Show empathy and offer support gently: Tips for supporting students with mental health struggles.

Kim Ryu

Adolescents are readying for the next step in a seemingly endless set of challenges. Here’s how to help them regulate their emotions.

By Lisa Damour, Reprinted from The New York Times

Many young people are experiencing mixed feelings as they enter another school year that’s disrupted by the pandemic.

In this article, Lisa Bamour shares some suggestions on how adults can help college students and others manage their emotions healthily as they return to school.

Parents should avoid the temptation to lecture, which comes across as criticism and may shut down communication, Dr. Palmiter said. Instead, he suggested a sequence he called “pain, empathy, question.” Start by asking questions that help parents understand how the young adult is hurting, with language like: “How’s your mood these days? You’re doing so much.”

The next step, empathy, can promote more open sharing. If a child complains that their boss is yelling at them all the time, don’t step in and try to problem solve. Instead, say, “It’s terrible to go into work and be yelled at when you’re working as hard as you are. I’m sorry you’re experiencing that.” Then the parent can raise the issue of getting support.

If this does not lead to a child being more open to help, he said don’t fight it. Instead say, “If you ever change your mind, I’d be happy to partner with you in thinking about possible solutions.”

Laura Dollinger, of Beaver, Pa., tried this approach. She began to worry about the mental state of her daughter Emily after two distressing events: the breakup with her boyfriend in November of 2018 and the loss of one of her best friends in a car accident in February 2019. A straight-A student, Emily, now 19, said that she began to push “people away, slept a lot, skipped classes, and made friends with people who filled their own voids with unhealthy things.” Concerned about her daughter, Ms. Dollinger got a recommendation for a good therapist.

“My mom presented it in a nonthreatening way; I knew she cared about me and loved me,” Emily Dollinger said. She took the recommendation and said her counselor helped her to develop healthy coping skills, which she used in dealing with a recent breakup. The difference therapy made “was night and day,” Laura Dollinger said.

Mirean Coleman, a clinical manager for the National Association of Social Workers with a private practice in Washington, D.C., agrees that normalizing the situation is key; tell your child that many people struggle with their mental health and that it often helps to talk to someone about how they’re feeling. “Let them know that you will be with them every step of the way” and help them get to a better place, she said.

Ms. Garon encourages her young adult patients to approach treatment of mental health just as they would a physical ailment. Conveying the message that mental health issues are similarly treatable provides a “sense of hope.”

If a young adult is willing to seek treatment and can’t afford it, Ms. Garon said parents who can afford to help should offer to pay with sensitivity. Ms. Garon suggests saying something like: “We want to help. We know payment may be an issue. We don’t want that to be an obstacle.” She said it’s also important to respect young adults’ choice of treatment and medications.

Dr. Palmiter said for most circumstances with young adults, “Parents would do well to realize that they may ultimately have limited control.”

That was something Kelly Kerlin of Greenwood, Minn., came to understand. When her daughter Hayley, now 25, began to lose a significant amount of weight in 2015, she felt it was a way for her to have control in her life. “I was in an abusive relationship, so I felt like food and my body were two things I had control over when everything else felt chaotic and overwhelming,” Hayley Kerlin said.

When her mother realized it was an eating disorder and suggested she get treatment, the younger Ms. Kerlin initially balked. A year later, when she was so exhausted that she couldn’t fulfill her duties working at a restaurant, she checked herself into a residential eating disorder treatment center. Her mother recalled her saying, “I’m too thin. I don’t like what I look like and I don’t want to die.”

Even though she didn’t immediately follow her mother’s advice, Hayley Kerlin said that when she sought treatment, “I do feel like it helped to have my mom’s support.”

Seeking treatment is a huge step, she said, so parents should continue to be encouraging, be respectful and “give your young adult space to work through their experiences on their own terms.” Hayley Kerlin also suggests parents consider seeking therapy for themselves to help navigate these complex situations.

Ms. Kerlin completed treatment just over three years ago and said she’s doing well and will be starting a program to earn her master’s degree in education in the fall.

Even though seeking help as a young adult can be scary, she said it’s important to not be afraid to reach out to friends or family members so you don’t go through it alone. “Mental illness tends to thrive in secret,” she said. So telling somebody “can take a huge weight off your shoulders.” Though she was initially scared to seek help, “it ended up being one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

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