How to Support Adult Children Struggling With Mental Health

If children aren’t local, Dr. Palmiter said, parents could arrange a weekly phone call or FaceTime and wait to establish that connection ...


If children aren’t local, Dr. Palmiter said, parents could arrange a weekly phone call or FaceTime and wait to establish that connection before broaching the subject of getting help.

Ms. Garon said that if parents fear that a young adult may be suicidal or likely to harm others, it would be appropriate to act immediately and call 9-1-1.

Parents should avoid the temptation to lecture, which comes across as criticism and may shut down communication, Dr. Palmiter said. Instead, he suggested a sequence he called “pain, empathy, question.” Start by asking questions that help parents understand how the young adult is hurting, with language like: “How’s your mood these days? You’re doing so much.”

The next step, empathy, can promote more open sharing. If a child complains that their boss is yelling at them all the time, don’t step in and try to problem solve. Instead, say, “It’s terrible to go into work and be yelled at when you’re working as hard as you are. I’m sorry you’re experiencing that.” Then the parent can raise the issue of getting support.

If this does not lead to a child being more open to help, he said don’t fight it. Instead say, “If you ever change your mind, I’d be happy to partner with you in thinking about possible solutions.”

Laura Dollinger, of Beaver, Pa., tried this approach. She began to worry about the mental state of her daughter Emily after two distressing events: the breakup with her boyfriend in November of 2018 and the loss of one of her best friends in a car accident in February 2019. A straight-A student, Emily, now 19, said that she began to push “people away, slept a lot, skipped classes, and made friends with people who filled their own voids with unhealthy things.” Concerned about her daughter, Ms. Dollinger got a recommendation for a good therapist.

“My mom presented it in a nonthreatening way; I knew she cared about me and loved me,” Emily Dollinger said. She took the recommendation and said her counselor helped her to develop healthy coping skills, which she used in dealing with a recent breakup. The difference therapy made “was night and day,” Laura Dollinger said.

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