by Danielle Marie Holland
As the academic year kicks off, parents and guardians across Seattle fill out last-minute paperwork, pack backpacks and lunch sacks, and remind countless children to set out their clothes the night before. While adults nudge children and teenagers to grab a sweater on their way out the door, many can forget to actively check in and stay engaged with their kids’ mental health.
“Adults often have trouble understanding what students are going through,” said Natalya McConnell, executive board director of the Seattle Student Union and senior at Franklin High School. “We have never had such a widespread pandemic, and this has isolated a lot of students,” she continued, adding that many students are still in a state of crisis. That the past three years have been difficult for students to navigate is largely understood; Seattle recently approved a $4.5 million investment in the Student Mental Health Supports pilot.
Students have long been advocating for a seat at the table. In just this year alone, from the January town hall convenings at Rainier Beach High School to the current investment project with the City, students have been saying, “We must be taken into account.” Students are calling for input on how monies and resources should be allocated, and have been addressing the inequity of said allocations.
It is crucial to listen to student voices to address gun violence, social media/bullying, disengagement, and substance abuse. But listening doesn’t just stop with “the big things.” Even small daily recalibrations from the impact of COVID isolation are essential. Making friends, figuring out social interactions, and learning in person require time.
McConnell asks, “How do I, you know, be just a normal high schooler again, because nothing about this is normal.” Seniors like McConnell may never know what being a “normal” high school student is, as they had one semester of high school experiences before COVID upended their lives. “What is normal?” is a question students across K–12 have been asking. As most elementary schools of the past decade have experienced lockdown drills, students are living a far cry from the “normal” of, if not their parents, then their grandparents. Nothing about this is normal, indeed.
Dr. Janine Jones, professor of school psychology and licensed psychologist, suggests parents help kids build coping skills for the realities they face. “We’re not going to lie to our children about what is real in life, and we do everything we can to put them in environments that are as safe as possible.” Accounting for the truth that nowhere is necessarily safe with all of the ways that guns are impacting society, Jones says to begin with honesty. “Be honest with what they can handle developmentally — you know your child better than anyone.”
The second critical issue she points out is how parents and guardians communicate with their children. “Communication is probably the most critical tool that you use with your kids by checking in every day,” said Jones. And for those times when your kid just doesn’t want to talk – “having a signal for when they don’t want to talk at that moment, that you schedule the time to talk about it later.” Jones suggests making sure that you are modeling emotional communication, talking about what you feel, but with the caveat of not infusing your feelings onto your child.
A helpful tool Jones points out is parallel communication. For example, taking your kid out for a drive while conversing can often help when the conversation isn’t flowing. Kids will often tell parents things that they wouldn’t tell them when they’re sitting at home, but they’ll tell them in the car and it’s because that dynamic feels less pressured.
“By keeping an open channel of communication with your child, you will be aware of social stressors or difficulties your child may be experiencing and can provide guidance for how they might address the problem”, said Megan Kennedy, director of the University of Washington’s Resilience Lab. Honesty and communication will help your child develop resilience, which she defines as “the ability to cope with challenges effectively and be well.” Kennedy says that the cultivation of resilience is developed by “inner resources, such as emotional intelligence, stress tolerance, interpersonal skills, and compassion toward self and others.”
“The ability to cope is a natural ability we have in ourselves that can be built up in our youth,” shared Jones. “Knowing how to respond to life’s challenges and being equipped with various ways of responding to different stressors and recognizing how your body responds to stress is resilience.”
McConnell reminds parents that even while creating open-arms conversations, it’s important to have patience. She also points out the necessity for those who can to reach out and help other families that need more support. “It’s really important as families that we support other students — students in the entire community, not just our own.”
I think that during this pandemic we kind of forgot how necessary it is to have our community,” McConnell said, “but it’s important to reestablish that community we have and support people throughout our communities.” Whether by reestablishing, or creating a new sense of community, all parents (who have the capacity) can be active in supporting our school communities across Seattle.
“By building up our community spaces and creating environments where we have others who can support us when we can’t, or when we don’t have enough skills to take care of ourselves, children are less likely to be impacted by adverse childhood experiences,” said Jones. McConnell says that now is the time for parents to work on community building and fostering connectivity to ensure that all of Seattle’s children have access to the resources they need.
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Danielle Marie Holland is an essayist, transformative writer, and podcaster. Danielle is a regular contributing writer at Parents Magazine, and her work has been published in DAME, Insider, Rewire News Group, and beyond. Her book A String of Apologies is forthcoming via Hinton Publishing.
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