8 Things your parents say to you about your mental health, ranked by difficulty (and how to respond)

Dr. Melissa Shepard Smiling in white lab coat

By Dr. Melissa Shepard


Ah, the holidays. For many of us, this season brings time off of work and time with family – namely, our parents.* And parents. Are. Complicated. I’ve heard people say time and time again that their parents don’t understand their mental health. On the opposite end, I’ve heard even more people say that their parents are doing their best to understand and support their mental health. Let’s explore some common things that your parent might say to you and how you can respond to them.


*I’m going to use “parent” as a blanket term, but this article applies to anyone in your life that plays a parental role. Feel free to mentally flip “parent” for grandma, uncle, foster parent, older sibling, or person you currently live with.


“Why are things so hard for you right now?”


While the best answer to this question is most likely the honest answer, focus on communicating your experiences in the most simple terms rather than just rehashing a diagnosis. You can describe the fatigue caused by depression, stomach pains you experience because of your anxiety, the feeling of a panic attack you experienced, or the frustration that comes with inattentiveness of ADHD. Remind them of situational experiences that are contributing to your mental health: “I’m really struggling with my boss right now” “I’ve had some trouble with my finances recently.”


Be vulnerable with your parent to the extent you want: vulnerability opens doors and fosters productive conversations. But also remember that your mental health struggles are your private information, and it’s okay if you aren’t always up for talking about them. You can respond with a simple, “It’s tough for me to talk about that right now. Let’s plan to talk more when I’m in a better place to do so.”


“What can I do to help?”


This can be a positive sign that your parent is invested in your wellbeing and ready to problem solve. That being said, it can be a complicated question to answer. You have to consider whether you even want your parent(s)’ help, and if so, what kind of help you want. Think about what boundaries you need to set with them and what kind of help they can realistically provide. It’s also important to communicate to them that often mental health disorders are lifelong struggles and that you can’t put a timeline on your recovery. If they want to help, they need to be open to helping at your pace.



“Did I do something to cause your mental health issue?”


This can be a tough question to answer, especially if the answer is “yes.” Ultimately, you don’t have to answer this question: the answer may not be helpful for you or your parent, or you may not be ready to talk about it with them. You are allowed to say “no” or “yes” and leave it at that. If you want to talk more with your parent(s) about how they may have contributed to your mental illness, you can ask if they wou

ld be willing to attend a therapy session with you or have a private conversation at a later date. When you have the conversation, remember to focus on how you felt because of their actions rather than the actions themselves, as this can put them on the defensive and make the discussion l

ess productive.



“I think you should go to therapy/get on medication/do this thing that I think will help you feel better.”


There are a couple ways this could go: this might be the recognition you’ve been looking for from your parent. If you feel comfortable, you can open the conversation by asking your parent if they can help you move forward with one of those steps. On the other hand, the advice may be unsolicited, belittling, or misinformed, especially if your parent hasn’t been involved in your mental health before. If the advice is unwanted, you can let them know that you aren’t open to taking suggestions by saying something like, “Actually, my current mental health plan is working for me.”, or “I’m working with my doctor/therapist to find the best solution for me.”, or “I appreciate that you want to help, but I’m hoping you could do so by just being here for me rather than offering advice.”



“When I was your age, I dealt with my mental health differently.”


This comment is particularly unhelpful for many reasons, but communicating that to your parent may be tricky. Finding common ground through validation might be more helpful. To help them see your perspective, remind your parent of things they taught you or similarities you may have: “You taught me to be open and honest about how I’m feeling, so that’s what I’m trying to do” or “I think we actually deal with things in a very similar way. For example, when I’m stressed I distract myself through cooking, just like you do with exercise.” You can also remind them that mental health recommendations have changed a lot over the past several decades, so what was recommended for them may not be the same thing that is recommended for you.


“I’m not helping with (this task/cost) because you should be able to do it by yourself.”


If you’re in a position where you need to ask for help and this is the response, try to explain what you need in a way you know they’ll understand. Appeal to the side of them that wants to care for their child. Analogies can be helpful: “remember when Chris got strep throat and you had to take him to the doctor? This is just like that.” Be vulnerable with your parent if you feel safe doing so. Explain that you’re really struggling and you need them.


If you’re not asking for their help, you can respectfully state that you don’t need help right now. You could say something like, “I hear your concern, but this is something I am taking care of myself.”


“You’re just lazy/ungrateful.”


When a parent says something like this to you, it can be incredibly damaging, and it’s hard not to take it as a fact. To prevent yourself from internalizing this critical voice, immediately refute it in your mind. If they say you’re lazy, think about a time recently when you did something difficult for you: when you took a shower for the first time in a few days, studied for a test, or got to work on time two days in a row. Envision something you’re grateful for, like the yummy pancakes you had for breakfast or your current comfort TV show. You may need to exit the conversation to do this exercise and give yourself some time to cool down. Once you feel like you can respond, communicate that their comment was hurtful and set any boundaries necessary for future conversations. Then move on: you don’t need to try to change their mind; that’s up to them. A therapist can help you work through the shame inevitably internalized when you have a parent who says cruel and critical things to you.


“If you just lose weight/exercise more/work harder, you’ll feel better!”


Unfortunately, comments like this are not only unhelpful. They can also be major setbacks. If it is safe to do so, you can start by reminding your parent that comments like this are unhelpful, hurtful, and violate your boundaries. If your parent is genuinely trying to help, they should be quick to change their behavior to avoid hurting you. Unfortunately, if your parent isn’t trying to help, their behavior may not change. If this is the case, you may need to limit their access to you. If you don’t live with your parents, plan to stay somewhere else over the holidays: with friends, at a hotel, or with another family member. If you live with your parents, this can be more difficult. Start by talking with another adult you trust to get some ideas for limiting your exposure to their behavior. And try to surround yourself as much as possible with other people who love, validate, and support you.

Ultimately, no matter how big or small a parent’s role in your life, they cannot know how you feel better than you do. Parents can provide wise insight and loving support or be sources of great hurt. No matter what they say, you’re on your own journey, and you’re doing your best.


For more information on talking to your parents about your mental health, see this blog post or this YouTube video.


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