Back-to-School Prep: Emotional and Mental Safety
By Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. via GOOP
Katy is sobbing as she says goodbye to her summer friends. She feels worried about the coming school year and how she will fit in with her new buzz cut. On top of a challenging school schedule for his junior year, Sam has to work to help his family. His parents have been fighting a lot at home, and he feels immense pressure to do well enough to get a scholarship so that he can go to college. Zander has just come out as nonbinary. They are terrified that they will be bullied for this at school.
Last year at Sarah’s high school, numerous cyberthreats closed down the campus and led to a terrifying lockdown and fears of an active shooter. She is not feeling confident in her school’s leadership because they handled the incidents so poorly. Will they be able to keep her and her classmates safe?
For families with school-age children, it’s time to jump into the new school year. Today, there’s much more to school readiness than shopping for fall school clothing and supplies. Young people’s lives have become so much more complicated, and the stakes seem to grow ever higher around academic performance and achievement. In addition to emotional and social stresses, today’s students can expect to take part in active shooter drills and conversations about what to do if someone shows up on campus with a gun. News stories about school violence are constantly at kids’ fingertips, and parents and teachers are exposed to these same fears and concerns every day of the school year. Many overwhelmed and overworked teachers wrestle with poor morale, and anxious parents can contribute to the fears of their children.
When we are not able to draw on emotional balance and a positive mental attitude, we are in our reactive brains, which operate in fight, flight, or freeze. These reptilian responses can generate despair, panic, and even violence when not properly addressed. Scared student brains cannot learn well. Suicidal gestures may be contagious among impressionable young people. Some youth may turn to drugs, alcohol, and vaping to try to tamp down stress. Obviously, this is not helpful to brain development—especially for young people between the ages of twelve and twenty-four.
It’s time to make conversations about mental and emotional safety a permanent part of the back-to-school to-do list. The good news is that we have unprecedented access to a great variety of methods and evidence-proven techniques for calming ourselves, managing emotions, creating a positive mind-set, and peacefully resolving interpersonal conflicts.
Keys to Emotional and Mental Safety
The emotional and mental safety of our children starts at home. From there, it is greatly influenced by teachers, peers, and school climates. Four conditions can create a positive mental and emotional climate at home and in the community:
1. Authentic, transparent, and emotionally vulnerable communication, especially from authority figures.
How we speak to young people greatly affects how they speak to us. Every time we speak in their presence, we model either healthy or unhealthy communication habits. Adopt a dedicated practice of recognizing your own emotions and needs and speaking about them clearly without casting yourself as a victim or aggressor. This inspires kids to feel connected to and care about those adults and to emulate this kind of skillful communication. A few examples of this kind of communication:
“I” statements: Rather than “You are so lazy! You never do what I say,” say, “I felt angry when you did not complete the chore I asked you to do. I would like you to complete the chore by 5 p.m. and also pick up your room to restore my trust.”
Rather than “You are so loud! I can’t think!” say, “I’m having a hard day and feeling discouraged at work. I need a little time to gather myself before I can play with you or help you with homework.”
Strategic appreciations: Social-emotional theorist Jennifer Buffett coined the phrase “everyone needs to feel safe, seen, and celebrated.” When we make a point of seeing and commenting on people’s essence and effort—rather than things they have done or achieved—that is when they truly blossom. It is much more impactful to steer people toward their strengths and capacities than to whittle away at their confidence by pointing out flaws and insufficiencies.
Let’s say fourteen-year-old Jackie comes home and goes right upstairs to do her math homework without any prompting. Later on, Mom says, “Hey Jackie, I noticed that you went to do your homework right away when you got home from school. That impressed me.”
Or if Eden brings her friend Val, who is upset about something, home from school, Dad might say to Eden that night, “Honey, I was so moved by the kind way you sat quietly with Val while she was crying.”
If every day is filled with little strategic appreciations for essence or effort, kids bend toward their best selves.
A “yes, and…” mind-set: Most kids and adults are trained to scan for what’s wrong and how to fix it, because that ability is what has allowed humans to survive. The biological imperative of survival still guides much of our decision-making and the ways we perceive the world. But this damage control perspective is often not actually required for survival. How can we welcome all possibilities in a moment where we might otherwise have scanned for danger?
“It’s usually about communicating an acknowledgement of your kid’s perspective…and then enrolling them in a compromise where they feel validated and understood.”
When a child asks to stay up later than their bedtime, the old mind-set might have gone something like this: But what if she doesn’t get enough sleep? She might get sick. She might be too tired to do well in school, and then she won’ t get in to the college of her choice. She might keep ME up too late. She might never want to go to bed on time again! If you’re like most folks, you can go on and on with the catastrophic and irritating possibilities that bring up the NO.
What if, instead, you said, “Yes, that is a great idea, because you are really on a roll…and you have an early start tomorrow. So let’s save that late night for the weekend!”
Note that this approach to embracing possibilities and positivity does not entail saying yes to everything. Any parent knows the mayhem and chaos this would create. It’s usually about communicating an acknowledgement of your kid’s perspective…and then enrolling them in a compromise where they feel validated and understood.
Another example: When your teen asks if they can get a cool tattoo, you might reply, “Yes! I see how cool that would be for you. I really appreciate your artistic vision…and I need you to wait until you’re eighteen to make such a big, permanent decision.”
If your child has been caught cheating on a test at school and starts ranting about how everyone does it and how unfair it is that no one else got caught, you might reply, “Yes! It really is unfair that others are not held accountable, and that you were singled out. It must feel like you are being punished for everyone. And…it is most important that we look at your decision to cheat and how you made it, so you can learn from this mistake.”
2. Permission to fail fast and recover—and knowledge about how to repair mistakes.
People who grow up to do great things are not afraid of making mistakes and learning from them. In order for us to feel mentally and emotionally safe, we need to be in learning climates of experimentation and positive risk-taking, and we need a clear pathway to recovery from mistakes.
Instead of stressing perfection for ourselves or our children, we need to emphasize integrity, creativity, and resiliency: to give them a way to reach for the stars with ideas and inventiveness and to crash well to the ground and recalibrate. In the process, we can maintain the precious connection that allows the child not to push back or ignore our guidance but to welcome it and integrate it into their own perspectives.
As parents, it can be so hard to allow our children to risk and fail, as seeing them suffer the pain of embarrassment, shame, or guilt can feel unbearable. That’s where we need to work on ourselves: to be more aware of our own emotional reactions in these situations and to separate them out from what’s best for the resilience and courage of the child. In the moments of supporting the child directly, it is important to acknowledge and empathize with their tough feelings. We can care for our own emotions on our own time with the support of trusted adult confidants or through therapy.
Let’s say Suzi decides she is going to do an improv comedy routine to run for class president, and it bombs. A great response is: “Yes! I see how hard this is for you. Ugh! And…way to go. No one else tried something so gutsy. Take a while to nurse your wounds, and then let’s figure out how it could have gone better. I am so proud of you for taking the risk.”
“That’s where we need to work on ourselves: to be more aware of our own emotional reactions in these situations and to separate them out from what’s best for the resilience and courage of the child.”
Sometimes it’s on the adult to acknowledge wrongdoing to the child. This is an opportunity to model failing fast and repairing in earnest. Let’s say you lost it with your kid because you had a hard day and they didn’t pick up their room. You said some nasty things and raised your voice. You know that your reaction was out of proportion. Later, you might say to them, “It was not okay how I spoke to you earlier. My words were unkind and my tone was harsh and unreasonable. I was mad about the room, but how I handled it was inexcusable. How can I make it up to you that I spoke to you in that way?”
Saying a simple “I’m sorry” does not really address the harm we have caused another. When we sincerely take accountability for our behavior without justifications or excuses and get right to their impact and how we can make things right, then we actually offer a way to restore the integrity of the relationship and give back some of the energy we have taken.
The steps to repair are simple:
• I take full accountability for…
• My behavior must have felt like… [I don’t care, I don’t love you, I don’t respect you, I don’t value you…]
• How can I make it up to you?
The person harmed gets to come up with a reasonable way to restore integrity. The repair must be agreed on by both parties and have an actual deadline. Its success needs to be measurable: For example, the parent might agree to clean the child’s room for them on one occasion.
3. Many available recovery options when feeling horrible.
The worst thing we can do to ourselves or our children is pretend that life is always great or should be. Everyone feels horrible sometimes. None of us should ever be ashamed or be shamed for having a hard time. Showing people how we really feel and being able to talk through difficulties is one of the hallmarks of true inner strength. When we, as adults, hide our feelings by pretending or posing, or encourage our children to do the same, we teach them to not trust what they feel or what they sense.
Everyone knows how bad it feels when someone is telling us that everything is fine and we know it isn’t true. In this web of avoidance, we become isolated from one another. Emotional isolation is one of the highest predictors of despair and self-harm.
“The worst thing we can do to ourselves or our children is pretend that life is always great or should be.”
Needing others is not a weakness; it is a fact of life. Adults should be leaders in admitting they need help. When we recognize that we are under-resourced and seek assistance, we demonstrate to our children that it is okay to reach out. The healthiest people I know have a solid list of friends and practitioners they can call upon when they fall down.
Young people are even more susceptible to sinking because their logical brains are not fully developed until their twenties. When they feel down, they have a hard time remembering that this, too, shall pass.
Use this mental and emotional reset list with your child to find resources during trying times. It was developed with the help of young people who shared what helped them the most when they were going through a hard time.
When you or a friend are in a bad headspace or heartspace, remember:
• All feelings are okay. Releasing them in a healthy way is key.
• There is nothing wrong with you because you feel this way.
• Even this horrible, unbearable emotional distress will pass with time.
• When you feel hate, create: Art, music, writing, dance, and theater are ways to express your pain and move it out of yourself.
• Extreme feelings are a sign that you need help. Get the help you need instead of acting out or hurting yourself—even if you don’t want to. Connection is key.
• Seeking out positive people who love life to talk to can help turn things around.
• Vigorous exercise can help lift a dark mood.
• When supporting others, listen well. Show you care. Don’t lecture. Kindness is more effective than judgment. Ask for this treatment when you need support.
• The greatest people on the planet have all gone through horrible times. Don’t give up.
• How you feel right now, in this moment, does not predict your future.
4. Guidance and modeling for resetting a negative attitude.
Attitude determines everything. We know that when we are in a doomsday state of mind, we see everything as going to rot. When we first fall in love, we see the world like a Disney movie full of singing birds and flowers. When we feel scared and lacking in confidence, the whole world looks like a dangerous minefield. When we have been badly hurt by someone, we anticipate all the ways they will hurt us again and forget all the ways they have loved us.
Stuckness in a perspective founded in fear can stay with us only as long as we maintain the attitude that got us there. It follows that the most important emotional and mental muscle we can build and help our children build is the attitude reset. Attitude comes from the narrative we are speaking or holding. In this world of constant input—much of it fear-based and sensational negativity—it is hard not to spin toward a critical or limiting attitude. And energy follows thought. If I say to myself or others, “I could NEVER run two miles,” I’m going to be right about that. If I say, “I don’t know how yet, but I know with help, I can run two miles,” then that becomes true.
If my child says, “No one likes me!” instead of saying, “That’s not true,” I can say, “Tell me about that. How did you get there? Let’s work on how you think about people and how you think about yourself for a bit.” Where you might arrive in that conversation: the child recognizing that their internal story about people not liking them is more about thoughts they are having about themselves.
“Stuckness in a perspective founded in fear can stay with us only as long as we maintain the attitude that got us there.”
If I tell others I am “so scared about Noah taking his first camping trip without me!” I stay in fear and enlist others in my worry and concern. I can shift that to excitement, as fear and excitement are almost the same physical state of heightened arousal. Excitement includes more breath and anticipates an adventure instead of a disaster. I can take a few deep breaths into those body sensations I’ve labeled as fear and then say, “I’m so excited for Noah to be taking his first camping trip without me!” This inspires others to ask more about the possibilities of his adventure and less about the bears that may eat him.
The quickest way to a positive attitude reset is with proactive words and vocabulary. Move away from: “Don’t be so down on yourself. You only messed up with your friend once. Other people screw up a lot more than you.” Move toward: “Your mistake was a good one. Your feelings now are showing you how much you really care about your friend and want to make things right. Your remorse is a sign of what a good person you are.”
Move away from: “You’re not practicing enough to be good at this. You’ll never get there the way you are going. Don’t be a quitter!” Move toward: “I see that you are working on this and I know you have what it takes to get this done. I want to support you in making the type of effort that can get you get the results you want. How can I help?”
Positive words belie positive intent and possible success. And…it takes considerable retraining to reframe our narratives with these types of words. Be patient with yourself. Consider it an ongoing practice. Notice when you go to negative narratives. Say out loud that you want to revise, and struggle and play with rewording things in a more positive attitude space. This influences the way others feel around us, and it retrains our brains to see life from a resilient and resourceful place.
If you practice these four conditions on a daily basis within your family and friend groups and encourage programs with these conditions in your school, you will be doing a great deal for campus safety and the well-being of your child.
You’ll be promoting a sense of being safe, seen, and celebrated, of people looking out for one another and taking great joy and pride in being linked together. These are the best tools for not only higher learning but better living.
These are suggested daily practices for enhanced emotional and mental safety in school and at home. They take little time and can quickly inspire a positive mind-set—a reminder of how essential a self-care regimen is to overall well-being.
Each day, before anything else is said, state or write down three things that you’re grateful for.
Take three minutes a day to practice mindfulness with others:
• Follow the breath in the nose or in the belly. Notice any straying of the mind and bring attention back to the breath.
• Scribble on a piece of scrap paper, drawing shapes and lines.
• Listen quietly together to a soothing piece of music.
• Free-write as a mental cleanse.
Every day, have a set time to check in. Sit together and, one at a time, share both a thorn (something that is difficult that day) and a rose (something going well).
Check in daily with your important people about self-care. Each person gives a self-care rating between one and five. A self-rating of five means you are doing all of the self-care practices listed below; three means you are doing half of them; and one means you are doing none. If your number is low, look to increase your self-care by:
• Exercising daily.
• Sleeping eight hours a night.
• Engaging in some form of quiet reflection in nature or with a spiritual emphasis—without a device.
• Consuming foods and drinks that are healthy for the body.
• Taking some time for your own creative expression.
• Naming and taming your emotions.
• Having a positive mind-set and/or getting help to have a better one.
Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., is a national trainer for parents, teachers, and students in social and emotional learning. She is the executive director of AHA!, which is dedicated to uplifting the lives of all teenagers and families. Freed is also a psychological astrologer; you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org