Many years ago, I started a support group for teenagers whose families were going through a tough time. As I approached the doorway for the first session, one of the boy’s parents stopped me to offer a disclaimer. “Doctor, we just want you to know that our son isn’t going to speak during your group. Don’t take it personally; he just doesn’t like talking about it.” So how is it that he joined the group? “We told him he has to go but that he doesn’t have to say anything if he doesn’t want to.”
Has he ever spoken to you, his parents, about what is going on? “No, we don’t bring it up to him. We are a close family, and he would tell us if he had something to say. We don’t want to make him worry and don’t want him to be sad. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about it, so we don’t want to make his life any more stressful than it needs to be.”
With that, I told them that he would not be the first teenage boy that was hesitant to speak up about his innermost feelings and challenges to a group of people he just met, led by a psychologist he doesn’t know. I thanked them for the information but added, “We’ll see how it goes.”
The Session Begins
At the session’s outset, I ask, “Does anybody want to share anything in particular before we begin?” Without hesitation, the boy who wasn’t supposed to say a word raised his hand and began an extensive talk. He spoke about how challenging his circumstances were and the impact the challenges were having on his family. He left no doubt about how nervous he was about changes and his future.
After hearing this young man share and accept support from his peers, I asked, “Have you ever discussed any of this with your parents?” After a deep breath, he confirmed precisely what I expected. “No, I don’t bring it up to them. We are a close family and they would tell me if they had something to say. I don’t want to make them worry and don’t want them to be sad. They clearly don’t want to talk about it, so I don’t want to make their lives any more stressful than it needs to be.”
The adage that silence is a virtue is only valid when there is nothing productive to say. However, if what one has to say comes from a place of truth, love, and support, then keeping silent in the name of “protection” is often counterproductive. Silence kept in order to “protect” either ourselves or others more likely than not will simply lead to loneliness, confusion, or stigma. Worst, It will keep us from truly connecting with the people we care about and who care about us.
Everyone Has Someone and Everyone Knows Someone
Everyone’s life doesn’t need to be an open book, nor should everyone be the poster child for their diagnoses or struggles. But just like that boy in my group, everyone has someone they can turn to (be it a relative, friend, or professional). The key is opening up to them. Conversely, everyone has someone who needs turning to. Asking, “Do you want to talk about anything?” can make the world of difference. If you don’t know exactly the right words, it’s okay to say, “I really don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you”
Nobody should have to face their challenges alone, but nobody can know what challenges a person has unless they are first shared. Don’t fall into the trap of that family whose parents thought their son didn’t want to share and vice versa.
To close out the story, after the session ended, I asked the boy if it would be okay if I helped him express these feelings to his parents directly. He said it would, so I brought them together. They had a nice talk.
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