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

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.

3 Step Response to the Teenage Distress Text

Back in the day (as a 70s-era student), when something happened at school – my feelings were hurt, I’d aced a test I’d been nervous about or I wanted permission to go to a movie with a friend – I had to wait until I got home and saw my parents to talk / boast / ask permission, as the case required. Or what about when I was homesick at summer camp? By the time my parents received my snail-mailed letter bemoaning my fate, my sadness was long gone and I was cavorting with my campmates.

These days, texting places a direct line to parents in the palm of virtually every kid’s hand. And many parents have unwittingly made the mistake of buying into the cultural (and child-driven) expectation that communication should therefore be instantaneous and immediate.

 Not so fast.

It’s important to recreate the distance between the onset of a child’s every problem or negative emotion and our instinctive and understandable drive to fix it. Let’s face it: our children aren’t in dire jeopardy when their feelings get hurt or if they’re disappointed in their performance on an exam or on the soccer field. So how can we, as parents, best help our kids?

If your endgame is to help your children learn to navigate unpleasant experiences and feelings, don’t miss this all-too-frequent opportunity to help them develop resilience and agency using this 3-step approach:

1.    Acknowledge but don’t engage

2.    Empathize rather than escalate

3.    Encourage insights that leads to self-efficacy

Acknowledge but don’t engage. Some modern parenting approaches make parents feel that to prove their devotion (and fitness), their job is to be their child’s ally at every turn. But when we react to a child’s text by immediately soliciting more details or instinctively siding with their point of view, we not only shortchange what should be a face-to-face encounter, we run the risk of escalating their emotions or anxieties.

By all means, if your children text to tell you the teacher hurt his feelings or her best friend snubbed her, acknowledge the situation with a short response that promises more conversation later. It’s important to ensure your child feels heard and can count on your support, but not wise to engage in an emotionally charged text dialogue.

Plus, when we give the situation time to simmer in the child’s mind, they just might come up with a solution themselves.

Empathize rather than escalate.

To a child (of almost any age), a small slight can sometimes feel like the sky is falling. It’s an age-appropriate response. But as parents, we should not match their hysteria or emotional temperature. Our job is to acknowledge our children’s pain and give them something their minds aren’t yet capable of delivering: perspective.

By over-identifying with our kids’ emotions or probing for hidden motives by their friends / teachers / coaches, we keep children stuck in the problem. Empathize and be supportive, but ask the types of questions that help them see the bigger picture. Simple phrases such as “Tell me more” and “Why do you think that happened?” gives kids the opportunity to unpack the experience so you can help them identify the salient issues and their role.

Encourage insight that leads to self-efficacy. It’s easy to point the finger and make others responsible for our feelings. It’s typical for children to blame others and feel victimized. But psychologists note that each time a parent swoops in to fix a problem or mend a relationship for their children, they push them one more step away from self-knowledge and self-efficacy.

As a parent with perspective, your role is to help your child identify how they may have contributed to the problem and the steps they can take to amend it. For example, ask questions that probe their part in the drama. See if this is a situation that has occurred before. With that information in hand, the two of you can brainstorm about what is in the child’s control. How can they be empowered to amend the situation by changing their own behavior?

This is also a great time to model how you’ve reacted to a problem at work or with a friend. Knowing that Mom and Dad also deal with challenging relationships and negative emotions – and lived to talk about it – gives children the courage to give growing up a try and figure out the solution themselves.

In the end, we want to build resilient capable kids who will remember to text every once in a while after they have left home because they want to say hello, not because they have a crisis for us to solve.