Have any other parents out there suddenly woken up one day and realized you don’t have kids anymore, you have teenagers? Did anyone else at times feel overwhelmed or unprepared to have conversations with them, now that they’ve entered this time of such significant change and complex challenge? Because yes, that has definitely been me. Raising my three sons, two that are now young men, is the greatest responsibility of my life. And now more than ever, after a year of watching them tackle the – fine, I’ll say it – unprecedented task of high school and college during a pandemic, I see the heightened uncertainty, stress, and social pressure our teens are facing on a daily basis.
If you’re a parent like me, a mentor or friend, or a young adult yourself, I believe we all share a desire to educate ourselves on how to have important conversations around mental health. This year, my company and I have partnered with a recognized leader in the mental health space, The Jed Foundation (JED). JED is a nonprofit that protects the emotional health of teens and young adults by initiating conversations about mental health and suicide prevention, and mobilizing communities to take action. Partnering with JED has given me new tools to tackle mental health conversations in my life and in support of the ones I love. Thanks to the knowledge shared by JED’s Senior Advisor, Dr. Janis Whitlock, Ph.D., M.P.H., I’ve adopted these 4 habits that have helped me support my children’s, my friends’, and my own mental well-being.
Establish a strong support system
Of course my boys know I love them, but it’s important to me that not a day goes by when I don’t remind them of that. It’s the first conversation we have in the mornings – I love you, I’m here for you, and you’re never alone. Let your teens know that they have a safe space to turn to, no matter what is going on in their lives. And as Dr. Whitlock reminds us, when it comes to caring for family and friends, “It is also helpful to regularly engage with them whether that’s checking in on them, inviting them out, or asking them to volunteer with you.”
Encourage open and honest sharing
“As adults,” Dr Whitlock tells us, “social modeling is critical for sharing what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like to be a full-bodied human. Allowing teens and young adults to see how you respond vs. react to challenges and process your emotions helps to model healthy behaviors that you can then share.”
So what does that look like in practice? When everyone comes home from school and we talk about our day, I try to set an example by sharing when I had a hard moment, how it made me feel, and what I did to care for myself afterwards. “I took a yoga class, or I called my friend to talk about it, and after that I felt much better.” I want them to see my full range of emotions and my responses to challenge, and encourage them to feel comfortable sharing their own emotions with me the same way.
Go beyond the basics
There are plenty of resources out there that help teenagers and adults get the conversation around mental health started. (If you haven’t already, check out JED’s campaign Seize the Awkward.) But the challenge that comes next is how do we go a step further? How do we keep the progress going? When you’re working with a friend who is stonewalling you, don’t lose heart – continue to engage with them. Look for the balance and pull back when necessary. And once you start the conversation, stay connected, and put your focus on authentically and empathetically listening. I have learned so much from working alongside the experts at JED, and that is why I am passionate about the work we’re doing with them to bring more of these programs and curriculum to high schools across our country.
Remember to protect your own mental health.
Last tip, and often the most important one, is to remember to care for yourself. In order to fill others’ cups, you must fill your own cup first. As a mother that’s incredibly difficult to remember sometimes, but I realized when I make my own mental health a priority, I am able to give so much more back to my loved ones around me.
And one last expert tip from Dr. Whitlock if you find yourself overwhelmed trying to support someone else: “If it is an extremely high-stress situation, I recommend seeking therapeutic support. Especially if managing your emotions feels overwhelming or if you feel emotionally numb … And finally, the final solution, and probably the hardest, is detachment from the relationship that is detrimental to your own mental health. Often, supporting someone can feel like a rescue mission, but the truth is that you are likely warring with a reality that you are not in control of and which may be damaging you. Let your friend know you care but take care of yourself.”
The bottom line here is that we all struggle with our mental well-being in one way or another. The more open we are about sharing those struggles, and encourage others to feel comfortable sharing as well, the more power we take away from this threat to our lives, especially our teenagers. I hope you’ll join me in taking the extra step to starting this conversation with your loved ones – even a small step forward can make all the difference.