Do our growing teens consider us a safe place to share about their personal pain? Why is it so difficult for parents and children to talk about the challenges we face regarding mental health?
In this 2-part episode of the ParentEd podcast, mother-and-son guests Charis and Sean Patrick share about their personal battle and victory over mental health challenges with host, Joanna Koh-Hoe, CEO of Focus on the Family Singapore.
Charis is a mum of 4. She is a family & marital therapist, trainer and family life educator. Her passion is to transform the next generation by empowering parents in her generation to practice positive and healthy parenting. Sean studies business in a polytechnic and enjoys sports.
The transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Today we're going to be talking about our children's mental health—the buzzword we are all worried about these days, and we're going to jump straight into the topic in a while.
But let me just introduce our guests. First and foremost, we have Charis Patrick! Charis, welcome back to the ParentEd podcast.
Now for those of you who don't know her yet or have not heard her previous podcast when she was on our show, Charis has tonnes of clinical experience, two decades in terms of professional accreditation. She has done the whole gamut in the health profession; name it and she's probably done it.
Right now, she is a clinical psychotherapist in private practice, dealing with marital and parenting issues, family issues; and with that, working with children and youth with behavioural problems and I guess probably mental health issues.
She's married for almost two decades and has four kids. Maybe Charis, I could get you to introduce your first-born.
So my firstborn son, Sean, is here with us. He's 18 this year, and currently with the Sports School. He's doing his poly education there, and pursuing his triathlon sporting passion at the same time.
As a mum of four, how is Sean similar or different to your other kids, in terms of raising him?
So I have four children, Sean being my first-born, my only girl is 16. I have two younger boys, aged 13 and 11.
I will tell you for sure that each one of them are very different. I will be the first to confess that as a young mother, I put a lot of expectations on Sean.
Because you know, when we are inexperienced with parenting, we think we want to give them the very best. And surely I gave him my all, and in doing that, I also expected him to give me his all.
And so I would say as the first-born, he suffered quite a bit in his growing up years with my very good intentions. I had very high expectations on him simply because I'm on the mode of wanting to help him maximise his potential. I think he did quite brilliantly in his growing up years, but I eventually had to learn to let go and let him have his own autonomy. That's quite a journey for me as a mother, and even as a professional, to recognise that—to take that step to loosen my grip and let him go so he can grow.
Wow thanks for sharing, Charis.
Sean, could you describe yourself in 3 words? Then use another 3 words to describe Mum.
If I were to describe myself in 3 words, I would use "compassionate", "caring" and "friendly".
I know our listeners can’t see us but as Sean was describing himself, Charis kept nodding. So I guess you have really good high self-awareness, Sean! Maybe you'd like to describe your mum?
I would say that she's also very caring, diligent, and motherly.
I was waiting to see if like "tiger mum" would come out.
I won’t say "tiger mum", because right now, she's like pretty relaxed with me.
Sounds like it was not always like that?
Yeah, when I was growing up as my mum said, she put a lot of pressure on me. You know being the first-born and all, so I guess that made me feel like she was a tiger mum right?
And because of that, and there were a lot of things in my life, like there is piano, swimming, and I had to balance all these things. And then my mum would constantly be on my back about these kind of things.
Wow. So Charis, today you are transformed, which is good!
I am still transforming; I think that’s really good news.
I mean since Sean described me, I think I owe it to him to also tell him how I experienced him.
So I think a lot of people who know him will feel like he's like a man of few words. And actually to many people, he may look cold on the outside, but I think like the 2 words he used, I do get to experience and I am very thankful I get to experience a part of him that is very warm, very compassionate and very caring. In a way, I feel if people don't know him well enough, they may not discovered that part of him.
Yeah, so so that's how I experienced you Sean, and I'm really glad I get to kind of know that part of you.
It looks like it was also a transformation in your parent-child relationship. Was it something that you specifically talked about, and since we are here to talk about mental health today?
How did mental health actually first come up in the family? Was it a conversation topic you know, or how did it surface?
I must say that you know part of the occupational hazard when when your children know that your mother is a psychotherapist, or therapist? I don't know whether that helps, or doesn't help?
Initially, my children would expect me to be really caring, very understanding. You know, the typical adjective you use to describe a counsellor or a therapist. And I wonder whether that can cause them to want to open up to talk to me more. Or, actually they will think that they want to shun [me]. As [Joanna] mentioned and observed, I have transformed quite a bit in my own parenting journey. Whatever Sean described, being on his back pressuring him to achieve. I tell you what's the most confusing.
When I was [in my tiger mum mode], I was so convinced I was doing the best I could, with the best of intentions; and those are still true today. When I look back, I had no idea that it was actually causing him so much stress and pressure because when I came at him so hard as a tiger mum, I think he also cannot believe or feel safe enough to open up his heart and tell me how much he is struggling.
So I think it's the later part of his teenage years, now that he's also boarding in the Sports School, so the contact time [we had] is very limited, so what really helped was when we ferried him to and fro.
So it's quite a distance to travel to Woodlands in the car. He has kind of learnt that [the car journey] is his safe space and he began to open up and share whenever he's going through a rough patch.
And when I learnt to listen in and tune in, not just asking about school work, academic results, swimming performance, I began to listen to his heart.
I think he felt safer and he was able to open up and share his struggles with me, from how he finds different seasons of different things very challenging, be it about social relationships, to discrimination to being in a very competitive sport.
So that's how I kind of discovered his mental health state. Every week, I get to send him and pick him, and we would have long conversations about that. That's how I think we began to kind of broach the subject.
Hmm okay. Sean, when it comes to mental health or things that you might be going through, was they issues that you had felt for quite some time before you could finally find a platform to surface it?
Yeah, I guess as teenagers, you don't really want to talk to your parents.
You want to have your private space, but don't know where to draw the line? Like "When do I need to ask for help?", "When can I manage this by myself?" As teenagers, we don't really want to tell our parents these kinds of things?
So we usually think like, "You know what, I can just handle it by myself." The problem could also come when you don’t know how to diagnose it? You could just think, "Oh I am just feeling sad today." Or "Oh, I just feel a bit nervous, or panicky," and then you think it's okay. That's where like it gets complicated.
When I first went to my mother, I think the first thing that allowed me to open up was my mum saying that she experienced me as having a bit of anxiety.
I was constantly in a low state, and no mood. When I get come back from school, I just brush it off and say, "I am tired." But then my mum kept coming to me, just saying, "I feel that like you might have anxiety, I feel like you are in a low mood." I became more open to the idea that I may have anxiety. And what really helped me was that finding out that having anxiety is not uncommon; it's very common for teenagers to have these kind of things.
So I was more ready to get the help that I needed.
I consistently observed him over a period of time and he showed up with very low energy, and I started saying that there was a possibility he may be depressed.
It could be just depressive episodes, but he was also showing signs of anxiety because he would often have stomachaches. He knew it wasn't food poisoning, but it's usually related to performance anxiety—could it be the sport that he's training in?—or maybe some social anxiety?
Because I think there was a season, when it was rough for him in the early years while boarding in school.
Everybody are like teenagers trying to go through their identity crisis; then when I start name it, it becomes a handle for both of us to talk about it. When I begin to normalise it with what I had observed about him, he observed for himself that it's not uncommon for teenagers to have anxiety.
Then I suggested, "Maybe if you're comfortable, you can talk to me. But Mummy can never be very objective because I'll be a little bit more worried for you as your mother."
There is this additional emotional attachment that, if he is open, I’ll connect him to professional help? I think it is very helpful to just have a safe space to be himself and freely express his concerns. I'm very thankful he is open to speak to a therapist.
And to me, seeing a therapist is a way of taking very good care of ourselves. It's just about being self-worth and helping yourself to become a better version of you!
And so, when he expressed openness to see a therapist, I quickly found one and connected them. I think he's had some very fruitful sessions with his therapist, and that helped.
So Sean, what made you come out of your shell? Was it like really solely your mum, or you were becoming more educated about mental health through school?
When I was in school and going through certain things, I will feel like, "Oh I am feeling normal, just like everybody else. I'm feeling this much anxiety when facing this situation." Then there are times like what you said, we seem so calm, yet I start to realise that sometimes my reaction differs from others.
Or, you know when everybody's happy and then it's like, "Oh, why am I not as happy as the rest?" Or "Why can't I find that motivation in life? Why do I find that sometimes it's kind of meaningless?"
While my friends are pursuing sports, and being very motivated, I struggled with my understanding of why my friends were like that and why I couldn't be motivated like them. So along with what my mother said, it gave me that foundation to start seeing what was wrong with me.
Do you feel that they are talking about something taboo?
I won’t say it’s taboo but I was not very educated in how people suffer from mental disability. I was actually quite open to talk and just explore whether I actually do have anxiety, as I was quite curious. But I also feel that like in Singapore, as Singaporeans, we are not very educated about mental health, symptoms and stuff like that. If I was more aware, I could have like noticed it sooner!
Charis, does stigma apply to you as a parent? As a therapist who deals with such issues from clients, how was the experience that going through it yourself and having it at home?
Yah, I think stigma and taboo are very real things, even today. It definitely has improved from 20 years ago. When I started practising, "depressed" was a really dirty word. It's hard to acknowledge "I am depressed", and face so much stigma. Even in my own family, it took a little bit longer for my husband to acknowledge that these symptoms are signs of depression, not just lazy or finding excuses. It's very easy to think that; for a long time now, I have removed the word lazy from my vocabulary, because if you understand human functioning, no human being wants to be lazy. No one.
The moment they lose motivation, they lose hope, they see no meaning in what they do, and then they become not motivated at all. It's because something is going on inside. Something has happened to them that they begin to feel like they cannot cope, but they don't have the language to say it.
And so Sean is right to say that, even at the awareness level, it's not great because people are very hesitant to land on using the language of “I'm depressed, I've anxiety”. It's still taboo so people don't want to go there, they just say “Oh I'm just tired I feel stressed!”
Stress is very digestible, but anxious and depressed seems to be more taboo somehow
So with my clients, it’s the same, usually the young people come in and they tell me all the symptoms they’re experiencing, and I have to connect with their parents. They will first frown on it, and the very common question they ask is, "Are you sure? Are you sure this is depression?"
I usually tell them, 'I know enough to know that your child is not in a good space. I want to immediately tell you that's not because your child is lazy or trying to find a way out to not be in school."
It's very easy to go there and when the child feels so misunderstood, the door is closed. You can no longer have open and transparent communication because there's no trust, they feel judgement. And I get it—many parents don't usually want to come from a judging space, but by the time we doubt and start to ask, "Are you sure this is depression? Are you sure my child has anxiety?"
The moment you doubt, they already feel the judging energy! So we have to be very careful, and giving, providing a safe space for your child to be seen, heard and understood is so important.
And you don't have to agree with them. You just need to be very open and begin to the hold space and let them come forth to tell you what their challenges are, what difficulties they're facing. Is there a reason why are they so resistant to doing a specific thing? You just empathise!
Even if you cannot empathise, like you feel very triggered, then don't open your mouth first. Sit there and then learn to calm down. And if you think you cannot cope, bring in a more objective person who is able to hold space, so that your child can feel he or she is being seen, heard and understood.
That is so important because the moment when the child feels seen, heard and understood, the psychological safety lets him or her open up in a space where they feel like they can exist for who they are.
That's the beginning, if not, no help can come to them because they don't trust, they don't feel safe.
Tune in to Part 2 of the podcast.