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The Parenting Backpack: Middle School and Mental Health

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Last spring, there were two suicides in the high-achieving Connecticut town where I live. They were separate tragedies, one involving a twelfth grader, the other a tenth grader. It rocked us all, especially the classmates of these young people. We need not know what drove them to their last desperate act. It is not our business. We need only hold their families close as they continue to navigate the unimaginable. But we must sort out how to do better by our children as the pressures around them compound—not just in my town but everywhere, especially as the new school year begins.

In June, in the wake of these suicides and the mental strain they added to a situation already complicated by the stresses of the pandemic, students from the high school called out the culture of excellence in our schools—schools that heretofore have been such a source of local pride. They beseeched the Board of Education to ease up on what they described as the toxic academic pressure to succeed that is fueling a mental health firestorm around them. They also asked for more permanent mental health support from the administration.

It’s hard to argue with either of these requests, especially considering their source. What surprised me was the absence of any reference to parents as part of the solution or our complicity (unintended as it may be) in creating this culture. (With an eighth grader and a first grader, I’m part of this too.) But let me be clear: This is not about pointing fingers. Rather, it’s about helping parents and caregivers nationwide understand just how much we can do to help with, and even pre-empt, the epidemic of anxiety and mental illness plaguing so many of our young people—especially during the critical middle school or “tween” years” when their brains are very nearly exploding with new neural connections.

These years are a growth period that rivals the first years of life, and it comes with tremendous opportunities for parents to keep their kids close while helping them cultivate the confidence and resilience they’ll need to counter the dragging influences of social media and the performance-based culture surrounding so many of them. What’s more, when our kids are 9 to 12 years old—their tween years—we still have a seat at the table with them, opportunities to build an emotional connection and imprint positively on them as we prepare them for their high school years and beyond.

All tweens are looking for parents to help them make sense of the world. We do this when we engage with them meaningfully—when we ask thoughtful questions, give them space to think, and listen to what they have to say, then validate their feelings (which is different from simply agreeing). It’s when we say, “I can understand how you would see it that way…” or, “You have mentioned that before when… .”

We rarely achieve it when our focus is solely on their success. But, you may ask, don’t we want our kids to be “happy”? And isn’t success a sure path to that? That’s why we push them to excel, right? It’s for their own good.

But the thing is, our children pick up on our expectations. They want to please us, so they compete with each other to meet them, comparing themselves to each other and finding their inadequacies. Yes, we are compassionate, but this is for them, for their future, we think. So our schools become pressure cookers—for kids and adults.

Let’s face it; if we parents don’t like the support our kids are getting, we are quick to make the call to the teacher, principal, school board, or coach rather than work with our children to find the best way to tackle whatever the challenge may be. Perhaps their schedule is out of control, or maybe our child shouldn’t be in all AP and honors classes. When we stop talking and listen, really listen to the experiences of our children, then respond with them, not for them, we create calm. We give them confidence. We give them a chance against anxiety.

For sure, whatever we do, sticks. Because when our kids move on to high school, to college, to life, it is what will be in the backpack they take with them. Will they carry memories that build their confidence and give them resilience? Or will those memories make them question their every move?

It’s something to consider as we shop for new supplies, fill book bags and send our kids back to school this fall.

If you or someone you know experiences mental health issues, it is important to seek help from a qualified professional. Our Resource Specialist can help you find expert mental health resources to recover in your community. Contact us now for more information on this free service to our users.

About the Author: Amanda Craig, PhD, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT)

A native of Richfield, Minnesota, and now based in Southern Connecticut and New York City, Dr. Craig has been in practice for more than 20 years. She specializes in treating relationship issues such as communication, conflict resolution, and infidelity, as well as individual depression, anxiety, addiction, and life-work harmony. Her book, Who Are You and What Have You Done with My Kid? … Connect with Your Tween While They’re Still Listening is due out September 20, 2022, from Hachette Book Group.

National Suicide Prevention Week 2022 Is September 4-10

National Suicide Prevention Week is observed each year in the United States during the week surrounding World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. Every year at this time, www.rtor.org and other mental health organizations participate in this week-long campaign to raise awareness about suicide prevention and the warning signs of suicide. This year we feature a guest blog post by Amanda Craig, PhD, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) with offices in Darien, CT and Manhattan, www.manhattanmft.com.

Want to read ‘Who Are You, and What Have You Done with My Kid?’ ? Check out the link above!

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