either not needed or a sign of weakness. They may also see their child going to therapy, their child as a narcissistic extension of themselves, as embarrassing.”
If you’re struggling to discuss your mental health needs with your parents, here’s you need to know.
You know your parents best. According to Dr. Saltz, sharing your therapy experience really depends on the relationship between you and your parents as well as your parents’ view of mental health and therapy.
“Plenty of parents would be happy and relieved to have their child get help that helps them to feel and function better in their lives. In this case a child may be happy to share and get support,” she says. “But if it’s predictable that a parent will not be supportive then really it’s probably best to have this be a choice the child does not discuss with the parent. Adult children do not have to share all aspects of their life with their parents. Therapy can be a private choice and matter.”
If you think your parents can handle it, then share away. However, as Dr. Saltz says, if you don’t feel comfortable with it, you don’t have to tell them anything.
So what if your parents aren’t happy with you seeking therapy? “It’s important to communicate to your parents that you have already decided to go to therapy and their criticism won’t change that,” says Sadoun. “Set boundaries based on your level of comfort with the subject. For example, some of my millennial clients decide that they will never discuss therapy with their parents as it always turns into an argument. However, others are happy to discuss therapy as long as the specific details of sessions remain private.”
Adds Laurie Carmichael, M.S., MFT.: “Remember, you have the opportunity to seek out care for your mental and emotional wellbeing, just like you would seek out a doctor’s care for a cold or a broken arm. A parent feeling concerned about you seeking care would be an indication that they are worried about what you might say, but it isn’t up to them what your therapy experience looks like. The space needs to feel safe for you so that you can do the work needed to feel grounded and confident in yourself.”
Decide what you are comfortable with and then inform your parents so you’re on the same page.
No doubt boundaries have come up in your therapy sessions, and setting them around your mental health is a crucial one.
“Boundaries are really important when it comes to communicating with parents about therapy,” says Carmichael. “If your parents ask you what you talked about in therapy and you don’t feel ready to share, you can say, ‘I appreciate your interest in my mental health, but I am not ready to talk about my sessions at this time.’”
If they continue pushing back, Carmichael suggests asking them, “Are you afraid of me talking about something specific? Maybe that’s something you and I could talk about together.”
If you grew up in a home with parents who pushed boundaries, Carmichael says it would be helpful to talk to your therapist about how to set and stick to boundaries so you can feel secure in your footing even if someone doesn’t like the boundary you have set. “I like the image of boundaries being like a fence you put around your home to keep yourself safe and you decide who gets to come through the door to the inside of your fence with you and who does not.”
Another reminder: your parents don’t have to know what you talk about in session. In fact, if you are over 18, parents are not able to be in contact with your therapist unless you authorize that connection.” So if you don’t want to disclose what you talk about, you don’t have to. Therapy can be for so many issues such as finding better work-life balance, stress management, coping skills for social anxiety, and numerous others,” says Carmichael. “You have the opportunity to seek out care for your mental and emotional wellbeing, just like you would seek out a doctor’s care for a cold or a broken arm. A parent feeling concerned about you seeking care would be an indication that they are worried about what you might say, but it isn’t up to them what your therapy experience looks like. The space needs to feel safe for you so that you can do the work needed to feel grounded and confident in yourself.”
If you’re overly concerned about your parents’ reaction your mental health needs, Dr. Saltz says that might be something you need to address in therapy.
“Needing your parents’ approval to do what’s best for yourself is actually not a healthy place to be as an adult. It may be part of the reason you can benefit from therapy.”
Having a parent shame you for getting treatment is an unhealthy dynamic. Dr. Saltz says you should separate your parents’ opinion from what you know you need to do for yourself. “It’s important to be able to say, ‘my parents have their own unhealthy reasons for viewing therapy for me so negatively, and I shouldn’t let this unhealthy dynamic prevent me from getting the care I need.’” If your parents continue to dismiss your mental health needs, then it’s time to disengage from the conversation and implement a boundary.
Additionally, Sadoun says to try to remember the reasons you are getting therapy and dwell on these if your parents begin to criticise it. “As much as you may want to justify your decision to your parents, you are not responsible for their reaction. It’s better to protect your wellbeing by defusing the conflict.”
Is it possible to still have a relationship with your parents despite their misgivings about your therapy? Yes, and therapy might help you do it.
“Over time and through hard work in therapy, you will learn how to navigate a relationship with your parents, if you want one, through the means of strong boundaries so that you feel safe with them,” says Carmichael. “After all, the very essence of boundaries is to keep you emotionally and physically safe in situations where you previously did not.”
Allow time for the relationship to return to a state that’s comfortable for both of you, but Carmichael says be mindful that things feeling back to normal can lull you back into old patterns. “Practice holding good boundaries while entering back into a relationship with your parents at the level of depth you want to. Feel free to decline a conversation you would rather not have and bring up something else. You can love your parents and hold your ground at the same time.”
Before you go, check out our favorite mental health apps for giving your brain some extra love: