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The Counseling Place Shares Mental Health Tips for Families as the School Year Begins

Hispanic niece listens carefully as her aunt helps her with her homework on the computer.

In its recent “What to Expect” episode of LIFT, a parenting podcast series, hosted by Rev. Kim Meyers at St. Andrew United Methodist Church, Deborah Dobbs and Beka Mullins of The Counseling Place (The CP) provided information for parents to help them navigate the start of a challenging school year.

LIFT: How do we as parents keep an eye on our children, checking in with mental health when everything already feels off?

The CP: First, check your own mental health as a parent.  It is important to recognize where we are with our own stressors and anxiety. It is easy to fool ourselves and think that we are fine, but under the surface we, too, may be feeling anxious, which subsequently triggers or increases anxiety in our kids. Have conversations with your children and do not hesitate to share that you feel anxious, too. Be careful not to unintentionally unload on children and make them feel like they must take care of us. We want to emphasize security and safety. You can use phrases like, “This is hard for all of us, but this is how we are going to handle it together.”

For younger children, it is important to ask open-ended questions. You can ask them what they think about the current situation or circumstances, and they will probably tell you. They will start to learn that their opinion matters. Sit down and talk as you color or draw together. Participating in an activity together will help children open up.  Listen and reassure them when they express anxiety.

As children get older it is usually more difficult to get them to share. A typical response to, “How was your day?” is “fine.” At night, older children tend to disclose more and want to talk. Be available to them and try to engage them in conversation in the evenings. Keep an eye on their interactions with social media, especially messaging within apps. Also check photos and remind them that posts are out there forever. It is natural for teens to share more with their friends than their parents. At The CP, we are seeing parents who are discovering tremendous anxiety and suicidal idealization on their children’s social media. Do not assume your kids are fine. Invade their privacy. Also check their google searches to discover any specific anxieties so that you can have important conversations.

Mental health should be a continual conversation, so children will feel more comfortable bringing up concerns at any time. Often when you say mental health, society hears mental illness. That is wrong. Health is the key word, and it is an important part of our physical health.

The CP is currently seeing a lot of pre-conditions for trauma. We have restricted mobility, loss of sense of safety, and loss of connection. When we see a threat and have no control over it and see no end to it, such as this pandemic and measures taken to restrict its spread, our brains activate a stress response.  Self-care we utilized last year is not enough in 2020. This is an unprecedented time especially when considering how long it has lasted. No one knows how to do this. Thankfully, parents can mitigate some of these factors. Parents are that safe connection for kids. When we are present with our children, it enables that sense of connection and safety where kids can be honest and real. It is important to be positive and encourage your children’s capabilities. “You can handle this. I have seen you do hard things before. We will get through this together.”

Help your children become self-aware. Both parents and children can find comfort in doing small things they can control in a world that feels out of control. Ask the question, “What can you control?” If they struggle, you can guide the conversation a bit. We can control our breath, our faith, knowing that you are loved, and our responses to situations. Recognize that norms change during extraordinary times and consider making allowances for things you might normally oppose, like rearranging a bedroom or making temporary changes in hair color.  

Navigate disappointments. Acknowledge them, discuss them, and then let children have space to grieve and vocalize. Later, help them to see gratitude and hold grief and gratitude in the same moment“How do you feel about this? I know you were looking forward to this, and it was canceled. What are you thinking? I know this isn’t happening now, but we have this to look forward to…”  It is extremely healthy to practice gratitude daily.

Talk about things you can count on. You have the unconditional love of your parents; you are a child of God; the sun is going to rise!

Recognize that children with attitudes are not just being disobedient or rebellious.  Something is fueling that behavior. Grace and patience go a long way.

As we strive to love our neighbors as ourselves, remember that your family is your closest neighbor. We are often the hardest on those who live under the same roof. Try to be kind and show love to your family members.

Editor’s Note: This podcast, available at https://liftparentingpodcast.buzzsprout.com/1210115/5066078-what-to-expect-mental-health-in-fall-of-2020, is part of a new St. Andrew LIFT podcast series titled “What to Expect,” designed to help guide parents during an uncertain and unprecedented new school year. Below is a recap of helpful tips shared during the podcast.

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ABOUT LIFT:

LIFT: A Parenting Podcast, launched by St. Andrew United Methodist Church in August 2019 and available at no cost on Apple iTunes, is entering its third season of helping parents navigate the challenges of raising children of all ages in today’s world. Along with focusing on everyday parenting issues such as discipline, anxiety, college preparations, technology, sex, and drugs, LIFT podcasts have tackled many additional timely, tough subjects including mass shootings, grief and suicide, the challenges of COVID-19, and race, featuring community leaders, church members and other experts as guests.  Subscribe at https://liftparentingpodcast.buzzsprout.com/.

ABOUT DEBORAH DOBBS AND BEKA MULLINS:

Deborah Dobbs has worked at The Counseling Place for 24 years, serving as executive director for the past 11 years. Beka Mullins works primarily with teens, and her experience includes teens at in-patient hospitals and group homes. She also teaches social and emotional learning skills to kids and works with pastors and others who work with youth. Visit https://counselingplace.org.

ABOUT THE COUNSELING PLACE (TCP):

The Counseling Place (TCP),established in 1979 as the first nonprofit mental health agency in Richardson, Texas, is dedicated to building, repairing, and strengthening emotional health for people of all ages and income levels in the Dallas area. TCP provides professional and affordable (or free) counseling services to individuals, families, and couples in need of outpatient mental health services; psychoeducational community courses; and a victims’ assistance program through formal contracts with the Richardson and Sachse Police Departments as well as for crime victims referred by any jurisdiction. The CP also collaborates with other nonprofits to provide mental health services to their clients, including Heart of Autism, to help affected families. Call 469-283-0340 or visit https://counselingplace.org/

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