Editor’s Note: Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group.
While a seventh grade boy taught an eighth grade boy how to start a knitting row, a seventh grade girl put the finishing touches on her knit bunny and a diverse group of middle schoolers streamed into a classroom in Washington, DC, for knitting club.
As the pandemic drags on, the club – founded by Sheridan School teachers Christine Heiler and Laura Nakatani – has increasingly drawn students who find they benefit from starting their day with a meditative activity alongside calm, warm adults.
As the Sheridan School counselor, I recognize that creative interventions such as knitting club can help bolster students’ well-being at this challenging time. Anxiety and depression symptoms among children have doubled, and the US Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics have called the current state of children’s mental health a crisis. Communities are experiencing a shortage of pediatric mental health care providers, and few schools have adequate resources to meet kids’ growing needs.
‘My stomach worries so much it hurts’
Our children need help, but they are not often getting it. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-school counselor ratio of 250 to 1, but the ratio in 2019-2020 was 424 to 1. Meanwhile, only 40% of US schools have a dedicated registered nurse, which is equally problematic, as kids in emotional distress often have physical symptoms and visit the health room rather than a counselor. Recently, the nurse walked a young student to my office after he handed her a note that read, “My stomach worries so much it hurts.”
Now, children are returning from winter break after two years of uncertainty in the midst of a surge in Covid-19 cases, spurred by the Omicron variant. While some school districts have already switched to remote learning, students at other districts may be worried about potential school closures. More kids might still be fearful after the Oxford High School shooting in Michigan. Limited resources are a significant barrier to supporting these students, but the biggest constraint might be the emotional well-being of the adults raising, educating and working with them.
In a recent study on risk and resilience in more than 14,000 middle and high school students from 49 schools, psychologist Suniya Luthar found that parental support is the most important variable in every ethnic group. Luthar is founder and executive director of the nonprofit organization AC Groups and professor emeritus at Teachers College, Columbia University.
“There is no stronger protective factor for kids than their primary caregiver’s mental health,” she said, referencing The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s Vibrant and Healthy Kids 2019 report and her own research.
“We know from decades of research that when parents are unhappy or highly distressed, this inevitably negatively affects their parenting behaviors, so it’s incumbent on us as a society to figure out how to bring continuous and sustained support for people who are raising the next generation.”
Here are five ways adults can help themselves and the children in their care.
1. Self-care isn’t just for your benefit
If it’s difficult for you to prioritize taking care of yourself, reframe it as something you’re doing to help your child. Decades of resilience research has shown that a child’s wellness is tied to that of their parent, and that may be particularly true for fathers. The impact of fathers’ depression symptoms on perceived child stress may be stronger than the effects reported by mothers, according to a September 2021 study published in the journal Child Psychiatry and Human Development.
Identify one or two people in your life who make you feel psychologically safe. As Luthar said, “parents must have on hand others who will put on their oxygen mask for them, because we as adults can also be grasping for air.”
2. Talk about substantive stuff regularly with at least one ‘go-to’ person
Then name it with them. “Say, ‘Will you be my go-to person?’” so you both feel more accountable for maintaining it. Make a commitment to be in touch with that person once a week, “not just to shoot the breeze, but to talk about things that are important to you,” Luthar said.
3. Help your child get the help they need, even if it’s not from you
Figure out what your child needs. Is it information? Someone else to carry their fears or worries? Practical help connecting with friends?
It’s OK if you don’t feel equipped to support your child alone. Ask them who they feel close to and who makes them comfortable, such as an aunt, cousin or neighbor, then prioritize ongoing connections with that individual.
Schools can take a similar approach by having students nominate two or three adults they feel close to in that setting and then match them.
“It could be the football coach, band teacher, biology teacher or the receptionist at the front desk,” Luthar said, adding that schools should track which adults are nominated frequently. They should help them, too, she noted, “by demarcating protected time where their sole task is to be available for check-ins with students.”
4. Look for support groups for children and for adults
I facilitate “Worrybusters” groups at my school to teach children coping skills and normalize their concerns. It’s powerful for them to connect with peers who struggle in similar ways, whether they meet formally or informally. In fact, a few members of one of my groups came in after Thanksgiving to report that they held an impromptu “meeting” in one student’s backyard during the break.
Adults also benefit from structured group support. For example, Luthar offers groups for adults including parents, educators and clinicians through AC Groups. The organization Mental Health Outreach for Mothers (MOMS for short) – founded by Megan Smith, director of the Yale Child Study Center Parent and Family Development Program – offers groups designed to improve the mental health of low-income mothers.
5. Throw spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks
To prevent children from getting discouraged, I tell them that the first intervention we try may not work, and that’s OK. At a time when the variables and coronavirus variants keep changing, staying flexible in finding effective strategies is crucial.
Don’t be afraid to cope out loud. Let your child hear you stay hopeful even if the first thing you try is ineffective. Emotion contagion is real, and as Luthar pointed out, “parents need to be calm, loving and relaxed – or at the very least, not miserable, too.”
When in doubt, stop talking and simply listen. Students frequently relay how much they dislike it when parents tell them how they feel. In other words, you and your child have many of the same needs.
“Just like children need ongoing, unconditional support to manage in the face of unrelenting, high levels of stress, we grown-ups need exactly the same thing,” Luthar said. “Who doesn’t need love, and who doesn’t need more love at this point in history, when humanity has been collectively traumatized.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the nonprofit through which Suniya Luthar offers adult support groups.