Parenting emerging adults is such a difficult balance of being there for them without suffocating them, protecting them without babying them, and releasing them without losing them. This can be especially true when we see our teen struggling but our attempts to reach out are met with arguments and closed doors. The fact that young people today are dealing with a mental and emotional health crisis is not overly surprising. The statistics are overwhelming, and as a parent they are terrifying.
A recent study showed that 1 out of every 5 kids between the ages of 3 and 17 have a mental, emotional, developmental, or behavioral disorder. In the last decade, there has been a 40% increase of high schoolers who report feeling sad or hopeless bringing it to 1 out of every 3 of our kids. Even before COVID, the last decade saw a 36% increase in teens considering suicide. 19% of our teenagers now seriously consider killing themselves. Between 2007 and 2018 there was a 57% increase in suicide rates among young people and 2020 documented over 6,600 suicides in people aged 10-24. These numbers are catastrophic and intensely heartbreaking.
So how can we as parents combat statistics like this? How do we connect with our teen on a topic this serious when we can’t even ask them what time they’ll be home without setting off World War 3? In order to help our kids, we first need to keep in mind that they are dealing with things we never had to and are growing up in a world we never experienced. Technology, world events, and now a global pandemic to top it all off has put a lot of unprecedented stress on people whose brains aren’t even fully developed (and don’t forget the stress every teen goes through just from peer pressure, raging hormones, self-esteem, school and athletic performance, future life decisions, the list goes on and on!) Reminding yourself just how much your teen is going through will help give you patience and understanding when you are met with responses that seem completely irrational or overblown to you.
Here are 7 steps to help you connect emotionally with your tween or teen and foster healthier mental and emotional well-being.
#1 Don’t underestimate the challenges
In order for our kids to learn healthy emotional responses to difficult situations, they need to see us handle difficult situations in a healthy way. Most of us were raised in a “Toughen up, buttercup” age where allowing ourselves to feel and express ourselves was frowned on. This makes connecting with our kids and tackling the mental health crisis of their generation even more difficult. Work first in your own life on accepting when something feels stressful or scary and acknowledge when you have limited control of a situation. This models to our kids that it is okay and safe, to tell the truth about their feelings and what they are experiencing.
#2 Prioritize Mental and Emotional Health
Mental health is an essential part of overall health, it should absolutely never come with stigma or shame. It can be easy to judge our teenagers’ reactions and emotions as “overdramatic” or “just a phase.” As frustrating and mind-boggling as our teens’ moods can be, they desperately need to be met with our compassion, support, and care. Think back again to the little version of your current teen; back when the two of you were inseparable. Imagine that tiny pig-tailed girl, or dimple-grinned boy running to you with tears streaming down their face and a small cut on their hand. You immediately scooped them up for a soothing cuddle and kiss as you ever so tenderly placed a Barbie or Spiderman Band-Aid on their little hurt finger. Your teen’s mental health is just as important as their physical health. They need you to respond to their mental health emergencies as seriously and empathetically as to a physical health emergency. We would never dream of ignoring a serious injury or illness in our kids and forcing them to just limp through life “getting over it.” Likewise, we need to be on top of tending to our kids’ emotional needs and letting them know we are just as available for emotional and mental needs as we are for physical needs.
#3 Normalize Difficult Emotions
Think of feeling anxiety, stress, or depression as wearing a heavy backpack. The more you put in it and the longer you wear it the heavier it gets and the more it weighs you down. Relief comes only when you are able to unload the backpack and take it off. It is the same way with negative emotions. When we allow our kids to express those feelings without us jumping in to try and fix or deny the problem and make them feel better, we help them begin to unload that weight. When they are expressing how they feel, and we jump in to try to “fix” the feeling instead of simply normalizing that emotion it is like we are stuffing that weight right back onto them. Resisting or minimizing these feelings, makes them seem “bad” and wrong. This only piles on to the anxiety, pressure, and shame our kids already carry. Ironically, the more we minimize an emotion or try to “help” it go away, the bigger that emotion gets. Our kids need us to accept and normalize all feelings and allow them to express them in a healthy way so they can unload that weight and begin to heal.
#4 Sit in the Discomfort
As a mom, the hardest thing in the world is to watch our babies hurt. Our first instinct is always to rush in, scoop them up, and kiss their boo-boos away just like we did when they were little. But they’re not little anymore and their boo-boos can’t be healed with a kiss (and I am sorry for how much that statement hurts your heart, I feel it too). The truth is, what our kids need now is for us to just sit with them through their hurt. They need to see that we are not anxious about their anxiety, we accept it. We accept them. This response allows them to drop their resistance to whatever is causing the negative feeling. There is real truth to the aphorism that what we resist persists. The more our kids resist feeling something, the stronger it will become, and the higher the likelihood that they will begin to feel that stress due to smaller and smaller stimuli.
None of us want to intentionally cause more anxiety in our kids, and yet that is exactly what our instinctual first response does. The next time your kid opens up about how they’re feeling, don’t rush in with your Superhero suit ready to save the day. Hang up the cape, sit with them and try step #5….
#5 Just Listen
Ask them to describe the difficult circumstance that is stressing them out. Maybe it is a problematic friendship or perhaps they didn’t make a team they really wanted to be on. Acknowledge that their difficulties are real—even if what they say seems dramatic, overblown or irrational. The key is to validate their feelings and experiences instead of dismissing them. Don’t try to solve the problem, correct their perceptions, or find the silver lining. Simply show calm curiosity about their experience. What they really need is to feel seen and heard by you. Focus on being non-judgemental (even in your facial expressions and body language!) and ask them “What do you need from me?” instead of coming up with your own solutions.
A good rule to remember during these chats is the 80/20 rule. This means you are listening 80% of the conversation and try to keep your 20% of talk time to ask more questions about them. This step is absolutely vital for helping your teen feel like you “get it” and you actually care about them and their problems.
#6 Feel your own feelings. Encourage and model expressing feelings and what you need.
Research shows that when we label our emotions, we are better able to integrate them. This is called the “name it to tame it” technique. In order to help our kids learn to do this, we have to accept our own feelings and be open to sharing them. Try to be intentional in allowing yourself to be vulnerable as you honestly tell your kids what you are feeling. Simple things like “Wow. I’m anxious today for my work meeting.”, “I’m noticing I’m feeling sad about grandma.” or, “I haven’t gotten out of the house today and I think that’s why I’m feeling sad and low energy.” will help your teens see that we all experience a vast array of emotions and that it is totally okay to feel them all. Once you have named the feeling, you can model coping skills by throwing out a solution. “I’m feeling overwhelmed by the messes around the house and would really like it if after dinner we could all help out. That would make me so happy.” This statement names the emotion, offers a coping technique, and invites them to be a part of the solution (something you hope they will pick up on and invite you to be part of their solution when stress or sadness kicks in!) Modeling your own emotions and healthy expressions paves the way for your teenager to feel like they can share their emotions with you too.
When they do come to you and you can see that whatever they are telling you is beginning to stir up strong emotions, try to gently bring them back to what they are feeling. It is important to stick to what they are feeling, not necessarily why they are feeling it. See if you can sum up their stressful experience or circumstance (the facts, not the story) and their feelings about the circumstance in a simple phrase or two. For example, “It sounds like you are feeling frustrated and overwhelmed with all the homework you have to catch up on.” This comment validates what they are feeling and lets them see you understand where they are coming from. A little empathy goes a long way to help them feel like you are aware of how difficult this situation is for them as well. An example of this would be something like “It makes sense you feel overwhelmed. It’s an awful feeling when you feel like you can’t get caught up. You can feel paralyzed about where to even begin.” By expressing your own emotions and modeling coping skills you create an emotionally safe environment for these conversations. The validating and understanding responses you give begin to cultivate that safe environment where emotional connection and better mental health begin.
#7 Check in with them.
Even when they give us the cold shoulder or spend half their lives locked away in their room, our kids desperately long to know we care about them and are still invested in their lives. Find opportunities to have conversations and make talks about mental and emotional health a regular part of your time together. Ask open-ended non-threatening questions such as:
-“How are you feeling?”
-“How are your friends doing? I’ve heard that kids are really struggling right now. Are kids talking about this?”
-“What are you finding helps you to cope when things are overwhelming?”
-“What helps you take care of yourself?”
-“Is social media helping you feel more connected?”
-“Is there anything I can do to support you?”
Through these conversations, we want to help them ask themselves: “What is the source of my stress? Why am I anxious?” It might be obvious to you what is going on; the task here isn’t to hand them a diagnosis but, rather, to help them see for themselves what is going on more clearly. Again (and I can’t stress this enough!), resist the urge to give advice, make suggestions for how they can fix the problem, or offer platitudes like “This too shall pass.” You do not need to offer reassurance. Really. Right now, teens need to feel heard, and if you say something along the lines of “Everything will be okay” they’ll notice that you’ve missed the main thing they are trying to communicate, which is that they are very stressed out. If your teen has opened up to share what is bothering them, nothing will slam the door of their heart closed faster than you offering advice or missing the point of what they are trying to say.
You’re unlikely to see a magical reconnection overnight or watch your teen turn from Eeyore one night to Tigger in the morning. But following these steps will begin to show your teenager that you are a safe place to express emotions and have hard talks about mental health. As you both learn to navigate these topics, remember to trust your kid’s process. Trust that even if you don’t immediately fix everything, life will continue to unfold just as it’s meant to. Trust that they (and you) can handle all the difficult emotions that happen in the ups and downs of life. Our kids are more resilient than we give them credit for. They are capable, they are strong, they are able to figure this out. And so are you.