Communicating with Your KidsJun 05, 2023
Golden leaves floated down around us as I (Gail) walked through the parking lot. The air was dry and crisp with a gentle breeze. The trees were full of brilliant reds, oranges and yellows. It was a beautiful day. I felt like my mommy heart was ready to burst.
It was parent’s weekend at college and I was visiting my freshman daughter. As we walked into the quaint restaurant, I smiled, so proud to be this young woman’s mom.
The waitress sat us down at a wooden table across from each other and handed us menus. The aroma of bacon and eggs swirled around us. I placed my menu down and looked my daughter in the eyes.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
At that moment, things changed. My composed daughter, who doesn’t like to be embarrassed, went completely against her nature and let her guard down in a public setting. She broke down crying.
“I’m so unhappy,” she said through the tears. “I hate my life. I hate being here. I cry myself to sleep every night.”
I felt completely helpless.
For the first time, I realized my daughter was struggling with anxiety and depression. Why hadn’t I seen it before? Growing up, she exhibited signs, but I just wasn’t aware. She would have small panic attacks, scary dreams, and difficulty breathing during her childhood. I remember her telling me that she couldn’t catch her breath or was having trouble taking a deep breath. We had taken her to an ear nose and throat doctor to see if she had allergies that contributed to her breathing issues, but the doctors all said she was fine. No doctor even considered these symptoms were a sign of anxiety and depression. As I listened to my daughter express all of her feelings, it all clicked. I realized our 18 year old had been suffering from depression and anxiety this entire time.
While the waitress filled my coffee mug, my daughter wiped away the tears and looked me in the eye. She told me that she didn’t want to come home. She wanted to finish out the school year where she was at. I was very hesitant to support her decision, so we both agreed that we needed to put things in place immediately.
As soon as my daughter was back in her dorm and I was home, I started making phone calls and gave her the resources that she needed. I stepped in and helped connect her to a counselor and get anti-anxiety medication. Every month, we planned something fun that she could look forward to, like trips to see family or visits from her sister or her dad and I.
She ended up transferring to a different school the very next year.
PARENTING GEN Z
As a parent, we tend to think our childhood is the same as our kids. That’s not true and our kids know it. Our kids realize their life is completely different. The culture is completely different.
Today, the median age for the onset of anxiety is 6 years old. That means half of those who develop anxiety are under the age of 6 and half are over. 8.3% of youth will be diagnosed with anxiety. That’s almost 1 in 10.
There are many things our children are exposed to that older generations never had to experience. They are learning how to socialize and be in crowded places post-covid. There are lockdown drills and school shootings all over the news. 75% of Generation Z reports that school safety and shootings are a significant source of stress.
“Gen Z doesn’t go a day without hearing about a tragedy,” says mental health advocate Sienna Adams. “It’s not if something will happen to me, but when.”
Students are also having to navigate unrealistic expectations and social comparisons that are elevated through social media. The comparison game adds stress and anxiety. My daughter realizes the impact social media has on her mental health and proactively sets limits on how much negative news and social media she consumes.
As mental health advocates, Sienna and I (Gail) regularly go to schools and talk with students. One of the questions that we ask students is, “Why don’t you talk to your parents about mental health?”
They respond with things like, my parents don’t understand. They think I’m just being lazy, over dramatic, etc. The last thing your kid wants is to make your life harder. Students don’t want to be a burden and stress you out.
For years, my daughter didn’t know how to talk about her struggles with us. She wasn’t scared to talk about it; she just didn’t know how to bring it up.
Today, my daughter still struggles, but is doing better. I’ll get texts from her saying things like, “Mom, I don’t know why I want to cry right now, but that’s how I’m feeling” and “How am I supposed to live with this for the rest of my life?” She tells me how she wants people in her life who can relate and identify with how she’s feeling. She can articulate and communicate how she is doing openly with me.
As a parent, whether your child struggles with anxiety or not, it is important to have an open line of communication where your son and/or daughter feels comfortable and safe to share their thoughts and feelings - without judgment.
COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR KIDS
Communicating with your child doesn’t magically happen. It takes intentionality. Here are 4 tips to communicate with your child:
- Create a Comfortable Environment. Location plays a major factor in whether or not your child feels comfortable to open up and talk with you about their thoughts and feelings. Most kids won’t want to talk about hard things around other people. They won’t be comfortable opening up to you in a public place or if they are around their siblings or friends. You want to find a setting where your kids feel comfortable. Experiment with different locations and see what works best. Try going for a walk outside where their bodies are moving. Or talk while they are engaged in a hands-on activity like coloring, cooking, or playing Legos. Adding this type of interaction is especially helpful for younger boys. Create a welcoming environment where your kid feels more comfortable to talk.
- Be Approachable. Turn your phone on silent and put it away. Finish the email and communicate with them that they will have your full attention in a moment, then turn away from the computer and focus on them. Be aware of your body language. You want your body to communicate openness and receptivity. Don’t cross arms or stand with hands on hips. Keep your arms and hands open. Avoid standing over them. Rather, be at eye level. Let your child know that there is no judgment; you are there to listen. Relax, get comfortable, and be welcoming.
- Focus on Them. Once the conversation begins, keep the focus on them. Parents have the tendency to jump in and talk about their experiences. Rather than talking about what you’ve done or comparing your child’s situation to when you were a kid, ask them questions about their experience. Don’t shift the focus to yourself. Listen and focus on them. Talk about their passions, interests, thoughts, and feelings. When you do have a good connection moment during a conversation, keep it going for as long as you can.
- Listen and Provide Validation. When you talk with your child, they will communicate more when there is no judgment, negative reaction, nor comparison. Recognize their thoughts and feelings. Make them feel seen and heard whether or not you agree or disagree with them. Validation of their feelings goes a long way. Honor each child as their own individual who will handle life very differently than you or a sibling. Even if your student says something shocking, give yourself five seconds to respond. Then say something like, “That sounds really hard, tell me more.” Listen, wait to respond, and validate their emotions.
Unlike my daughter, my son very rarely shares his thoughts and feelings. One evening after a really tough volleyball game, I was making dinner. He was looking at his laptop at the corner table. The house was quiet. We were the only ones in the kitchen. It was a comfortable setting to start a conversation.
Volleyball was something he was passionate about so I simply asked him how he was doing after the loss. He looked up from the computer and began venting, taking me play-by-play through the controversial calls. It was like word vomit.
I closed the refrigerator door and leaned in, validating his emotions, doing everything I could to encourage my son to share, reflect, and keep the conversation going. That simple question turned into a long conversation where we were able to connect on a deeper level as mother and son.
Whether it’s over breakfast, while making dinner, or at some other time, it’s important that we initiate conversations with our kids. As parents, we need to provide a safe environment where we can be approachable, fully focus on our kids, and provide the validation they need.
By: Gail Sanchez and Sienna Adams - Mental Health Advocates, Education for a Lifetime
Gail is a mother of three kids and has over two decades of professional experience working with kids. Sienna is an active voice in youth suicide prevention. They both travel to schools to speak with teenagers about mental health, empowering them to make healthy choices.