With help from our research for The Born This Way Foundation, BTW's President, Cynthia Bissett Germanotta, offers tips for adults who want to do better for the young people in their lives.
Do you talk to your kids about mental health?
So do I! At least that’s what I thought I was doing.
My husband, Joe, and I always made an effort to talk to our girls about how they were feeling and the problems they were facing as they were growing up. But, with the benefit of hindsight and a healthy dose of honesty, I realize now we may have been listening — but we weren’t always understanding.
As a mom, it’s hard to watch your children experience the painful emotions that we all feel sometimes – especially when they’re grappling with their mental health. My own daughter, Stefani (who most of you know as Lady Gaga), began to struggle with anxiety and depression when she was an adolescent and there were many times I felt helpless.
My instinct was to turn to what I had been taught growing up, relying on my generation’s emphasis on grit to get you through the tough times. While learning you are strong enough to cope with life’s ups and downs is a vital lesson, I realize now my approach wasn’t always applicable to what my daughter was going through, and that my response when she tried to share how she was feeling wasn’t always helpful. I had this instinctive desire to protect and fix which, while well-meaning, was more of a response as to how I might deal with things.
And I know I’m not alone in this realization.
My team at the Born This Way Foundation and I have had the honor of talking with young people and parents from communities across the country and from all walks of life. From conversations with middle school students in Miami and homeless LGBTQIA+ youth in Oklahoma, dinners at our restaurant in New York City, to more systemized research we’ve conducted, one common theme continues to emerge:
We don’t just need to talk about mental health within our families — we need to have better conversations about mental health. We need to learn — as adults who care about the youth in our lives — how to have conversation that are open, honest, ongoing and judgment-free.
Recently, we asked 20 young people and 20 of their parents and guardians to tell us about their lives, relationships and mental health through online diaries, answering a series of questions each evening over the course of several days.
Through these diaries, the disconnect that too often exists between parents and young people when it comes to talking about serious issues including stress and mental health became clear. Here are some of the lessons we learned:
Parents underestimate the stress their children are under. For example, one young woman said, “I feel understood in most departments. My parents understand my willingness, playfulness, and humor best [but] I feel misunderstood when it comes to anxiety and emotions, it’s hard to dissect for them.” At the same time, parents are concealing their own stress from their children. We heard from parents and guardians who said things like, “My sons are too young to understand,” and, “I don’t want to stress them out, it’s my job to protect them from these things,” when describing why they don’t open up about how they’re feeling.
Young people are particularly unwilling to open up when they fear being judged. In the words of one young man, “I’d tell my parents more secretive stuff if I knew they wouldn’t judge me or make me feel stupid.”
Overall, parents think they’re having conversations about mental health with their children, but a lot is getting lost in translation. For example, there was the father who talked confidently about how he and his daughter, “discuss dealing with everyday stress, how it can be managed by rest, healthy food and exercise.” However, his daughter shared how, “I’ve talked to my parents about anxiety and stress. My mom is a bit more understanding. My dad sometimes doesn’t always recognize the issue.” Another young woman described how, “I’ve talked to my parents about anxiety, but sometimes I think they don’t believe me,” while her mother told us, “I’ve talked to my daughter about anxiety issues, she sometimes has mild panic attacks. I encourage her to go to counseling at college.”
So what, as parents and other adults who want to do better for the young people in our lives, are we supposed to do? Here’s some suggestions based on what we’ve heard from youth:
Resist the temptation to judge. We’re all carrying the biases of our particular generations, life experiences, opinions and beliefs. But if we want young people to be honest with us, we have to prove to them we’re willing to set all that aside and help — or just listen. And when we’re able to do that, it can make all of the difference. As one young woman told us, “I recently had to confide in my mom about a serious problem. She didn’t lecture or judge me, she just helped me take care of it. I think that started me seeing her more as someone I could go to, not just a ‘mom.’”
Be honest about your own struggles. Is it any wonder that young people feel like adults don’t understand how they’re feeling when those adults are never honest about their own stress or anxiety? We need to be brave enough to be honest with young people — so that they understand they’re not alone, so that they can see that life might not get easier as you get older, but you can get better at coping, and so that they have role models for healthy conversations about emotional well-being.
Keep talking. Get rid of the idea that talking about mental and emotional health is a “check the box” conversation you only need to have once. This isn’t “a talk,” it’s an ongoing dialogue. So keep talking about the serious stuff and the fun stuff. The awkward stuff that makes you both blush and the sensitive stuff that makes you both cry. The sources of joy and the sources of stress. But most importantly, just keep talking and just keep listening.
I know all of that is easy on paper and — more often than not — difficult in practice. So get comfortable with the idea that you won’t always get these conversations right (no one does!) and commit yourself to keep trying anyways. I’m still working on it every day.
(Looking for an invitation to start practicing better mental health conversations in your family? Check out our #BeKind21 challenge. It’s an opportunity to build habits of kindness that will support the wellness of yourself and those around you.)