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Child Caring

How can a teen help a troubled friend?

Hi Barbara,

I have written a couple of times before and read your blog all the time. I feel that your replies and posts are very helpful. As a result, I am writing again.

One of my 16 -year- old daughter's best friends is suffering from anxiety and we want to help but don't know how. Our families are friends, not just the girls. Their family is going through some difficult times right now: divorce, moving (within the same town) and just being a 16 -year -old girl trying to juggle school work, sports and friends.

The mom of the girl keeps suggesting that the girl talk to someone but the girl refuses. Can she try another strategy to get the girl to see someone? My daughter tries to be there for her friend and asks if she needs anything, but my daughter has no experience with helping someone through anxious situations.

Any suggestions on how the girl's friends can help and anything I can do to help my daughter, her friend and the family?

Thank you!

JS, Western MA

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Dear JS,

Unfortunately, it's hard to push a teenager to seek professional help when she doesn't want it. I would urge the mom to seek professional help herself, perhaps from a family therapist, so that she will have a professional "on call," so to speak. It's also important for the other critical adults in her daughter's life to be aware of what's happening -- the girl's MD, the guidance department at school, so they are alert to uncharacteristic behaviors such as absenteeism, drop in school performance etc.

In the meantime, your own daughter may be feeling stress and strain from wanting to help her friend. On the one hand, you want to support her in the friendship; on the other hand, you don't want her to feel responsible for her friend. Talk with her about what it means to be a "good" friend -- showing support, being available -- without jeopardizing her own well-being. Talk to her about being supportive but also being realistic. What if the friend confides a secret -- what is her obligation to keep it when it involves poor decision-making? Be sure she knows that she can talk to you and that, if necessary, you will take responsibility for an adult decision. Talk together about warning signs of depression -- withdrawal from activities; lack of appetite; rejecting old friends and reaching out to new ones. Disordered eating is often one sign of a teenage girl who's not coping well. As well, research shows that teens typically think about suicide far more than adults realize.
Since it sounds like there is a small circle of friends, talk with all of them -- moms too -- about all of your concerns and figure out some things you can do to show the girl you love and care for her. Do the girls with she were in therapy? Is there a way they, as peers, can nudge her to that?

Perhaps the most important message to give your daughter and your friend's daughter is that there is always help available, even when you think there isn't.