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Supporting Parents at Work: Youth Mental Health

America is facing a dire mental health crisis for our young people, as the pandemic upended their education, social lives, and support networks. Are you equipped to support the parents, caretakers, and guardians of those young people?

In a recent WELCOA Pulse Episode, youth mental health experts Kee Dunning, LCPC, and Hansa Bhargava, MD, FAAP provided a high-level overview on how organizations can help working parents that are struggling with these concerns.

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a rising trend in youth mental illness and suicide concerns. The pandemic magnified this issue due to social isolation, constant and unexpected change. Children were and still are missing big chunks of educational and social experiences and it has caused a lot of anxiety for the children themselves as well as their parents, guardians, and caretakers.

So how can we expect working adults to be fully present and productive at work when they are worried about the safety of the youth in their lives. What Dunning and Bhargava highlighted in this Pulse Episode is what employers can start to do to support parents and caretakers of young people, and what those parents can do to support the young people they care for.

First Steps in Addressing the Mental Health Concerns of Young People

For Employers:

Dunning shared that in her practice as a psychotherapist, she always recommends that we always try to meet people where they are. Start each interaction assuming that the person in front of you is doing the best they can at that moment. You never know what kind of a day someone else is having, so ask and build relationships that give people the safety to share how they are really doing. As those relationships build you can begin to understand their individual needs for feeling safe and well in the workplace.

For Parents and Caretakers:

Bhargava shared that working adults and the kids they take care of are stressed out beyond belief right now. Four things parents and caretakers can do to start addressing mental health concerns with children are:

Communication – Create a safe space for children to communicate with their parents and caretakers, and to be listened to and respected.

Connection – Find the people you can trust to vent to and be supported by. Parent burnout exists and it’s important to find an environment that reminds you that you’re not alone. Parents and caretakers need these people for themselves so they can help guide their children in developing those relationships as they grow.

Community – Tap into a larger network of trusted friends. Maybe this is your coworkers, a book club, a religious group, or a group of parents. Gathering with these people regularly can remind you that you are part of a community that can support you and relates to you.

Compassion – Give yourself and others compassion. No one is perfect and we all go through difficult times. Recognize when you need to give yourself a little love or when to extend compassion to others.

How To Address Sensitive and Uncomfortable Topics

Create a Safe Place

Whether you are an employer, supporting working adults with children, or a parent, it is essential to establish a safe environment for communication.

Dunning shared that firstly, it’s important to build relationships that come from a place of love, respect, listening, and courage. Get to know everyone’s story so you know how to ask the hard question. Building a trusting and caring relationship with employees will help them to feel the safety that they’ll need to provide to the children they care for when it’s time to have hard conversations with them.

Just like adults want to be heard when they are sharing their thoughts and feelings, Dunning shared that, “most kids just want their parents to listen to them, see them, and recognize that they have value and their thoughts have value.”

Bhargava recommended that when it comes to having hard conversations with kids, it’s important to make time and build an environment that encourages kids to open up when they feel ready. She shared that personally, she tries to make school carpool a time for open communication. Her family established that there are no devices allowed during carpool time and that allows space for her kids to open up if they have something they’d like to share, questions to ask, or emotions to express and also allows them to sit with their feelings if they need that too.

Be Kind to Yourself and Practice Equanimity

Bhargava also emphasized that encouraging parents to find a way to make time and space for hard conversations should not feel like one more thing to do or a chore. She recommends practicing equanimity or remaining calm during difficult situations. Her advice is to, “take a step back in stressful moments and remind yourself that this is one day, out of 365 days in a year, out 18-25 years you’ll spend parenting this child. Things will be rocky and things will be great. This moment will pass.”

Once you’ve established open communication with the children you care for, also know that it’s not going to be perfect. Dunning shared, “No one is perfect. Create environments for people to show up as themselves each day. It’s ok to ask for a do-over when communication doesn’t go the way you intend.” She also provided encouragement to, “Be kind to yourself. You have a lot going on if you are a parent or caretaker. It’s the hardest job. You need to recognize that you can’t be perfect.”

Practice Addressing What’s in the Room

Both kids and adults can feel scared or uncertain about a number of things on any given day. It’s important to recognize that each adult or child you interact with might be carrying a heavy burden. Practice addressing what’s going on in the room by asking yourself, “what don’t I know about this person?” Are they hungry? Did they recently experience tragedy? What are they feeling? What else do they have going on today?

Dunning shared that when it comes to parenting, it’s ok to directly ask children questions about their mental health. It’s ok to ask, “are you feeling suicidal? Are you thinking of taking your life?” These questions can make a big difference and can show kids that the adults that take care of them are paying attention to their mental health.

Acknowledging the mental health of children and adults alike helps us to recognize that we are all human and we all have mental health.

Bhargava shared, “My hope is that the silver-lining of the pandemic is that we can more openly talk about mental health. I think mental health should be a fifth vital sign. It affects every facet of our lives.”

Don’t Try to “Fix It”

Bhargava and Dunning both recognized that parents are often inclined to want to fix the problems their children face. But when it comes to mental health, parents don’t need to fix it, they need to teach their children how to get back up again when they fall. Bhargava said, “We cannot make our kids the center of the universe on a daily basis. They need the space to be self-efficacious and to be handed the tools of life.

Dunning recommended that parents and caretakers, “teach your kids how to make good decisions when you’re not there. Ask them questions about how they might want to solve a problem. Offer to help them find solutions to a problem. Don’t shut your kids down, listen and ask questions. Kids’ perceptions are their reality”

Another thing to keep in mind is that it doesn’t have to be solely a parent or caretaker’s job to help children talk about their mental health. Especially for single parents and grandparents, you can help your children to develop healthy relationships with a trusted adult, family member, or counselor. The more people that love your kids, the better.

If you aren’t the parent or sole caretaker of a child, but you’re a trusted adult that is supporting that child, it’s important to be ready for the statement, “don’t tell my parents.”

Bhargava recommends that in those circumstances you should be prepared to coach and encourage kids to talk to their parents themselves about difficult things. Dunning recommended that it’s beneficial to children if you offer to help them look at their options for how to talk to their parents. You might even offer to talk to their parents with them. At the end of the day, however, if a child’s life is at risk or they are at risk of hurting themselves, it’s your responsibility to talk to their parents. Dunning said, “even if that kid is mad at you for talking to their parents, but you keep them safe and alive, at the end of the day it’s ok.”

Set Boundaries

Parents and caretakers can certainly become burned out. It’s important to set boundaries so that you can take care of yourself before trying to take care of others.

Bhargava’s advice was, “Do not feel guilty for taking a pause and resting. It can only make you better, faster, stronger. Mental wellness and resiliency filter into every aspect of our lives. Stop with the guilt. Say “no”. Honor your boundaries. This is for leaders too. We can’t expect to act compassionately for others if we don’t do it for ourselves.“

This applies to employers as well. Help your employees honor their boundaries. Create an environment for employees where they aren’t being asked to meet unreasonable expectations. Meet them where they are and give them the tools to do their best.

What to Do Next

So what’s next? What will you choose to do with this new information? We have resources and tools to support you as you either start or continue your journey supporting the parents, caretakers, and guardians of the young people in your life.