If you want to help your child’s mental health, take care of yourself

Dec 08 2023

If you want to help your child’s mental health, take care of yourself

“Should an emergency situation occur, you need to put your own oxygen mask on first, before attempting to help those around you.”
-Instructions when preparing to take off on a commercial flight.

For years at Keystone, we have stressed the importance of self care and mental health. Programs for students in all divisions have focused on developing and practicing techniques that will enable them to handle the inevitable stressors that occur in their lives. Whether they are navigating social situations or preparing for exams, children and young adults’ ability to overcome difficulty serves them well in the short and long run.

As educators, we recognize that if we are not in partnership with parents, our efforts can be for naught. No matter how much your children may act like they are either not listening to you or ignoring you, parents still provide one of the most important influences in their lives. What happens at school should exist in tandem with what occurs at home.

Hence, Keystone’s efforts over the years to offer programming for parents. Whether it’s providing the latest research on children’s friendships in Little and Lower Schools, discussing how to use technology responsibly in Middle School, or preparing for the transition to college, Keystone administrators enjoy discussing with parents how best to support children and adolescents. Similarly, we recently shared with parents of students in grades 8-12 the results of the Independent Schools Health Survey, which our students filled out.

We understand that parenting today is no small feat. The news affecting our children and us can feel unrelentingly gloomy: war in Europe and the Middle East; polarized politics; challenging economic news; and the continuing effects of the worst pandemic in over a century, to name a few of the most publicized challenges. And, as we know, this is compounded by the constant drumbeat of social media exacerbating conflict. Bringing up children in good times can be a challenge; in times like these, it can feel like a herculean task.

So, how do we support children in their mental health journey? A recent article from CNN Health called “The Quickest Way to Improve Your Family’s Mental Health” may offer some guidance. The article quotes from a Harvard Graduate School of Education Report and one of its co-authors, psychologist and Professor Richard Weissbourd.

The first recommendation may seem obvious, but it’s one we can easily overlook in our very busy lives-taking time to talk to children and adolescents and where appropriate sharing our own mental health journey and ways we adults handle stress. According to the report, ‘“While 18% of teens reported suffering anxiety, about 20% of mothers and 15% of fathers reported anxiety. While 15% of teens reported depression, about 16% of mothers and 10% of fathers did, too.”’

It can be beneficial for children and young adults to know that their parents have had their own hard times and have developed coping mechanisms that enabled them to succeed in work and in life. Weissbourd comments, “Depressed teens are about five times more likely to have depressed parents. Anxious teens are about three times more likely to have an anxious parent. Parents’ influence on teens is profound.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise that mothers tend to report stress more than fathers. Handling multiple roles, being more in touch with their children’s feelings, and a greater willingness to share their emotions leads moms to acknowledge depression and anxiety at greater levels than dads.

Says Weissbourd: “I think moms are more likely to report depression and anxiety than dads because so many dads are disconnected from their feelings — and depression and anxiety often express themselves differently in men than in women. Part of this is reporting and part of this is the caregiving load that mothers are bearing more than fathers are. And it’s not just caregiving (for mothers). It’s being the secretary of the interior, being the person who is getting the laundry done, getting meals prepared and all the things you need to do to maintain a household. And mothers are often working (outside the home) now, too.I think it’s also that parents can be depressed and anxious when their teens are depressed and anxious, and mothers tend to be much more tuned into their teens than fathers are.”
Children can pick up on their parents’ stress so it’s crucial that we help them see that it may have nothing to do with them. We can show them how healthy people manage challenges.

Perhaps a positive sign in today’s increasing levels of child and teen depression and anxiety is the movement to destigmatize mental health. Young adults are much more willing than their predecessors to be open and describe their struggles. Candid conversations between parents and children can provide an opportunity to share tips, and alert parents to what is normal adolescent stress versus something more serious and worrisome.

Weissbourd also recommends the mental health benefits of helping others. When children and young adults volunteer to aid other people, they gain a perspective on their own situations and they experience a sense of purpose and meaning. They realize that maybe their problems are not as dire as they think, and in fact, other people may have it much worse.

By volunteering, children and young adults also come to understand that one of life’s greatest joys is making someone else’s existence better. Stepping outside their own selves and feeling like they have made a difference can be self-affirming in its own right.

As we move into the twin seasons of giving and final exams, we hope you take care of yourself, be in open conversation with your child, and find ways for your children to serve so they can experience the happiness of excelling as students and as people.

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