As we discussed in our last post, there are some aspects of mental health being discussed on social media that we love; and there are some parts that are making things hard.
We know there are a lot of conversations happening in households across the world about mental health that come from Tik Tok. This social platform has brought some mental health disorders into the light and things that were not a topic of conversation in the past, are now discussed frequently.
So what if your teen is saying they are sure, after seeing information on Tik Tok, that they have a serious mental health diagnosis, like Autism, ADHD, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, or Dissociative Identity Disorder? Let’s talk about how they may have come to think this and how to handle it.
How Tik Tok’s algorithm works
First, it’s important to understand that Tik Tok operates on an algorithm; all social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.) do. This algorithm drives what your teen sees on Tik Tok. It figures out what they are interested in and shows them more of it. It determines their interests based on what they watch the most or videos they linger on, comment on or hit the like button on. In the beginning, they are shown a general selection of popular videos and as they start to perform the actions mentioned above, the selection gets smaller to include a certain type of videos.
This video from an article by the Wall Street Journal, helps break down the process of how Tik Tok videos can lead teens to think they have a mental health diagnosis. (The Wall Street Journal; TikTok Diagnosis Videos Leave Some Teens Thinking They Have Rare Mental Disorders; TECH | FAMILY & TECH: JULIE JARGON; 12/26/21)
If your teen lingers on or likes a video about a mental health disorder, or a behavior associated with a disorder (like sadness, anxiety, fear, etc.) then the algorithm will start to show them more of those videos. Sometimes teens think the platform must be reading their mind and knows something about them because it’s all that pops up in their feed. This leads to some teens ‘self-diagnosing’ and becoming convinced they have a legitimate mental health issue.
So if your teen comes to you and says they think they are dealing with a mental health disorder, how should you handle it?
Listen. Even if you are alarmed.
It’s important to validate your teen’s feelings because first, and foremost, they really just want to be seen and heard. If you just dismiss their feelings or what they are telling you it will not make those feelings just go away, it will more than likely cause them to feel worse and refrain from confiding in you in the future.
Think of what they are going through with their ‘Tik Tok diagnosis’ as the equivalent of googling physical symptoms. We all know what happens when we do that; everyone has a little bit of everything. You end up going down a rabbit hole and only seeing the worst case scenario play out for your situation.
Don’t freak out if some of this is directed at you. We are human beings raised by human beings. Take it from us, you literally did your best every day raising your child. Literal blood, sweat and tears have gone into bringing your child into this world and through it. You’ve done a great job! No one does everything perfectly. Even the Dali Lama could use therapy.
So, do your best not to take this personally even if your teen is saying it’s your fault. We talk about taking the blame out of therapy HERE in a past blog post.
Don’t Panic. This can be a good thing.
Questioning the possibility of a mental health diagnosis can be an acceptable way for your teen, or preteen, to talk about what is happening in their internal world. It’s an opportunity for exploration and connection and you can walk alongside them as they figure it out. Curiosity about mental and emotional health is a good thing, you don’t want to discourage that or insinuate that it’s bad.
This is part of their identity development which is an important developmental task. They are exploring who they are and learning so much about themselves at this stage. A diagnosis is one way kids can identify with something. While you might see it as a bad thing, it is actually a framework they can fit into and relate to others through.
Being panicked about this developmental drive would be similar to being panicked about your child trying to walk and falling down. The only difference is that this is an emotional and relational developmental task rather than a physical one. Yes, there is a chance that problems will arise but they can overcome those problems when they work through them with someone they trust.
As a parent it can be hard to stand back and let your child explore and figure things out, but sometimes it’s necessary. Continue to provide support but understand that you will not have all the answers and can’t always fix things, and that’s okay.
Get a therapist involved
If your teen feels that they have a mental health disorder and they have opened up to you about it, this may be a good time to get a therapist involved. A therapist can assess, educate, clarify and correct anything that could be misinformation or simply unhelpful information. Then both you and your child will be able to understand what is happening with them emotionally and not just guessing or wondering if there is truly a diagnosis there.
Looking for a therapist can feel validating for them. It may help them feel like they have some control over the situation and are working on a resolution to the emotional distress they are experiencing.
A therapist can individualize treatment and care and redirect to online resources that are actually helpful. This will allow your preteen or teen to use social media as a support rather than something convincing them there is something terribly wrong.