The worst of the COVID-19 pandemic may be behind us, but the effects of nearly three years of uncertainty, disruption, and loss are still rippling through our community. Health, education, and social service professionals everywhere are sharing how the pandemic and the ongoing struggle for racial justice have intensified the mental health crisis among children and adolescents, which was growing at an alarming rate even before the pandemic. Our community isn’t immune to this mental health crisis, and none of us can solve it on our own. But together, we can support children and families wherever they live, work, learn, play, and worship.
This monthly column provides tips for anyone who is helping raise children, based on the world-renowned Triple P – Positive Parenting Program, available to families in Santa Cruz County. If you have a question or idea for a future column, email me at email@example.com.
My 14-year-old niece (who we’re raising) has had several emotional outbursts at home, which isn’t like her at all. When I ask if something’s wrong, she says, “You wouldn’t understand,” and then isolates in her room. My 7-year-old son is aggressive one minute and then crying the next. When I ask him what’s going on, he shuts down. I don’t want to force them to talk, but I’m not sure what to do. How can I support them?
I’m glad you reached out and asked this question. Raising children is a hard job that can feel impossible some days, especially when we’re not sure what to do. Here are some tips to try:
Normalize big feelings. Many kids struggle with managing emotions, and sometimes they’re hesitant to talk about it, especially with their parents and caregivers. They might feel an intense emotion (“big feeling”) — scared, anxious, embarrassed, angry, ashamed, hopeless, or frustrated — but they don’t have a name for it and don’t understand why they’re feeling that way. Or, they might have experienced something difficult, but they avoid talking about it because they fear being misunderstood, judged, criticized, or even rejected. Try starting with a simple statement, “It’s OK to have big feelings and not know what to do with them. It happens to everyone, even adults.”
Give unconditional love and support, even when they don’t ask for it. Spend quality time together, talk about things that interest them, give affection and attention, engage them in interesting activities (even better if the activities help them express themselves), and give descriptive praise to show know you notice their efforts and successes. These are all simple yet effective positive parenting strategies that build strong relationships and reassure kids they matter and are loved. Creating a sense of safety and belonging at home makes a big difference for kids, especially if they’re struggling with other things, like school, friendships, or aspects of their identities.
Keep communicating. Some kids are reluctant to have heavy, serious conversations with their parents and caregivers, even if they’re dealing with heavy, serious issues. Yet it’s important to keep the lines of communication open. Try different conversation starters, such as, “What’s on your mind?” or, “What were the highs and lows of your day?” or even, “What are you reading/watching/listening to right now?” Then when they answer, stop what you’re doing, listen, acknowledge what they’ve said, and encourage them to keep sharing their thoughts.
Empathize before problem-solving. When children and teens are in emotional pain, it’s tempting to try to reassure them that everything will be fine, immediately engage them in problem-solving, or say the situation isn’t as bad as they think. While adults might do these things with good intentions, it could make kids feel dismissed or powerless and then less likely to open up. Simply saying, “I can see you’re really upset,” or, “I understand how you feel,” can have a calming effect. Then ask, “How can I support you right now? Do you want me to just listen, or would you like help thinking about what you could do?” Offering this choice (and respecting their decision) helps build children’s sense of “agency” or control over their actions, which opens the door to teaching problem-solving skills.
FINAL THOUGHTS: Helping children and teens manage big emotions can be stressful for everyone. During calm moments, teach and practice coping skills, such as deep breathing, coloring, journaling, exercising, giving positive affirmations (self-talk), or taking a break. If your family needs additional support, call 2-1-1 or talk with a parent educator, counselor, health care provider, teacher, friend, or another person you trust.
Nicole Young is the mother of two children, ages 18 and 22, who also manages Santa Cruz County's Triple P - Positive Parenting Program, the world's leading positive parenting program. Scientifically proven, Triple P is made available locally by First 5 Santa Cruz County, the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency (Mental Health Services Act) and the Santa Cruz County Human Services Department. To find a Triple P parenting class or practitioner, visit http://triplep.first5scc.org, http://www.facebook.com/triplepscc, or contact First 5 Santa Cruz County at 465-2217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.