How Parents Can Keep Kids Talking and Protect Mental Health

How Parents Can Keep Kids Talking and Protect Mental Health

My community is grieving. Everyone knows someone who has been affected by the suicides this past month in our local high schools. “That was the fifth suicide this month,” one distressed mother told me. “They were successful kids; some were top athletes. I worry for my kids. How can I keep them talking to me so this doesn’t happen to us?” Her kids were in elementary school.

Parents know that keeping our kids talking to us is one of the most important things we can do. But how can we make sure that happens? There are specific and actionable steps parents can take to create a culture of open communication in their families. If parents set the right tone, kids will keep talking. When parents provide support, they can make a huge difference in their child’s mental health.

Mental Health Crisis in Our Youth

Kids and adolescents have just faced more than a year and a half of intense pandemic stress at a vulnerable time in their development. They experienced social isolation, fear, and uncertainty, and unique educational challenges. Now, they are back in school with teachers who are under pressure to increase student workloads to make up for lost time — all while the pandemic smolders on.

The impact of sustained stress on these young brains has now materialized into a rapidly worsening mental health crisis. In my own pediatric practice, I have never seen anything like it. Both the number of kids and the severity of their mental health struggles have skyrocketed. Tragically, so have the suicide attempts by teens across the United States.

There are no guarantees, and terrible tragedies can and do happen to parents who are trying their very best. But parents do make a difference in preventing suicide. In one research study on middle schoolers, parent support was found to buffer the effect of life stress on the kids. Middle schoolers with supportive parents had notably lower rates of suicidal ideation — i.e., thoughts that they’d be better off dead or of harming themselves.

Creating a Culture of Communication

When kids are young, the goal is to create a family culture of openness and honesty about hard things. One of the first steps is to simply call things what they are. Either minimizing problems or blowing them out of proportion sends the message that we can’t really talk about things. But telling it like it is sets us free to grapple with challenges.

For example, when kids in my practice ask me, “Doctor, will the shot hurt?” I say, “Of course it will.” Because kids are used to adults soothing them with lies, my response surprises them, and they start listening. “Would you like to know what you can do to make it hurt less?” I ask them before telling them how.

Once you’ve told the truth about a situation, try to take a collaborative problem-solving approach with your kids. Instead of telling them what to do, express your faith in them by exploring the issue together. Listen to them without immediately trying to fix them. When your message is “We can figure this out together,” and you invite kids to work with you, it is amazing how often kids will simply tell you the solution. Practice with little things so you have the skills in place when the big problems come up.

Kids are more likely to engage in collaboration with us if we have sent a consistent message that their opinions matter. When they are young and are constantly telling you about what they notice, say, “That’s an interesting observation. Tell me more.” When they are sorting something out, ask, “What’s your perspective on that?” or “How are you thinking about that?” These questions send a message of respect for them and their abilities to figure things out.

Avoiding Shutting Kids Down

When taking steps to open communication, well-meaning parents often undermine themselves with two bad habits. Often, these mistakes happen when parents get worried about what they should say and forget to listen openly. But both of these habits shut down communication by sending the message that emotions are unacceptable.

curaJOY Contributor
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