Chrisitan parents, the kids are not alright. And they haven’t been for awhile.
In 2012, I was 16 years old, and just beginning to deal with severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. At the time, I thought I was the only one because no one else was talking about it. Now, 10 years later, I am a youth leader, consistently talking to pre-teens and teens about their mental health. Today’s kids are so much more open about the fact that they’re not okay. While the decline in youth mental health began pre-COVID, the pandemic seemed to exacerbate the trend. New CDC data reports that in 2021, 37% of high school students said they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% consistently felt sad or hopeless in the past year.
Parents, I know that the conversation on mental health can be a difficult one to have with your child. Maybe no one had that conversation with you. Maybe your emotional needs remained unmet in childhood, and you’re left floundering, trying to meet those of your kids with no model to follow. Maybe it feels like their pain is somehow your fault. But for the sake of your family and your child’s mental and spiritual health, it’s a conversation that needs to be had. Your kids need to see that their parents care about their mental health. I’m not a parent, but I would like to share with you, in all humility, some insights I have gained from ministry about having the mental health conversation effectively.
Listen more than you speak
When speaking to someone who has come to you for guidance, it can be easy to feel like if you haven’t shared some earth-shattering insight with them, you haven’t done your job. After all, that’s what they came to you for, right?
Your kids need you to hear them more than they need to hear from you. In mental health, there are no easy answers or quick-fix solutions. Before you speak, seek first to understand. Ask open-ended questions and make space for hard-to-swallow answers. Being an attentive, non-judgmental listener makes you a safe place, which is what your child needs most from you.
Be okay with “I don’t know”
Sometimes, as an authority figure, having to say “I don’t know” feels like failure. You’re supposed to have all the answers, right?
Not only is that an unrealistic expectation, it may actually draw ire and skepticism from your kids. Tough problems prompt tough questions. When having these conversations, there will be times when you don’t have a perfect answer or an air-tight solution. Today’s kids have a high BS-meter; they know when adults are simply spouting tired propaganda, when they have a hidden agenda, or when we’re just making stuff up that even we don’t believe. Being able to say “I don’t know” when you need to will actually earn your kids’ respect.
Don’t try to fix it
When your kids are little, most of their problems are fixable. Scraped knee? A band-aid and a kiss make it all better. Lost favorite toy? Drive to Walmart late at night to buy a new one and replace it, and tell your child you miraculously found it (ask my parents for a guide to that process). But as they grow up, fewer and fewer of their problems are the kind you can fix with a band-aid, a late-night-trip to Walmart, or even a kiss. Mental health, unfortunately, falls in that category. As I said before, there are no easy answers or quick-fix solutions. There are therapies and treatments to try, techniques to utilize, and processes to walk through. All of these take time and patience, both on your part and the part of your struggling child.
You’ll want to try and reduce the problem to something you can fix. You’ll want to simplify it to something familiar. But I urge you, don’t. That’s not why they’re coming to you; they’re seeking safety, not solutions. Offering them unsolicited can come off as dismissive, which is the last thing you want to be. Instead, sit with the discomfort of hearing hard things from your child and assure them that no matter what they bring to you, you’re not going anywhere.
Keep the conversation open
The mental health conversation is not a one-and-done talk; your kid won’t cease to struggle after a few wise words or hugs (as much as you might wish that were possible). Keep checking in with open-ended, neutral-toned questions like “how are you feeling lately?” or “Have you been feeling better or worse since the last time we talked?” Invite a continuing discussion and make yourself available to be part of it in every step of their journey.
Overwhelmed? You don’t have to be. There is no perfect parent, but there are lots of great ones. Having the mental health conversation with your kid shouldn’t be about having answers or having knowing all the right buzzwords. It’s about connecting with your kid, making them feel heard, and if necessary, getting them the help they need. Prayerfully open this door into your child’s life, and I’m confident you won’t regret it.
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