Importance of Naming Emotions as Parents

As parents of teens with mental health challenges, we may be so focused on helping our children that we fail to notice our own emotions. But as we name feelings such as anger, fear, grief, despair, and joy, we will help our children and ourselves heal. 

Facing our Emotions

By Monday morning, I had already broken down in tears. Twice.

The first time, I was driving home from the gym just after dawn, my hair wet from the pool, my skin alive from the cold water.  I turned onto a familiar street and it hit me.emotions crying mom mental health

My daughter is struggling again. Despite all my best attempts, I don’t really know how to help.  I’m back in that same place of grief, despair, unrest. Will her appointment today with the doctor resolve anything?  When will she get better?


I kept driving and weeping, hiccupping, and breathing. I’ve learned to welcome tears, my daughter’s and my own. Expressing pain, rather than stuffing it down, heals us.

Three hours later, the tears came again.

Someone shared a biblical story of a father whose son is devastatingly sick, close to death. The father, a government official, is so desperate to heal his son that he spends a whole day walking, from one city to another, to ask Jesus for a miracle. Instead of traveling back to visit the son, Jesus says simply, “Go home! Your son will live!”

Even though I had read this story before, I found myself momentarily unable to breathe. God, why haven’t you healed my daughter? This story feels almost cruel to read. Where are you in this long road of illness? Do you hear me?

A Glimpse of Our Story

Our daughter Ellie first showed signs of anxiety and depression in junior high, but it wasn’t until her sophomore year that she experienced a full breakdown. She also admitted that she had an out of control eating disorder. Suddenly, I was thrust into a new identity: parent of a teen with mental health challenges.

My own experience with recovery from bulimia gave me tools such as trusting a therapist, leaning on a support system, and working through my emotions. But my daughter’s recovery path proved different than mine. Any previous confidence in my parenting skills was replaced by the unsettling truth: I didn’t know how to parent her through this.

Three years later, our daughter‘s mental health has stabilized, which I’m grateful for (read more of our story here). After engaging in parenting classes and family therapy, I feel much better equipped to support my daughter.  Parenting a recovering teen is not easy or simple, but on good days, it is a beautiful road to walk. I’ve learned to accept the bad days with compassion for both of us.

How Parents May Feel

Today, our family isn’t dealing with severe depression or an eating disorder relapse, thankfully. But we are facing a new challenge: our daughter has an undiagnosed chronic illness which led to her withdrawal from college. My feelings as her mom are similar to what I felt during the lowest moments of her mental health crisis. Maybe you can relate to some of these emotions.


  • Grief: I grieve that illness limits my daughter’s functioning and her future potential. It casts a constant shadow over her mood, her relationships, and our family.


  • Confusion: I feel confused and scared about how to parent her through this (and wonder half the time if I just did the wrong thing).


  • Powerlessness: This is one of the hardest parts of parenting a teen with health challenges. Even as I work hard at whatever I can do as a parent, like arranging visits with mental health professionals, picking up medications, providing companionship, coaching her to make good choices, I am ultimately powerless over her healing. I cannot control it and sometimes even my best attempts backfire. Healing feels elusive. It’s hard to know whether she is making progress.


  • ANGER! Half the time, I am angry – not just angry, but furious – without knowing who to be angry at – my daughter?  My husband?  Our medical team? The universe for allowing this to happen to my beloved child?  Sometimes I am angry at myself. Some days, I can just accept that it’s okay to be angry, without blaming anyone, and go yell in the woods.


  • Fear: I am terrified – about her getting sicker, about whether she will heal, about her future, about losing her, about her never becoming independent.


  • Jealousy: In my darkest moments, I am jealous of other teenagers who are not shackled by these challenges, who live “normal” lives that my daughter has not been capable of.  I am jealous of other parents whose parenting load seems much lighter. It helps me to remember not to compare my insides (or my family’s insides) to other people’s outsides.


  • Hope: In my best moments, I am aware of God’s grace in the hardest moments – the “evidence of grace” that shows me that we are not alone.


Importance of Naming our Emotions

I find that identifying and naming my emotions along the way is a key step in my own healing. It helps me to start to express the pain that I’ve been holding inside. As caregivers, we may be hyper-aware of our child’s emotional ups and downs. But we need to make space to welcome our emotions, too.

There is evidence from neuroscience that even just the practice of naming our emotions helps our brains calm down. Psychologist Dan Siegel calls this “name it to tame it.” It helps our children calm down; it also helps us. Knowing our emotions gives us the space to identify what choices we have and what we might want.

Asking for Help, Walking with Hope

In the story, after the father got a hopeful message from Jesus, he faced a very long, unsettling walk home – a full day of walking from one city to another. Without cell phones, social media, or even telegrams, he would have walked for hours, wrestling with emotions like wonder, hope, confusion, anxiety, loneliness and fear.

What if he returned to find his son dead? Was it too risky to hope for a full healing? Had he been crazy to leave his son on the brink of death, to ask a religious leader for help? How would he handle whatever he found at home?

Perhaps this is the essence of faith – asking for help and then walking with hope for many miles without assurance of the outcome. It seems like a similar journey to the path of healing from mental health challenges.

The father got his wish for his son’s healing. Our family’s journey of healing has been a much slower, less linear process – two steps forward, one step back – but I try to notice the moments of grace, to see how far we’ve come.

And as I notice my anger, fear, grief and confusion, I try to hold onto hope.

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  1. Sarah Smith on May 19, 2024 at 9:57 pm

    I loved this post. Thanks for naming all these emotions; I related so much but sometimes feel bad admitting to what all I am feeling. I’m glad to know I’m not alone while also not wishing this on anyone.

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