02/19/2014 06:50 pm ET Updated Apr 21, 2014

Parents: A Call to Action

Recently, there was a shooting at Columbia Mall in Maryland with lives lost, thousands of people scared and what is now a common scene on TV: SWAT teams, police, helicopters, frightened children and parents running from the scene with public officials working extremely hard to handle the crisis and reassure the public.

My thoughts raced from making sure my own family was safe to making sure that staff and clients were safe. The nonprofit mental health center I direct is only two minutes from this mall. While family and colleagues were all safe, it did not diminish the deep sadness we all felt about this event. Is it really an event? How mental health is treated in our society causes me and others much distress. The tragic "event" is broadcast for days, every detail is repeated. Then it is forgotten as concerts, sports, work and school resume their priorities.

I am writing this blog as a call to action for all parents to prioritize their own family's psychological well-being. From my work with families in transition, I know parents and children are more vulnerable because there are multiple risks involved, including the possibility of significant conflict between parents; children's needs falling through the cracks; children manipulating parents (especially when one parent does not speak to the other parent); children becoming "frozen" and unable to focus on their own needs; children unable to concentrate in school; and children not feeling secure and protected. There is also a burden that parents shoulder: They often realize that they have hurt their children and find it difficult to deal with their children's pain. The elephant in the room begins, meaning that children and teens get a subtle or not so subtle message that it isn't OK to express feelings, particularly painful ones.

I have learned from the adults, children and teens I work with that in a safe environment, they can learn to discuss painful problems, deal with issues and most importantly share the mutuality of supporting each other. I want to invite you to begin a closer connection with your child and his or her emotions in ways that cell phones, texting and other social media cannot.

1. First and foremost, take care of yourselves and your own emotional well-being. "Put on your oxygen mask first..." Your children need you and want you to be healthy. They can't handle your leaning on them with adult issues. Children and teens deserve to be with adults who care, who will listen while supporting their independent decision making.

2. Talk to your children honestly away from friends and other family members. Explore their emotions without putting them on the spot.

  • Model expression of emotions by sharing your own feelings about life events, such as "I was really relieved when the federal government shut down due to the snow storm and school was canceled as well." Ask your child what he or she was thinking and how they felt. Start off with non-threatening topics that help them to feel comfortable opening up.
  • Don't blame everything on the family transition; instead, know your child and connect in natural ways that encourage your child to be open with you. In other words, spend informal, fun and or educational time with your child.

3. When our children are in pain, it is difficult to see them hurting. As parents, we rush to problem-solve, but what they really want is to have their feelings validated. That means taking your time to first let them express themselves, then validating their feelings and perhaps asking them what you can do to be supportive. For example, if your teen shares that she really wanted to be invited to the school dance, but finds out her romantic interest is going with someone else, statements like "Get over it, you're young, you have plenty of time;" "If you think you have problems, they are nothing compared to mine;" "Forget that person, they don't know what they are missing," will NOT help your child. What can you say? "It sounds like you are really disappointed. Are you? I can understand what it feels like when you really like someone and they may not like you. It can really hurt." "Thank you for being honest with me." " I understand how hard this must be for you."

4. Be patient: It may take 100 attempts before you can really share and empathize with your child's feelings because he or she needs to learn, too.

5. Participate in support groups for parents and find groups for your children and teens to participate in, particularly during times of transition. I am amazed at the honesty, caring and ability to learn to deal with really difficult, painful issues in our support groups. Many of the teens aren't thrilled to get counseling. However, these are the same teens who stay late after every group to hang out with the other kids in the group. Why this transformation? Our groups are safe; while there is social banter, the group is hard work, working on one' s deepest concerns, distressing behavior (such as self-mutilating) and mental illness. These are the individuals who will make it: they deal with life, learn that there are safe places to deal with mental illness, problems at home and feel accepted and good about learning to reach out to and empathize with each other.

6. Recognize when you are not well and may suffer from mental illness and recognize symptoms in your children. It is so easy to miss cues with children and teens because there are so many reasons that they may be out of sorts, such as their stage of development ("teens always like to stay in their rooms"); a divorce; pressures at school. Don't ignore their withdrawing, angry outbursts, isolation or vacant eye stares. If you can work on points 1-5, approaching the issue of the possibility of mental illness won't be as difficult. You could be saving a life or lives.

I invite you to a call to action!