How to Teach the Value of Diversity to Your Kids

Saying “please” and “thank-you.” Learning how to share. Apologizing for hurting someone’s feelings.

The values behind these actions that most parents start teaching their kids early on – civility, collaboration, consideration of others – are a few of the primary values psychologists say your child should learn from you by the time they are 5 years old.  

But two studies published early this year make it plain that in addition to those values, parents need to put special attention on modeling and teaching even their very young children the notion that all people have equal value – including those who have a different skin color, gender or speak differently – than your kids.

While it may seem surprising, one of the studies showed that kids as young as 4 demonstrate a marked bias regarding skin color and gender – even when they themselves are from a minority group.

And it’s not just what kids see that creates bias. The second study’s data revealed that youngsters prefer friends who speak with the same accent as they do, i.e., they prefer native speakers of their language to non-native speakers. And this bias was exhibited by the time kids are just 5 and 6.

For me, the most salient takeaway from this research is that if we want to teach our children about the basic value of every human being, we have to begin much earlier than many of us might have thought. Naturally, a deeply nuanced discussion about white privilege or gender bias isn’t appropriate conversation with toddlers; but, even the youngest of kids will be able to understand – through your words, actions and shared experiences as a family – what your values are around diversity. That’s parenting with intention.

The studies also point to this crucial idea: bias and racism are an unchecked outgrowth of preference. All of us have preferences about what we like and what we're comfortable with. It’s natural and totally normal. Preferences exist due to familiarity – how we grew up, what we see, whose accent we can understand.

Some people prefer Indian culture over Mexican. Or as a woman, feel safer sitting next to another woman rather than a man on public transportation. But preferences, unchecked and unexamined, can lead to bias. And bias can lead to devaluing certain segments of society. That’s racism.

Here’s how intentional parenting can intervene in a powerful way.

Since it’s been proven beyond a doubt that children learn mostly from what they observe their parents saying and doing, the onus is on us to make sure that we aren’t speaking about our preferences in a hierarchical way, i.e., Indian culture is “better than” Mexican culture. If we do that, we run the risk of passing that bias onto our children.

Parental actions in public and words in private must be consistent. Let’s say your family goes to an event where an unfamiliar cuisine is served. In public, you try many dishes and appear to like it – and encourage your children to give it a try. Great modeling. But if, when you get in the car, you initiate a conversation about how bad the food smelled and tasted, you’re not just dissing the culture, by extension you’re denigrating its people. And teaching your kids its okay to do so.

So, how can parents check their own bias? First, ask yourself what, if anything, you may be doing to reinforce your own bias. Being aware is the first step. Then work on changing your behavior and take advantages of opportunities to do better.

It all goes back to my premise that if you anchor your values about diversity and equality in your parenting decisions and actions, you have a better chance of getting the outcome you desire. Here are some suggestions for your kids under four:

·      Add toys and books that include characters from different cultures to their toy chest

·      Play music and try cuisines from different cultures and talk about where they come from

·      Travel at home and abroad if you can so your children are exposed to other cultures. A city like Chicago offers many different ethnic neighborhoods to explore.

·      Acknowledge and learn about holiday celebrations outside of your own culture and faith. If you can, ‘share’ holidays with a family that celebrates different religious or cultural events.

Explicitness matters – with kids of all ages. Parents who care about diversity and equality need to live our values loudly – and speak up in the face of racist words and actions your children witness. For example, if a friend of your child is in your house and says something derogatory about a person of another race, address it. Something as simple as, “We don’t speak about other kids like that in our house” sends a strong message. If the kid persists, it’s okay to limit your child’s time with him or her.

When kids are middle schoolers and older, talk to them more directly about any judgments or bias you recognize in them. For example, “I’ve noticed that when you’re with your friends, you talk a lot about Alicia’s weight. Not only is that unkind on its face, but you don’t really know someone else’s circumstance. Let’s talk about ways you can develop compassion and acceptance for everyone.”

Sadly, sometimes racism occurs closer to home than many of us might like. In some cases, parents choose to cut off ties – even with grandparents – because of their bigotry. I’m not sure I would advocate going quite that far, as sending the message that any ideology could cause me to shun family members could be frightening to children. I would advocate, however, saying regularly and often “We don’t share Grandma and Grandpa’s views.” After all, it’s possible to love family members without liking or sharing their beliefs.

If you’re a parent who values diversity and want to teach it to your children, it’s never too early – or too late – to begin. One child, one family at a time, we all contribute to making the world a safe place for every one.

How to Ace Your Parent-Teacher Conference

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It’s homework time – and not just for kids. Around this time, parents have homework to do too.

Relax…you won’t need to write an essay on “What we did on our summer vacation,” but you will need to bone up for the first parent-teacher conferences of the school year, likely coming up in October.

Typically held twice a year, parent-teacher conferences are a rare structured look into your kid’s experience once school is underway. Their primary objective to share your impressions of your kid’s school experience with their teachers and get basic answers to the question of “How’s Susie doing?”

Even more important, these conferences are a prime opportunity to find out what course corrections – I like to call them pivots – might help your children excel.

Even though many schools post test results and cumulative grades online, sitting down face-to-face with teachers rounds out the narrative of your child’s academic performance to include their effort, timeliness, competence – even a teacher’s reflection on their friendships and other social concerns. For example:

·      Do they need a tutor in a particular subject?

·      Is a change in their seat assignment in order to curb behavior problems?

·      Would they benefit from more challenging homework?

·      Are there any extra-curricular activities or studies teachers recommend?

This may seem like a lot to talk about in the mere 5-15 minutes you’ll have with each teacher, but it’s long enough to cover the basics and uncover if a longer in-person meeting is necessary.

Now let’s get back to your homework!

While it’s easier to put the onus for successful parent-teacher conferences on teachers, your children will be much better served if you put in a bit of preparation. Mostly this involves being observant and attentive to your kids’ educational experiences. Generally, your youngest kids may be perfectly delighted with their fledging foray into academia and not have anything negative or troublesome to report, but if they seem reticent about school but can’t articulate why, ask their teacher for their insights into what might be brewing.

Be sure to engage middle-school and teens in active dialogue in advance of the conferences, particularly probing for what subjects and/or teachers they love (or not!), where they might be struggling academically, as well as getting a sense of what other school issues might be “up” for them. Then be sure to follow up with your children about what you plan to discuss with their teachers – and let them know you’ll give them a full report after the fact.

Even if your kids are hitting all the marks at school, use the conference to talk about how best to leverage your kids learning styles to foster their individual passions – and grow as individuals and school leaders.

Beyond these practical and tactical considerations, a few words about parent-teacher conference etiquette is in order. 

DO: Be on time. This is respectful to the teacher and other parents too. If you know there are substantial issues to address, be mindful that it may be necessary to schedule an additional time outside of the regularly scheduled conference. 

DO: Align with your spouse or partner. If possible, attend together and stay focused on your child’s progress and needs.

DO: Express your gratitude. Remember – teachers are people, too. They work long hours and are generally devoted to the children in their classrooms. So thank them, and make sure they know you appreciate their efforts.

DO: Adopt an attitudinal approach of collaboration with your teacher- and school relationships. Of course you’re going to be a fierce advocate for your kids, but it’s possible to do that and be a partner with teachers. You’re not in the ring, so keep the gloves off.

DO: Demonstrate your engagement in your kids education by arriving prepared and taking notes during the conference and following up on anything you’re asked to do or talk about with your kids. Bring along the report card so you can refer to it as necessary.

DO: If there is any significant familial or other issue that may be impacting your child’s school performance, be sure to tell the teacher. If you prefer the teacher not mention to the child that they know, be sure to say so.

ONE BIG DON’T:  For the best outcome for all concerned, make sure you curb any tendency to blame your kid’s failing – academic or behavioral – on their teachers. Avoid an adversarial approach; recognize that your child is an active participant in his/her education and they are responsible for their success.

If you’re unhappy with something in particular that was said or implied during the parent-teacher conference, don’t try to address it that evening in the limited time allocated. Simply send an email the following day thanking them for their time and ask them for an additional meeting to discuss a few unresolved issues. Only if and when you are unsatisfied with a teacher’s response should you reach out to a division or department head or other administrator.

This primer covers enough to help you ace your upcoming parent teacher conferences. If you have thornier or more sensitive issues and would like some feedback, please contact me at danahirtparenting@gmail.com.

Three 'Must-Dos' To Help Kids Cope With Violent Events

It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Breaking news reveals that extremists – home-grown or international – have struck with violent precision.

It’s happened yet again – this time twice within a single weekend in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio.

While there have sadly been many active-shooter events in the intervening years since 9/11, the news of these early August attacks brought me back in an instant to the day when the ongoing national nightmare was spawned.

By the time I picked up my then-seven-year-old son from school on September 11, 2001 he knew that planes had destroyed the Twin Towers. He had been worried about Grandma and Grandpa, who lived in New York. It astounded me how quickly he made the fearful connection between the attack and his grandparents’ safety…and that he lived with that fear until I arrived to pick him up.

Whether a terrorist strike is on the scale of 9/11, Sandy Hook, or the recent ones in Texas and Ohio, your children may be afraid, perhaps angry and naturally curious about its impact on their lives – especially now that school will soon be back in session.

Here’s one thing you can rely on: Your kids will be exposed to an uncontrollable media assault on multiple platforms, as well as information – and misinformation – from friends and schoolmates.

As concerned and hungry for information as we, ourselves, may be, our job as parents in the face of this type of crisis is threefold:

·      Control your kids’ environment

·      Share only age-appropriate information

·      Don’t answer questions they haven’t asked

Control your kids’ environment.

It’s impossible to control media entirely, but parents need to own the conversation. That starts with being sensitive to what and how much information about active shooter and other violent events your kids are exposed to.

As much as you can, shield your children – especially more vulnerable school-agers – from the media onslaught. Play music rather than news on the car radio. If the TV is on at home, play or stream movies or children’s programs to avoid “breaking news” updates.

Think beyond media. Remember… kids have elephant ears. Your child may look engrossed in a coloring book or a video game while you and your friend talk about the news, but their attraction to and curiosity about adult conversation will heighten their interest in what you’re saying.

Finally, gather as much info as you can from school administrators and teachers about what, if anything, they’ve officially communicated to the children in their charge. If there were an attack somewhere in the world – but it’s not getting much media coverage – I wouldn’t bring it up unless I know it was discussed at school.

One additional note on environments: Given the cultural acceptance of guns in the home for many people, it is completely appropriate to ask whether there are guns in the home prior to a playdate or sleepover. I coach clients to inquire about that simply so they can make an informed decision about their kids’ safety. Many gun owners understand the responsibility well and have gun safes and other preventative measures in place; but, it is your responsibility to ask.

Share only age-appropriate information.

Between lock-down and active-shooter drills at school – not to mention parental lectures about “stranger danger” and the sanctity of their bodies – modern kids are well aware of the potential for both violence and personal harm. Yet if an actual event occurs either at school, in the U.S. or globally, fear will likely overcome them… again, especially school-age children.

Reassurance is a parent’s #1 responsibility. But don’t be dishonest. If the recent attack was at a school like theirs, kids will likely ask “Am I safe at school?” You certainly cannot say, “I promise nothing will ever happen at school.” But you can reassure them that you have full confidence that Principal Jones, Safety Officer Sam and their teachers are doing everything possible to protect them.

As someone who is herself quite sensitive to visual imagery, it behooves us as parents to be exceptionally mindful about what our kids see – not only what they hear. They can’t ever unsee images of mangled and bloodied bodies, so especially guard against their exposure to graphic visuals.

Teens, of course, are capable of a much more in-depth conversation. With their near-constant presence on social media, teens likely will know many of the details of the attack and its consequences. They may even have opinions they want to share with you. Invite those conversations. Just make sure they’re not within earshot of younger siblings. For your part, be honest with your teen, but remain measured and mindful.

Don’t answer questions they haven’t asked.

Parents often presume kids know more than they do. We also tend to invest more meaning in what they say than what is they actually know or feel.

So check yourself. When your kids ask questions, reflect their question back to them so you’re absolutely confident you know what they’re asking. Find out what they know – and how they know it.

It’s possible they’ve only heard bits and pieces from schoolmates. Let the facts guide your decision-making about what – and what not – to say.

Above all, find out what their precise concerns are and address them rather than go over the details about the actual event. For school-aged kids in particular, too much information is easily overwhelming, scary and hard to process.

As the intensity of the coverage dies down, job #2 for parents is to stay vigilant about any lingering fears and concerns your kids may have. Are they clinging to you more than usual? Afraid to go to school or sleepovers? Wetting their bed? Watch for and attend to these signs of anxiety with reassurance and, if warranted, professional support.

While we cannot guarantee our kids will never be exposed to or involved in such attacks, as parents we have a critical role to play in helping them process violence. If you have any specific questions you’d like me to address, please email me at danahirtparenting@gmail.com

Back-to-School Checklist

No matter what summer looked like for your family, now is the time to for parents and kids of all ages to start setting expectations and creating routines for the school year.

Remember – transitions are hard! Once kids get into routines and patterns of behavior, they can be hard to disrupt, which is what makes advance preparation so important. Good news is that with a little practice, they’ll soon get the knack of being back in school! And so will you.

Below are some general tips for back-to-school prep and a few age-specific challenges worth noting.

When to talk “back-to-school”? Although parents think about back-to-school planning long before they talk to their kids about it, early August is the time to start sharing your back-to-school plans and expectations with the kids.

Caveat. You know your kids best. If they’re more vulnerable to transitions than their peers, you’ve probably already started to prep them in specific ways that meet their unique needs.

Have a family meeting. Share your ideas for morning and after-school routines to get everyone on the same page with the plan that works best for your family. For example, in my home, one rule was that before bedtime, backpacks had to contain all the requisite homework, permission slips, fees, gym clothes and miscellany for the following school day – and lunches were packed and in the fridge. It wasn’t flawless, but there were surprisingly few mishaps. When I noticed a slide into last minute scrambling, we had a meeting to recommit to the plan.

Shop early!  New clothes, shoes and/or uniform staples. Sports uniforms. School supplies. Lunch boxes. If you want the best selection and pricing, don’t wait to load up on school gear – especially if you have more than one to shop for. If you’re unsure of what specific supplies your kids will need, ask the school for a list. But be prepared for another run during first week of school once teachers weigh in on required items for their class.

Calendar it.  Seeing their schedules on paper (or digitally) makes it easier for kids to understand what the week looks like. Be sure to notate any regular tutoring sessions, music lessons and after-school sports. If you don’t want homework to fall through the cracks, use this strategy to help your kids internalize what needs to get done – and when.

Embrace the dress rehearsal!  If there is a new school, a new start time or a newly working parent in the picture, I highly recommend doing a trial transportation run, whether that’s walking them to the bus stop, riding the train together or driving to school at the appointed time. Even if there isn’t anything “new” about the school year, a dress rehearsal is still a good idea – especially if a caregiver is involved.

Here are a few ways to mitigate developmental challenges 

Little people. If there’s an opportunity to take your preschooler or kindergartener to school in advance (many schools offer visiting days) don’t miss it. The fewer the number of surprises on Day One, the better your little one will feel. Letting them meet their teacher, see their classroom and sayhi to a few classmates-to-be goes a long way toward reducing their anxiety and increasing their excitement.

Once school starts, be early for drop off – and on time for pick-up. Early arrival, especially at first, means there are fewer children to overwhelm them. And don’t be late! They need to trust you’re coming back. If a sitter or nanny is doing the pick-up, impress timeliness upon them as well. And just an FYI, don’t schedule play dates that first week. Your kiddies will likely have expended their psychic energy for the day as they adjust to the new school routine. Let them chill. 

Primary schoolers.  The big changes here are more structure during the school day and the onset of homework. This focus on more work and less play is a big transition for your kids, so be sure to be supportive as they adjust.

Many schools have “Move-up Day” towards the end of the school year, when kids get to see their new classrooms and meet their prospective teachers. If your child got to experience this, be sure to remind them of how excited they were last Spring.  

Middle schoolers.  There’s even more compartmentalization and structure in grades 6-8, so be sure they know in advance what to expect. Homeroom. Moving to a new classroom for each subject. More (and tougher) homework. These are the norm. Not to mention, there are a lot more personalities to adjust to.

This is also the stage to establish a regular place for homework, whether that’s in the kitchen (if they prefer your presence) or at a desk. Ease their anxiety by maintaining a fully stocked school supply cart close at hand. (TIP: Always keep several tri-fold poster boards in your home school supply closet. I guarantee you there will come a time when you will thank me!)

Be sure to explore in advance whether your middle school offers team sports – which is a fun and exciting addition for kids. Be sure to note try-out times, which often happen in advance of the school year.

High school. This is the big league for teens no matter what grade. To usher it in for incoming freshmen, consider hosting a BBQ for kids and their parents. It helps to put everyone on an equal footing. Plus your teen may click with someone in a more casual and less pressurized setting.

Typically, returning high schoolers have some work to complete over the summer. By now, that should be well in hand. If not, address it yesterday. Set a deadline of one week prior to the day school starts so that the last week before classes start is pure summer (for parents, too!). Encourage them to strive to submit their best work because this is their only chance to make a good first impression. 

Clothes? If there’s a dress code, make sure they know it. Otherwise, let (most of) their choices be. As I advise all parents of teens, pick your battles…because there will be plenty of them.

A super important note about teens with special needs. In the primary grades, it’s primarily the parent’s responsibility to partner with the school to ensure IEPs and 504s are communicated and adhered to. But once your teen with a learning difference hits high school, you need to support them in taking responsibility for their learning – and their learning profile. If not, they won’t know how to advocate for themselves in college.

If you’d like to discuss your back-to-school challenges, just email me.

Enjoy the last few weeks of summer vacation!

 

 

6 Tips for Caring for Your Newborn (and Yourself)

Whether you’re anxiously awaiting the birth of your first child – or a seasoned parent expecting baby number three – the introduction of a newborn into a home is simultaneously joyous and daunting, exhilarating and exhausting, as natural as it is overwhelming.

So, what’s a parent to do? 

I say, prepare for the ride – and the most important job – of your life!

Let’s be real, there’s not much info I can offer that you haven’t read in books or online, heard from your OB, overheard in your OB’s waiting room or gleaned from family and friends who’ve been through it. What I offer here is some proven advice for how to deal with the unprecedented experience of parenting newborns, as well as dealing with the well-meaning (but sometimes misguided) people you’ll come in contact with.

Here, then, are 6 tips essential for a (mostly) positive experience of parenthood. 

Tip #1 – Be compassionate toward yourself. Having a baby is incredibly overwhelming. You’re suddenly aware that this baby is completely dependent on you for their very survival – and there’s no owner’s manual!

While your infant will justifiably demand an extraordinary amount of your time, energy and attention, my mantra for parents – even new ones – is always this: “You can’t take care of your child at the expense of yourself.” It’s simply not sustainable, which is why I’ve long advocated for parental self-care.

Rest when you can; take turns catching up on sleep or taking some me time. If there’s no one else to do the vacuuming – let it wait!

Tip #2 – Ask for help (early and often). Asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness. Most of us have friends and family we can ask for help. They may not be expert swaddlers or diaper changers, but just about everyone can help knock out a few chores around the house or bring by a meal or groceries. And in the spirit of self-care, put your partner in charge so you can get some sleep, get in a workout or take a shower.

And remember, sometimes grandparents don’t want to presume you need help and so don’t just jump in and take care of things, respecting your autonomy. But the good ones probably are willing to do whatever you ask. So ask.

Tip #3 – Ignore advice you haven’t asked for or don’t agree with. Most people are trying to be helpful, but it can be overwhelming to get so much unsolicited advice. Everyone offers advice, and it can feel incredibly intrusive. My advice (pun intended!) is to feel free to smile and walk away. Another strategy is to let the advice wash over you, grabbing the worthwhile nuggets and ignoring the rest. And here’s a news flash: even if you ask for advice, know you’re not obliged to take it.

Then there are the reams of studies about parenting. Emily Oster, in a recent op-ed in The New York Times, notes that the amount of data around issues like breastfeeding, sleep training and working moms – while helpful conceptually – may not quite resonate with you or work for your family. Further, the myriad ‘professional advice’ is often contradictory, so use what you want and ignore the rest.

Tip #4 – Trust your gut about your baby’s development. Just about every new parent I’ve known or coached knows that virtually every interaction between parent and baby is a brain-building or attachment-enhancing experience for them – so trust your gut when something doesn’t seem right. Being with your child 24/7 makes you the expert; don’t allow others to mollify your concerns.

Tip #5 – Don’t ignore symptoms of post-partum depression. No mom wants to admit she’s not feeling elated about her newborn or that she’s having unsettling thoughts. Be aware that feelings such as anxiety, excessive emotionality, exhaustion, mood swings, fear and hopelessness are often experienced by new parents. What differentiates postpartum depression from more normative symptoms is their duration and intensity, or if they interfere with your ability to care for your baby or handle the tasks of daily life.

Don’t be too quick to slough off concerns expressed by your partner or other close people, either. Better to see your doctor and be sure than ignore a condition that is relatively common and 100% treatable.

Tip #6 – Celebrate the everyday victories! There is so much that is good and exciting on this wild ride. No matter whether it’s their first smile or their confident wave as they leave the nest, never stop appreciating the joy of being a parent.

The truest and most reliable promise I can make is that your experience of parenthood will be unique to you and your child. And if my experience is a guide, it’ll be the best thing you’ve ever done.

 p.s. For support along the way, be sure to sign up for my monthly blog. Also check out the “Tiny Victory” segment at the end of The New York Times new parenting newsletter.

The Dos and Don'ts of Helping Your College Grad

Calling all helicopter (and other) parents of soon-to-be college grads!

Wondering if it is acceptable to lend a job-search hand to your kids? There’s great news on that front according to placement prosif we rein in our exuberance and let their kids do the heavy lifting.

I like the simplicity of Dos and Don’ts. Ever the optimist, let’s start with the DOs.

DO…be supportive. It takes courage for anyone to pit their skills, smarts and savvy against other qualified candidates – no matter how welcoming the job market. Parents can offer reassurance that our kids are on the right path or provide a tweak in their approach, and that may be all that some college grads want or need.

 DO… encourage your college senior to take every advantage of their college placement office. These pros offer resources to help students launch a successful job search, including resume writing, job fairs and help preparing for interviews. In addition, they can help grads tap into alumni networks. And they’re part of what all those hard-earned tuition dollars fund, so students ought not miss the opportunity to get their money’s worth! If available and affordable, working with a career coach can help them align their strengths and their professional desires.

DO…leverage your network of relevant friends and business associates. Help the college grads in your orbit learn more about available careers and tap into the hidden job market through informational interviews. Not only do such meetings help prospective graduates learn about the day-to-day reality of particular careers, they also provide opportunities to practice talking about their capabilities in a professional setting.

To close friends of the family, you can probably send a group email to share that your child is soon to graduate and to be prepared for a reach out, which of course they are free to decline. I have served in this role for a number of my friends’ children and have enjoyed every encounter and helped make valuable connections.

To business and professional colleagues, I’d err on the side of individual emails asking if they’d be open to hearing from your child who just graduated from [name of university] with a degree in [blank]. Be sure to offer a wide berth for them to bow out if the timing isn’t right or if they’d simply rather not. If they do agree, only then would I send a second email with a cyber introduction to your grad.

DO…offer your grad these fundamental tips about informational interviews:

·      Arrive promptly and dress professionally

·      Use a notepad to keep track of your questions and take notes

·      Keep mobile phones off and out of sight

·      Ask both broad (How did your career get started?) and specific and relevant questions (What is the profile a the person most recently hired at my level?)

·      Inquire about internship opportunities

·      Don’t leave without asking to be connected to another professional (or two) to interview

·      Be responsible for ending the meeting on time

·      Follow up promptly with a written thank-you note if possible

DO…recommend a pre-career lesson in financial literacy. Have them spend a session or two with a financial adviser (some do it gratis in hopes of future business) so they can learn what salary they’ll need to earn in order to meet the demands of their soon-to-be-adult life. Many parents entirely fund their children’s college careers, making our kids entirely clueless just how much it costs to house, feed, clothe, entertain and build a nest egg for oneself. Becoming financially literate about budgeting and how to take advantage of 401k plans are lessons well learned.

DO…remind them that social media is not just about having fun! And while it may seem obvious, it doesn’t hurt to remind our grads to leverage social media platforms for professional networking like LinkedIn, Meetup and Jobcase. In addition, its helpful to remind them that their social media presence is available to potential employers and they should be thoughtful of how they could be perceived based on what they post.

Now, what shouldn’t parents do?

DON’T...do anything your graduate could and should do for themselves. In other words, don’t write their resume or cover letters; set up appointments, research (or accompany them to) job fairs, asking interviewers for questions in advance or attempting to sit in on interviews. These may sound like absurd acts, but placement professionals say parents have tried to control the process in just these ways.

DON’T… attach your grad’s resume or boast about their achievements and aspirations when you contact your network. Relaying pertinent information is strictly your kid’s responsibility. As is diligently preparing themselves for these interviews.

DON’T… steer your kids into a personally admired or known-to-be-lucrative career. We all want our children to have a fulfilling and rewarding professional life. That’s a given. But when you try to cajole your grad into a career of your choosing, you not only undermine their confidence in their capabilities and desires…you’ll more than likely put them on a path that will require them to retrace their steps once the inevitable dissatisfaction sets in.

DON’T…continue to support them without forethought and communication. If you want to provide financial support for your burgeoning careerists – especially if your kid’s dream job doesn’t pay enough to support them fully – consider several forms of in-kind contributions.

Perhaps you could let them live at home (with agreed upon rules and ongoing communication). You might also agree to keep them on your health insurance until age 26. Or offer the use of an extra family car. If you choose to provide direct financial assistance, set expectations for when the money train will stop or clarify the kinds of expenses you are willing to cover. After all, isn’t helping our children grow into competent, capable and confident adults the end-result we’ve all been working toward?

 

 

Teen Mental Health: What Role Can Parents Play?

The last thing most parents imagine – or at least would prefer not to contemplate – is that one of their adolescent children will develop a mental health or behavioral disorder.

Sadly, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, of the approximately 40 million children between the ages of 12-19:

·       31% reported symptoms of depression

·       13% claim to have had at least one major depressive episode

Anxiety disorders in teens are also on the rise, as reported in the Child Mind Institute’s 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report. Left untreated, anxiety can keep kids from reaching their full potential and is strongly linked to increased risk for later depression, behavior problems and substance abuse.

As important as the data is, this post is not intended as an exhaustive overview of teen mental health, but rather a focus on what we, as parents, can do to support our kids and ourselves.

The first call-to-action is to be watchful of our kids’ behavior. Ironically, adolescence is already marked by normally disordered behavior, so it may be hard to discern the difference between, say, to-be-expected sullenness and what might be symptoms of depression in your teen. Be alert for changes in mood or behavior – and don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about what you’re witnessing. While I don’t advocate over-reaction, you don’t need to be 100% sure there’s a problem before insisting your child see a professional if you’re worried about their behavior.

Why? Like with most health concerns, early intervention is key. The sooner parents catch the onset of a mental health problem and intervene in a healthy and helpful way, the better the chance kids have to recover and learn healthy adaptive behaviors.

Now. Hear. This. Having a child with mental health issues is not shameful. Nor is it your fault. Eliminating any stigma or guilt you may have is an important first step to getting effective treatment for your kids.

It’s especially vital to identify and rectify any biases you may have so they don’t cloud the issue. For example, a friend of mine didn’t realize he considered his daughter’s depression a sign of weakness until he saw how hard she was digging in her heels against seeing a therapist. Once he unwound his own thinking, she was able to do likewise.

The most empowering thing about not turning a blind eye to our kids’ mental health is because these conditions are treatable. I don’t know any parent who would refuse to get insulin for a child with diabetes, chemo for a kid with cancer or a cast for one who had a broken bone. Getting treatment for a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, an eating disorder isn’t any different.

When it comes to deciding what type of treatment to pursue, give your kids a voice and a choice. I’m not saying they need to agree with you about getting treatment – that’s always the parents’ call. But a good fit between therapist and client is tied to better outcomes. So let them interview several therapists and/or therapeutic options to see who and what they best connect with.

When it comes to getting support for ourselves, please remember the familiar on-board instruction to put on your own life mask before putting one on your kids. Parents need support, too. Whether that means finding a meet-up or other parent support group, occasionally sitting in on a therapy session or talking to a counselor or parenting coach, do so.

Realize that you and your family are not alone. Considering the stats at the beginning of the post, the universe of parents coping with the same challenges you are is large. Find them and share your challenges and your successes.

Finally, avail yourselves of the resources available.  Here is a sampling to get you started if you’d like to learn more about teen mental health – and find the support you need:

·       Your child’s pediatrician can rule out physical conditions that may be affecting behavior as well as offer referrals to mental health professional if needed

·       Talk to the school psychologist, who can offer guidance and referrals

·       Learn about the range of possible interventions, including school- or community-based interventions including talk therapy, art, music and equine therapy, medication and even therapeutic digital platforms

·       A new study suggests a correlation between team sports in adolescence that may be linked to preventing or treating depression in young people

·       This blog post offers a primer for helping parents understand the different types of therapists that work in the field, as well as sample questions to ask a prospective therapist

·       Psychology Today website offers detailed listing for mental health professionals who work with teens

·       National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers support groups, online education, and information geared to teens and young adults

·       National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) offers hotlines, live chats with experts, resources and more

Should Your Child Take a Gap Year?

The idea of taking a “gap year” – born of the independence of the post-war 60s generation that challenged themselves to create a life different from their parents – has come a long way in 70 years. Since the new millennia, it’s been taken up by parents and young people alike who have lived through the accelerating pace of the new world order – and see little chance for such an extended pause once they start college and forge fledgling careers.

If you read my post in late 2017 about coming face-to-face with my empty nest, you’ll recall that all three of my children took a gap year between high school graduation and the start of their college career. And they did so with my blessing – and strong encouragement.

As I write, increasing numbers of high school seniors are in the process of planning their upcoming gap, which is typically defined as deferring college acceptance for a year to pursue a variety of travel, volunteer and/or non-academic activities and interests. While it’s becoming increasingly more common, parents still have a lot of questions about its wisdom and benefits, such as:

·      Will my child fall behind his grade-level peers?

·      What if they decide against college all together?

·      Isn’t it scary when your child is in a foreign country far from home?

·      Is it expensive – and is it my responsibility to fund it?

·      What does a “successful” gap year look like?

Before I elucidate why I believe a gap year is valuable (wearing my Human Development and Learning specialist hat), as parents we have to redefine success as navigating the entirety of the experiences, no matter how (or when) it ends. Ultimately, a successful gap year is about giving our children a unique opportunity to grow, developing the skills necessary for navigating our modern world and becoming resilient, capable people.

In that vein, success doesn’t mean that each program you child embarks on will meet their expectations. Nor will the people they meet along the way necessarily lead to career connections or lifelong friendships. For some families, financing a gap year is an essential part of the planning process, in part driving what the gap will look like. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to volunteer for nonprofits the world over that include room and board. 

Above all, a successful gap year certainly doesn’t mean that there will be no bumps on the road. The most amazing result in my family’s experience is what a parent might least expect. Namely this: All three of my children say their gap year was successful not in spite of the missteps and challenges, but because of them!

Clearly, nailing resiliency is just one reason to consider a gap year. Here are some others:

Developmental Maturation. Four years of college go by quickly, and all parents want their children to use their time well as they figure out their majors and navigate a different kind of independence. But not all 18 year olds are created equal. A gap year allows kids who are less developmentally mature to grow up a bit more. Then there’s this: there is both anecdotal and increasingly quantitative research that demonstrates that gap year students out perform their non-gap-year peers.

Academic Refresh. Some kids have burned the candle at both ends during high school, and frankly, they are burned out. A gap year enables them to take a break from academic pressure and scholastic demands so they can enter college renewed and reinvigorated.

Interest Exploration. Most 18-year-olds don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. A gap year can expose them to career options, internships, personal exploration and more.

World View. We live in the most interconnected and interdependent world in our history, yet many of us know little about our global community. Gap year students fortunate enough to travel or pursue an opportunity in a different country end up with greater global awareness and often develop fluency in a foreign language. 

Tool Belt. Undeniable benefits are the skills learned, the resiliency discovered and the confidence acquired. All of these get added to the metaphoric tool belt our children need to succeed in the college environment – and beyond.

Many of the greatest gains from a gap year are intangible, and some benefits only reveal themselves as a result of the experience. My youngest son completed his gap year (and documented it on his blog) before starting college in Fall 2018. Here, in his own words, he shares the surprising things he learned that year that he simply did not expect.

1) Everyone I encountered who were also taking a gap year had their own rationale, none more significant than the other, but it was interesting to see what motivated people and how diverse the population of gap year students is.

2) I was amazed at how different foreign culture really is. Though I had traveled internationally and extensively, the opportunity to really immerse myself in foreign culture showed me that my narrow American perspective is not the only way to live life.

3) I was surprised by how much I grew as a person
and an intellectual. Most people think that a gap year is a break from the intellectual and educational world, but I found myself learning more than I ever did in a traditional school. The magic of experiential learning is real.

 Enough said.