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.

Adding Up the Reasons to Teach Children About $$$

Think about how many times you have seen a child harangue a parent at the checkout line, begging and whining about “needing” some perfectly positioned treat or toy. Well-rested, unstressed parents simply smile and ignore the beggar at their knees, sticking to their family rule about eschewing impulse buys. The rest of us? We reflexively give in because we are just too tired to argue and/or leverage yet another teachable moment.

But when you add financial literacy to the family toolbox, you won’t need to argue nearly as much.

That’s why I sat down with a friend and expert in finance who has coached over 3,000 people through bankruptcy. He knows the value of financial literacy – and the downside of ignoring this crucial life skill first-hand – and he agrees that it is never too early to start teaching our children about money.

He shared his three-step approach with me, which I’ve filtered through a parenting lens. But first…let’s turn that lens on ourselves and explore what a good parental mindset about money looks like.

BE CONSCIOUS.  Before we can teach our children about the value of money, it’s critical that parents are clear about our own relationship with it. Here’s how:

Know your values.  Being clear about your parenting values is the first part of the consciousness-raising equation. Your values serve as a sort of built-in parenting guide, so extending those values as part of your decision-making around money will make every financial choice clearer and easier. For example, if your children’s education is an important family value, you know you will need a plan to save enough to pay for private school and/or college.

Be mindful of emotions.  Be attentive to emotional spending, which gets many parents in trouble. Impulse buying, whether in the checkout line or online, can easily blow a budget – and you won’t even remember where the money went (or probably have anything to show for it).

Communication is central to being conscious about money. Have ongoing conversations about financial compatibility and financial decision-making with your partner. With financial infidelity on the rise, you also want to be sure that you and your partner are a money match. Don’t wait for a problem to arise to discuss financial issues because it can make the conversation unnecessarily dramatic.

BE DISCIPLINED.  Start with an assessment of your needs – and be sure to separate your needs from your wants. An assessment can also help you identify short-term, intermediate and long-terms goals. A simple assessment begins with tracking all your expenses (fixed, variable and periodic) for several months so you get an understanding of where your money is going.  

Make savings a family affair. Let’s say you need to save for retirement and you’d like to plan for a family vacation this summer. Set your goals and make them explicit. Agree on areas to pare back so that larger goals get met, and then create a spending and savings plan that makes the entire family accountable. Be sure to put it down on paper in black and white. Remember the Chinese proverb, “The palest ink is stronger than the sharpest memory.”

Another important tip: create an emergency fund. People get into trouble when they don’t account for unanticipated expenses like unforeseen home repairs or medical bills. 

BEWARE. We are bombarded with seductive advertising everywhere we go: the gas pump, online, backs of buses, on the train. These retail tricks are designed to get us to open our wallets – and they work! Protect yourselves by being conscious of the ways in which you can be influenced by media and empower yourself to stay on track.

So how does this approach relate to how we talk to our children about money? Let’s take being conscious. What are you modeling for your children? Do you mindlessly toss items into the grocery cart? Does Amazon regularly drop off packages filled with your impulsive purchases? How does your metaphoric checkbook reflect your parenting and financial values?

BE A MODEL AND MENTOR. This is my addition to my finance pro’s advice.

Beyond what your kids observe you doing, begin having an active conversation with them even when they are young. Recent studies show that children as young as 3 and 4 can understand the basic financial concept that you need money to buy things. Believe it or not, they can also learn the difference between the things they want and things they need.

There are myriad opportunities to engage our kids in age-appropriate ways that teach them about the value of the dollar. Give them an allowance and have them allocate their money into three buckets: save; spend; donate. Get children involved in philanthropic endeavors big or small. This could mean having them donate an outgrown toy or coat, a family outing to serve food at a shelter or service agency or coming up with a proposal all their own to present to your family foundation.

Kids will respond to a financial education if it’s consistent. So take advantage of everyday opportunities to involve your kids in age-appropriate financial discussions. Ask them to tally the grocery tab while you’re going through the aisles. Task them with researching vacation destinations when provided with a budget. Make them calculate the tip when you are out for a meal.

When I was a teen, my currency was cash. And when my wallet was empty, I was done spending. I had to wait until the next allowance or baby-sitting job to fill my gas tank or head to the movies. Today’s kids rarely see or use cash. They live in a Venmo, CashApp, and ApplePay world. Most of their financial management is conducted on their phone, not in a bank. This makes financial literacy all the more crucial because money is often invisible to them – especially understanding the difference between debit and credit.

When it comes to kid-specific money strategies, I believe that once a child is old enough to be out and about without parents, they should have a debit card to use for emergencies as well as for expenses that everyone agrees on. With this privilege, of course, comes the responsibility of reviewing their spending with you regularly. If it aligns with your values and you are able to do so, provide teens and college-age kids with a low-limit credit card in both their name and a parent’s. When they are earning their own money, let them get their own credit card so they can start to build their credit rating.

NOTE: Experts suggest separating a joint card from your primary card and opening individual cards if you’re providing this for more than one child. That way if a card is lost or stolen, it only impacts one child – who also gets to experience the natural consequences of not being mindful.

Talking about money and finances with kids should not be taboo. Nor do you have to share the cost of your home or the balance in your savings account to start having real money conversations with your children. Remember, transparency and honesty are not synonymous. You can be honest with your children without disclosing private information that is not age appropriate. 

The most important takeaway is to start teaching financial literacy to children as early as possible. It is never too late to start and the benefits are huge and relevant for their lifetime.

 

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.

3 Things Every Family Needs

Family – at least the construct traditionally defined as two opposite-sex parents and their biological children – was considered the norm (and by extension, the “best” for kids) for most of the last century. But no longer.

The notion of family has moved away from rigid structures and defined roles, morphing and expanding significantly. From step to extended, blended to adoptive, gay to single, multi-cultural to co-parent…what makes a family the best one for children is one in which there is the greatest amount of three vital ingredients: love, safety and acceptance.

And it doesn’t matter which adults that love and acceptance comes from. Of course kids need what “parents” can do and contribute to children, but you don’t need a “mom” and a “dad” to take optimum care of children and give them what they need to become healthy adults.

I’m not saying traditional families aren’t valuable or sound, but its not the only way to parent intentionally or effectively. No matter your current situation, it’s always a plus to invite other people into your family circle – through your community, church, school or other affiliation – who can help you create the type of family you know is best.

I tell my kids all the time – still – that the rest of the world can say all it wants about them, but they can count on the fact that our family will always be the safest place on earth for them.

And just for the record, our family isn’t just the 4 of us.

For starters, it’s me, my 3 young-adult kids, my ex-husband and our two extended families, which include stepsiblings. Add to that my ex’s wife, her parents, my boyfriend and his family, plus a coterie of adult friends and their kids who have been welcomed into our family (and us into theirs) over the years, and you get a sense of just how broad my notion of family has become.

Here are a few real-life examples of how that works:

Because of my ex-husband’s schedule, he was unable to attend our youngest’s recent parents’ weekend at college. So his wife joined me instead and the 3 of us had a great time exploring the campus and town together.

Then there’s our holiday plan. Since there is a finite amount of time all 3 kids can be together over the winter break, we’ve decided all of us, including the kids’ father and his wife – will go on an unbelievable cruise to Antarctica together! 

This one I just love: A couple of years ago, my youngest son Quincy and I were at an event and we were introduced to a gentleman. When he found out my son’s name was Quincy, he said, “How unusual! You’re the second ‘Quincy’ I’ve heard about this week.” It turned out that Quincy had sent his stepmom an email requesting donations to a charitable organization with which he was engaged. She had forwarded it to her father. “Grandpa” not only made a donation himself, but he forwarded the email to his vast list of contacts. The man at the event? He was one of those contacts and he, too, made a donation to Quincy’s cause!

So if you feel constrained by society’s once-meager definition of family – broaden it! For sure, kids need what “moms” and “dads” can do and give to them – but those roles needn’t be defined by gender or biology. So go ahead and welcome in trusted people who will model and bestow the love, safety and acceptance every child needs to become a loving and accepting adult.

There is so much in life we cannot control – but we can control who we let into our children’s lives and our homes. The best part about it is that we each get to choose who’s in our family, making sure our kids get the maximum amount of love, safety and acceptance available.

Now that’s a family I want to be a part of.

 

Thankful for Friendship

Gratitude is a big part of my life and my happiness.  I spend time actively thinking about what I am grateful for and find the practice lifts my mood and enhances my life. Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to write about gratitude; this year I am thankful for friendship.

I have collected friends my entire life.  I met my oldest friend in kindergarten and we have shared a 46-year friendship (and counting). I have an amazing group of friends from middle and high school who know the secrets of adolescent shenanigans; college friends who helped edit papers and now read my blog.  My friend from graduate school who I connected with on day one has remained my friend for 26 years. Friends met through my children; friends made while volunteering in my community; family members who are also friends; colleagues that became friends.

Friends are the family you choose.  And I have chosen well.  My friendships have sustained me through the hardest times in my life and added to my joy in the best times. My friends have stood by me; taken care of me; laughed with me and cried with me. Friends have challenged me to be my best self; helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel; hated my enemies.  My friends have loved my children; supported my ideas; answered my calls.  Friends have given me the benefit of the doubt; forgiven bad behavior; agreed to disagree.  My friends have championed my efforts; celebrated my successes; acknowledged my feelings. Friends have lent an ear, offered a shoulder, and provided a hug. My friends have enriched my life beyond measure.

And…my friends have made me a better mom.  Thank you for loving my children like your own.  Thank you for seeing their strengths and challenges; for celebrating their successes and supporting them when they have struggled.  Thank you for being adults they can count on; thanks for being advisors, mentors and role models.  It takes a village and I am profoundly grateful for mine.

Thank you friends.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Smartphones Can Contribute to 'Dumb' Parenting

According to a body of research increasingly robust in in the last 5 years, it appears a collective parental wake-up call is in order. Although researchers are still studying the effect of screen time on children, they’re now turning their trained eyes on us to see how our tech habits impact our parenting and our children. While no researcher is claiming causation between parental smartphone use and poor child outcomes, there is enough correlational evidence for parents to take notice.

·      Frequent social media use is one of the risk factors for “higher levels of maternal depression

·      According to the Center for the Digital Future, people report feeling “increasingly ignored by others in their own family households because of smartphone use”

·      A 2015 study of caregivers and kids on playgrounds demonstrated that children have a harder time getting the attention of parents distracted by smartphone use

·      Even teenagers – who you’d think would be delighted by distracted parents – reported “less parental warmth” and 11% said they “struggled quite a bit or a great deal to get their parent’s attention when their parent was on their cell phone or tablet” in a 2017 study

I raised my three now-young-adult children pre-digitally. These days, its fairly common to see a dad at the playground, benched and engrossed in his phone while a child desperately tries to get him to witness their feat on the monkey bars (admittedly, for the 10th time). Equally distressing is seeing moms pushing prams or strollers, deeply engaged in conversation with someone on the end of a headset rather than with their small child.

Frankly, I get it. Although I was late to the smartphone game, and was initially mystified when told my phone could take pictures - why would I need a phone to do that?  (I currently have 43,963 photos on my phone!)  I am very dependent on my phone and had to add an external case to get through the day. The other day I walked into the office building where I had a meeting only to realize I had left my phone in my car. Given my level of distress (“OMG, I don’t have my phone!”), you’d have thought I’d left a toddler locked in the back seat.   And yes, I went back to get it.

If ever there were a moment for intentional and mindful parenting, this would be it.

There are vast bodies of research on early-child brain development that point to the vital link between parent-child conversation and language development. As a young mom, I considered every walk and outing a chance for a complete conversation with my kids. Even when kids are pre-verbal, there is tremendous value in little ones being part of the conversation. As I found, it’s never too early to begin describing the wonders of the world they’ll soon come to talk about first-hand.

Famed child development researcher Dr. Edward Tronick spent his career “trying to put his feet into the shoes of an infant” to better understand how they function in the world. His research shows – in achingly painful detail – what children experience emotionally when parents aren’t responsive to their attempts to connect and communicate. Infants, even newborns, he says, endeavor to “make meaning about the world.” And they’re looking to us to help them.

So – given the stakes - what’s an intentional parent to do?

Inventory your tech habits when you’re with your children and take objective note of what you find.

Remember that this is about your kids’ well-being, not your (or your employer’s) needs.

Be mindful about what we – and our kids -- lose if we’re not present and available when we’re with them.  

Pivot. If you’re spending too much family time otherwise distracted by your phone, make and set some rules for yourself – and stick to them.

Finally, know that we are always modeling for our kids – even when we’re engaged in behavior we don’t want our children to emulate.  So be mindful of what you do, and teach your children by example.  Remember, its never too late to do better!

My First Podcast

I had the great privilege and pleasure to join my friend, Teri Turner from @NoCrumbsLeft, to do a podcast on parenting. Teri is an extraordinary food blogger, chef, and mom; she shares so much of herself through her Instagram stories, her blog, and her podcasts. I was invited to join her to talk about my practice, my philosophy about Intentional Parenting, and our shared paths through divorce to effective co-parenting and more.

I hope you will take the time to listen in!

Click the link below and select the “Intentional Parenting” podcast.

INTENTIONAL PARENTING PODCAST