It’s Back-To-School Week, and we are all settling into our new routines. Just after dinner last night, I hear my newly minted high school senior shout for me from her bedroom. “Mom, can you come here? I need you.” I’ve been around the house a few times to know that this kind of request can head south pretty fast. As I walk to her door, I’m wondering if we’ll have a long conversation about her new schedule and not having friends in her lunch period. Or maybe she wants me to bring her a La Croix. It could be anything. From her doorway, I can’t tell if she is under the covers already or sitting at her desk. I brace myself.
It turns out she is sitting casually at her desk, folders out and shuffling papers. “Mom, sign this. They want to make sure that you know I am playing with fire in science class.” Oh right, just playing with fire. I dutifully sign on the line with a magic marker. That’s legit, right? Then it’s a behavioral agreement, attendance policy, and some other classroom-specific form from her lit class.
This is great. She hasn’t even looked me in the eye, and she’s done with me. I know, most moms would feel slighted or hurt. Right at this moment, I am not. I’m on my way to the kitchen to put something away, so this pit stop was kind of a detour. But I’m a mom, so I do it.
I also know that in less than an hour, I might be summoned again to discuss some actual problem and that visit will last much longer. You see, as a social worker passionate about social-emotional learning in school and at home, it’s often open season at our house for any topic. My daughters’ father is also a huge reason for this. Dinnertime topics will range from sex ed, boundaries, attachment theory, global warming, immigration, rocket propulsion, or Futurama. After much coaching, he even got me to watch the Netflix series Big Mouth with our kids. There isn’t much left to talk about at this point.
Except this is the point. Not all families are like ours, and ours is not this open 100% of the time. No matter how accessible and vulnerable parents want to be with their kids, not every family relationship can be this honest. The journey of childhood and adolescence being traveled by our kids while we travel a parallel journey of adulthood through parenthood is going to ebb and flow with levels of engagement and communication. We all know that there will be times when we are closer and more aligned with certain people in our lives. This goes for our kids too.
I recently spoke with a friend who just dropped her daughter off 2000 miles from their home in Oregon to start school in Michigan. We connected on her way through town after a fun-filled but tiring weekend. A new empty nester, I could see her struggling with the parting and worrying about how her youngest was going to deal with the stress of college.
My first question to her was, “Does she have someone to talk to or someplace to go on campus when she needs help? Does she know where the school’s health center is if she needs it?”
My friend’s response was the usual one. Yes, her daughter knows where it is, and if she gets sick, she knows to go there.
Well, this wasn’t an answer to my actual question. I didn’t ask if she knew where to go when she gets a cold. I am more worried about where she would go when classes get to be too much and her anxiety levels get more intense. Does she know to ask for a counselor or therapist when she feels overwhelmed?
Some kids are self-aware enough to acknowledge they struggle with stress at times. Yet this describes only a portion of students. Even with social-emotional learning prioritized in schools, not all kids are this self-aware.
The answer to my real question was no; my friend didn’t think her daughter would know who to go to if it came to that. There was a family member in a nearby town that might be able to help. And the daughter said she would be calling home all the time.
Yes, these can be helpful strategies, but in my opinion, they are more of a band-aid approach.
I thought back to when my daughters entered middle school. As an overly involved parent, I already had a relationship with the middle school counselor, and I adored her. We were lucky enough to be in a district that not only had social workers to handle students with 504s and IEPs, but also a school counselor to assist the rest of the population. Not every school has these kinds of resources, and I realize this. But I knew our counselor, and I wanted my girls to know her too, just in case.
Meet the helpers when everyone is in a good space so the kids can learn to feel comfortable asking for help. So on Back-to-School Day, I made sure both my girls met the school counselor face to face and knew where her office was before the year even started. We talked about being able to stop by her office if they were having a bad day or are feeling sad or just wanted someone to talk to at lunchtime. Embarrassed as they were, each one took us up on our offer at least once in their three years of middle school. I also remember hearing that my daughters mentioned her to some friends and encouraged them to seek her out.
It was a simple tactic, but I wanted my daughters to know that they didn’t have to keep things to themselves all day, and there was someone in the building that cared about how they felt. (Yes, the teachers most definitely cared about their feelings too, but not all math teachers have time to hear about lunchtime or locker drama.)
Since then, I’ve encouraged all my friends and clients to make the introductions at their schools. Meet the helpers when everyone is in a good space so the kids can learn to feel comfortable asking for help. Yes, you want them to come to you, but you might not be available right after Chemistry.
This leads me back to the agreements I just signed. These forms let the school know that my children and I communicate about their education and that I am aware of what is going on in the classroom. I would be interested in turning this around and getting a form or permission slip stating that my child met with the school mental health provider, knows where their office is located, and learned how to make an appointment if necessary. And, like being excused from gym class if you play a varsity sport, a child could be excused from this activity if they already see a therapist outside of school.
Let’s normalize these relationships with counselors. Let’s help make schools feel more welcoming for students to talk about their mental health, the same way they would reach out to a teacher for extra help on homework. Together, we can make a difference.
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