How adults can be a safe person for kids to talk, and help them develop better social-emotional skills

7 Investigates: Youth Mental Health
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 8:48 PM CDT
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(WSAW) - Knowing what to say or how to connect with kids to let them open up about the difficulties they are facing can be challenging, but doing so is important to support kids’ mental wellness. Research shows having at least one supportive adult who a kid feels comfortable talking with helps to protect them against poor mental well-being.

All people need connection, to feel they are safe being themselves even when they are not at their best. This is especially true for kids whose brains are still developing and learning skills to cope and adapt with the challenges life presents them.

”When I was really young, I had some very traumatic impacts in my life,” Josie Leiter, a freshman from Wausau East High School said. “And I didn’t really have the best parent supports to help guide me through those things.”

She said as she has gotten older, she has had other supportive adults and sought help, ultimately therapy. She said she was empowered to manage her mental well-being the way she wants to handle it.

“That’s not for everybody; it’s hard to make that step because, you know, you’re recognizing, ‘hey, like I, you know, I have some things that I want to talk about, and I’m ready to talk about it.’ But I think that for me, doing that and looking for resources, and being given resources has really made my life turn around for the better. You know, I’m much more happy (sic).”

Bridger Lemmon, a junior at Merrill High School said while his family was supportive generally, he said mental health was not talked about.

”My family, it was really a hard-working, Midwestern-strong, you know, type of family; we built three houses across my lifetime. So, we didn’t really have the time to express you know, what we truly thought we just kind of like keep moving forward, you know. So I guess, that kind of impacted me negatively because I didn’t really know how to express my problems with myself.”

He explained that by having support at school and through the Raise Your Voice club, he was able to gain skills to better understand and manage his experiences and emotions. He said his parents have opened up too and it has improved his relationships.

“My mom is way more open to me now than she was before, yeah. Even my stepfather, too, as well. He’s open and supports my journey as a mental health advocate. It’s just, this club is really special.”

”Kids are wanting... not only teachers, but wanting their parents to know, right, wanting their guardians, their older brothers and sisters, or their aunts and uncles to understand where they’re coming from, to understand that their feelings are real and validate their feelings,” Erin Jacobson said.

She is the school social worker and mental health navigator for the D.C. Everest Area School District. She also is in the parent engagement working group under the Caring for Kids community effort to address the youth mental health crisis.

“Our parents are asking for: How do I help? What do I say? What are the signs and symptoms that I should be looking for? If I know my child is struggling, how do I get help? What is help going to look like? It’s scary sometimes to ask for help.”

Let’s start with becoming a safe person for a child to talk to.

“My best advice is just to listen,” Allie Libby, a counselor at Merrill High School said. She continued if you do not know how to start a conversation to begin that listening, she suggests asking them questions about themselves while in the car.

”You don’t have to be looking at each other, but talking to them and trying to engage them. Ask them about, you know, what interest they have, just building that relationship.”

Noticing things and asking questions about what you notice can make them feel seen. It can also keep you tuned in with what their typical behavior is when they are doing well, or otherwise.

“‘Hey, I noticed that you haven’t been hanging out with your friend as much anymore, and you’ve been up in your room and not coming down for dinner anymore. Is there something going on? Is there something that you want to talk about?’ And not in, like, ‘Is there something going (on)? Is there something you want to...,’” she said in a more confrontational tone. “You know, just like an open way of just allowing them like, ‘I’m noticing that when your friends ask you to hang out, you don’t go and hang out.’”

D.C. Everest Senior High science teacher, Tony DeGrand has become a safe person for many of his students. In 2020, he noticed his students were not engaged, so he asked -- truly wanting to know -- how they were doing.

”I have letters from them, essentially saying ‘DeGrand, you have no idea what a difference that made.’”

He said since that time he has made a concerted effort to build relationships with students. The process can be slow, as not all students are open to it or feel comfortable being vulnerable about their situations or emotions.

“It’s a lot of work to try and constantly talk to kids to get them to talk to you,” he admitted. “Because a lot of them are just going to shut down or kind of just save face and not say anything and say ‘yeah, I’m fine, I’m okay.’ But to really kind of drill down to what’s going on in their lives. That’s where you really make a deep connection with the kids, and that’s when you really find out what’s going on in their lives.”

As a teacher, that is important because if students are distracted by other things going on in their lives and do not feel like their teacher cares, then they will likely be less willing and able to learn.

Students like Braden Zoromski, a junior at DCE Senior High, also have expressed how important building relationships is to supporting kids’ mental health.

“A lot of kids, they’ll come to other peers before they come to an adult. And I think that’s kind of a problem because if you’re coming to minors and you’re coming to like kids for like big problems, which they really aren’t capable of handling yet. And so, I think making sure that those relationships are there that you can come and communicate your problems to trusted adults is really important.”

When kids answer a question about themselves that you pose, they will be noticing whether you are actively listening to what they have to say and willing to take the time to understand them, rather than just trying to tell them what to do.

“Often, when we are having a conversation with someone you jump into like, either you want to solve the problem, which that’s usually our role as a parent,” Libby noted. “It’s like, ‘I’m just gonna-- I want to make this better for you. So, I’m going to solve the problem.’ And (instead) just saying, ‘Thank you so much for telling me about this. I really appreciate you coming to me. Do you want me to be here for you and try to solve this problem? Or do you just want me to listen?’ Because we jump into it, and then they can get feel frustrated. Or, you know, ‘Well, this is what I did, and this is how you should handle it.’ And trying not to do that, but just really sitting and listening and validating how they feel and then asking how can I best support you?’”

After counseling hundreds of kids, and graduating high school not all that long ago herself, she said the world these kids are experiencing is vastly different than what people even a few years older experienced. So, comparing your lived experience with theirs, while it may seem helpful, can actually be harmful because it can invalidate or minimize what they are going through.

If they do not know what they want, whether they just want to be listened to, encouraged, to be given advice, etc., Libby recommends thanking them and telling them you would be happy to work through what they want from you or you are open to having the conversation again.

“We don’t always have to have an answer for something, but our kids want to be listened to, and valued, and understood that they’re going through hard times,” Jacobson urged.

”I just reaffirm to them that I’m, I’m happy that you’re here,” DeGrand stated. “And I’m sorry that you’re going through this, but I’m happy that you feel comfortable telling me you know, and if it is something very serious that we should go talk to a counselor.”

”Being a parent is so hard and there’s no easy answer,” Libby added in. “(The) best thing is just to like, listen and support them and be there for them and try to remain as nonjudgmental, which can be hard. Because if a kid comes to you and says that they did something that you’re like,” she grunted as if angry. “I can’t, it’s hard for me to agree with that’s really hard to not have that reaction, but you still as a parent have to have structure and consequences and rules. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t still be that safe person for them.”

As for potential concerning signs to watch for in kids’ behavior, the National Institute of Health has a list of talking points, feelings, and other changes in behavior.

Suicide is complicated and tragic, but it is often preventable. Knowing the warning signs for...
Suicide is complicated and tragic, but it is often preventable. Knowing the warning signs for suicide and how to get help can help save lives. Learn about behaviors that may be a sign that someone is thinking about suicide. For more information, visit #shareNIMH(National Institutes of Health)

Helping kids develop life skills

7 Investigates: Supporting Students

Supporting students to grow into adults with the skills needed to live healthy lives is complicated because each child has different strengths, weaknesses, and their own personalities. It can be especially challenging to help kids develop skills when they are doing things or reacting in ways adults find challenging, testing their patience. However, helping them build those skills is crucial, especially as educators see more children of all ages behind developmentally in their social and emotional skills. That is, in part, due to the pandemic because it impacted critical opportunities for kids to interact with others and learn those skills from a variety of adults.

Managing emotions is one area kids have had more difficulty doing. Emotions are complex for even adults, but it is adults’ job to help them understand and navigate those big feelings.

”When my kids were very young, and they were upset, I would say things like I can sense you’re frustrated, reinforcing their emotions, so they know that it’s okay and healthy to feel those emotions,” Corie Zelazoski, the director of operations at the Boys & Girls Club of Antigo said.

She noted she has seen a lot of anger in kids coming to the club recently, adding it is often because it is an easier, less-vulnerable emotion to feel after experiencing the last several tumultuous years, not to mention any other challenges their family may be facing. However, they could be feeling something deeper; so, helping kids identify what they are feeling is important.

”When we experience an emotion, it really arrives in, sort of, the lower, emotional part of our brain,” Jennifer Smith explained. “And if we can put a label on that emotion, it helps to move that to our thinking brain, or we’re better able to deal with and navigate and manage and process that feeling.”

Smith is the program coordinator for the Center for Community Health Advancement under Marshfield Clinic Health System. She works with psychologists, doctors, educators, and researchers to help schools and after-school programs implement best practices. This includes the Life Tools program. The Boys & Girls Club of Antigo implemented it, along with other programs, to help kids gain the skills they need to manage their emotions themselves or know when to get help.

“There’s a ton of different breathing exercises that kids can do,” Zelazoski listed. “We work on having fidget toys, getting kids just moving; movement and rhythm is really helpful and regulating kids when they feel dysregulated.”

Smith said adults need to shift their thinking to understand why kids may be behaving in ways adults find difficult.

”The behaviors that are often the most challenging are exactly what kids are supposed to be doing at that age.”

She adds, oftentimes what is happening is that the demands of the child’s environment are more than what they are capable of handling themselves.

“So, 8- to 10-year-olds have a lot of friendship problems. You know, we talked about, there’s a lot of drama in the third grade, right? That’s kind of what we hear with (sic) teachers. That’s what we hear with (sic) out-of-school-time environments, and that’s what 8- to 10-year-olds are doing. They don’t really know how to be a friend yet.”

They need adults to learn how to be a friend: How to have healthy, respectful communication; how to resolve conflicts and repair relationships; and how to see things from another perspective.

”When you have drama, rather than saying, I don’t want you two talking to each other for the rest of the day -- it serves me as the adult because then I don’t have to deal with this -- but I have not helped those kids develop any friendship skills by doing that. And that’s really why they’re having these issues because they don’t have those skills.”

“So it’s much more effective for me to sit down and say, OK, what has happened here,” Smith continued. “Each person gets a turn. I’m going to model healthy communication. We’re going to listen to each other. Perspective-taking, that’s a really high-level important skill. We’re going to problem-solve. How can we resolve this together? Conflict resolution. All of those are skills that we have to learn.”

There is a lot to be mindful of when interacting with children.

“The way we really approach kids is powerful, and really does impact them,” Smith urged.

This is why the Wisconsin After School Network in partnership with Marshfield Clinic Health System has created short videos and hosted lengthy webinars, which are geared towards professionals providing education and care to children, however, Smith said are very applicable to parents and adults looking to support the children in their lives too. The next live webinar will be in July. This link to sign up is not ready to register participants at this point, however, MCHS states to check back closer to July. Past webinars are available to view at this link.

The Wisconsin Office of Children’s Mental Health also offers a wide variety of tools and advice to help parents and other adults support kids. Click here and explore the site.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness, Northwoods chapter also offers several resources. While NAMI focuses on people with diagnosed mental illnesses, they also support people to have good mental health. It offers peer-to-peer support and resource groups, family support and education groups, and training for businesses called Workplace Wellness to help with educating workforce leaders about how to support employees’ mental health.

“That’s what it comes down to,” Tracy Johnson, NAMI Northwoods’ interim executive director said. “We need to educate people so that they understand, you know, yeah, people have these differences, but they’re not the end of the world and they don’t mean that people are less productive.”

She also encourages people to not be afraid to make mistakes when learning and talking about mental health and suicide, and for those with more knowledge on the subject to be forgiving when talking to those learning and help educate.

“People are so... they don’t want to seem like they’re making it worse. They don’t want to ask questions. But when these things happen -- as Humans, part of us, we’re naturally nosy -- but the other part of us, we sincerely want to learn; we do want to do better, I believe,” Johson said. “Finding out how to talk to people that have experienced losses this way, I think is really important, unfortunately, because it’s becoming pretty prevalent.”

Education is what teens have expressed they want adults to do better at prioritizing too.

“Education and listening, taking the time to check in on people is something that’s really going to help it improve,” Leila Heuser, a junior at Wausau West High School said about the overall mental health crisis in kids.