For the past year and a half, we’ve all experienced collective trauma caused by a global pandemic. A major news talking point has been our country’s “second pandemic”: a mental health crisis among children and adolescents resulting from the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. This crisis isn’t news to many of us parents who have lived each day of the pandemic with our kids.
I’m grateful for the gift of time I had with my teens during quarantine, but I recognized early on that it wasn’t healthy for them to be cut off from friends and peers for so long. It isn’t healthy for anyone to be cut off from social connections, but especially not teens, who are wired to socialize with peers.
For the past year, that awareness played in the back of my mind almost constantly and guided much of my decision making. My concern for my kids’ mental health dominated my thinking as I read about suicides among young adolescents and as one such tragedy hit close to home.
My daughter’s friend’s suicide overwhelmed me with the stark realization that a mental health crisis can happen in any family.
That realization shifted my parenting focus from trying to raise successful, well-rounded humans who can get into a good college to helping my kids develop mental health coping skills.
Here’s an example. When my 8th grader stopped turning in assignments for virtual school, I initially freaked out and tried to develop appropriate punishments. My approach shifted as I recognized that, as an off-the-charts extrovert, she felt deprived of all the benefits of school. Everything about her life during quarantine felt like a punishment. I could have taken away her phone, but that was literally her lifeline—the only way she could stay connected to the world outside our home.
Instead, I prioritized her mental health. I did my best to stay calm (though it didn’t always work out that way), and I reminded her of assignments that needed to be done. I helped her create a plan for checking off tasks and tried to make our relationship about more than just me nagging her to do her work. Then I breathed an immense sigh of relief when in-person school started up again and she got back on track.
Over the past year or so, I have been questioning what parenting looks like if we focus on prioritizing mental health and on preparing our kids for getting through challenging life events rather than on achievement.
6 Ways I’m Prioritizing Mental Health
For me, prioritizing my kids’ mental health looks like this:
1. Maintaining my own mental health.
Maybe it sounds weird to put this first, but I’ve found that spending time on self-care is the most important thing I can do as a parent. Not only am I modeling skills that my kids will need as they go through life, I’m also setting myself up to respond to my kids’ challenges with more steadiness and grace.
2. Responding to my kids’ feelings.
When kids have intense feelings, they often express them in less than ideal ways, including unleashing unkind words they might regret saying moments later. It can help to focus in the moment on whatever feeling my teen seems to be expressing. If I say, “Wow, you seem really angry and frustrated about this decision,” I have a better chance of engaging in positive, productive interaction with them than if I yell, “That’s how it is. Just deal with it.” With the former response, I’m providing an opening for conversation about how my kid is feeling and how they may be able to better cope with how they’re feeling. With the latter, I’ve shut them down and haven’t helped them manage their emotions. Instead, I’ve modeled not handling my own emotions well.
3. Appreciating the kids I have.
It’s tempting to compare our kids to their peers, focus on their flaws and wish they were more outgoing, or less sarcastic, or better at cleaning their rooms, or less stressed out by homework. While it’s part of a parent’s job to help kids develop in areas that are lacking, it’s helpful for their mental health—and ours!—when we can guide them from the perspective of appreciating who they are as individuals. It’s easier to guide my kids when I meet them where they currently are rather than where I’d like for them to be.
4. Recognizing my kids’ unique needs.
When we learn to appreciate our kids as they are, we can recognize that they have unique needs and desires. Some may thrive when surrounded by friends and family, while others may need to take a break from other people and recharge through a solitary activity. When I can recognize what each of my kids needs to thrive, I can teach them how to advocate for themselves and engage in self-care, and those are skills that will help them throughout their lives.
5. Providing a judgement-free space for talking through challenges.
When our kids are struggling, it’s so tempting to assign blame or to get stuck on how something could have happened. What if, instead, we listen without judgement and try to help them find solutions? When I offer that judgement-free reaction, it helps my kids quiet their own self-critical voice and better cope with challenges.
6. Giving my kids space to be.
There seems to be immense pressure on kids these days to be academic superstars, top-notch athletes, and social justice leaders. It feels like teens have to win at everything, all the time, in order to achieve success. That’s exhausting and a recipe for burnout. It’s also not realistic. So, I try to give my kids some space to be unproductive, to do something they’re not great at, and to figure things out for themselves—even if that means failing.
Helping my teens establish good mental health won’t necessarily prevent mental illness. That said, my goal is to help them learn how to better manage their mental health by modeling and teaching effective coping strategies and skills they will need to navigate life’s challenges.