We have been living through an unprecedented time over the past two years, a time filled with uncertainty, disappointment, and loss. And we know that our wider community has felt the impact of the mental health crisis facing our children and that more children and adolescents are struggling with mental health needs than ever before as they grow up in an unfamiliar world. It can be uncomfortable, sometimes even painful, to watch our children struggle. We may have the urge to step in and fix any situation, but most of the time children (and adults) simply need to be seen and heard, accepted, and understood, and “fixing” may not be the best approach. But what should we do?
To help us navigate this time with our children, the Parents Association arranged for a special evening dedicated to exploring how to parent in this extraordinary time. Spearheaded by Vice President-at-Large Claire Farver, we welcomed Catherine McCarthy, PhD, and Jennifer Weaver, LCSW, to the MacArthur Campus last week for a presentation on “Modern Parenting.” (Below you will find an audio recording of the talk as well as a link to the slides.)
In the presentation last Thursday, Dr. McCarthy shared data on the increase in mental health challenges among youth right now, reinforcing the fact that some young people need increased support. It makes sense that we all would be experiencing periods of intense, unpleasant emotions right now. With connection and support, however, we and our children are able to move through unpleasant feelings. Dr. McCarthy and Ms. Weaver spoke about using this time as an opportunity to help our children recognize their ability to handle uncertainty. While there have been many negative effects of the pandemic, we can shift the paradigm and use this opportunity to help our children be more flexible, adaptable, and able to handle uncertainty in ways that will support their emotional growth in the future.
Dr. McCarthy and Ms. Weaver also reminded us that anxiety feeds off uncertainty, and the more we help our children get comfortable with not always having certainty and being able to manage discomfort, the more their mental health will be protected. Dr. McCarthy and Ms. Weaver shared the metaphor of a bird on a branch to encourage us, as loving caregivers, to step back and, instead of “shoring up the branch” and trying to pave the way and fix things for our children (the bird), to help our children find their wings and recognize that they can handle difficult emotions and face challenges that come their way.
Finally, Dr. McCarthy and Ms. Weaver offered practical strategies and ideas, including reminders to step out of problem-solving and -fixing for our children, use fewer words, validate their feelings, and ask questions. We should prioritize connection and find other moments to share oxytocin (the “love hormone”) through moments of love and joy outside the moments of challenge. Some other recommendations for parents from their slides:
- Connectedness is the most important protective factor for mental health.
- Remind yourself that your child’s discomfort is useful and necessary, like a vaccination against the flu.
- Anxiety is contagious, so take care of yourself!
- Be curious.
- Talk about values.
- Openly accept uncertainty.
If you are concerned that your child or you are not able to move through periods of challenge or that the overwhelming feelings are continually affecting your daily lives, that is a sign to reach out for further support. You are always welcome to reach out to Day School Counselor Ms. Reilly to talk through concerns or receive referrals and resources.
Audio Recording of Presentation: Passcode: +G&2z$J1