School-Based Counseling: Practical Skills for Families
After introducing our School-Based Counseling program in my first blog post, I wanted part two to have some practical tools you can begin using at home with your family right now. These are concepts we work on with families in therapy. Remember, little shifts can create completely different outcomes later on. Here are some ideas to deepen your connections with your kids.
This is important. It’s also a lot more varied than most people think. Google “emotional vocabulary” and see what happens. There are lists with hundreds of terms. But that’s understandable because emotions are messy. Not only do we have a lot of them, we can feel more than one at a time. We could use the metaphor of colors and say red represents “anger.” That’s fine. But there are dozens of different shades of red, just as there are many different degrees of anger.
Boys in particular have been shortchanged in this. Until recently, boys were socialized to have two emotions – happy and mad. What a ripoff! What am I supposed to do when I’m sad? Or afraid? Or confused? Misunderstanding the depth of human emotions has led to a lack of being able to express them in safe, healthy ways. Simply naming the emotion can help relieve feelings of being overwhelmed. When something has a name, it’s easier to work through. Feelings are not good or bad. They just are. Normalize not only feeling something but being able to talk through what’s happening internally because of that feeling.
Extend the Invitation
I am a firm believer that it is the responsibility of the parent to step into the world of the child, not the other way around. This is your chance to hear what is happening in their world. They aren’t likely to invite you in, but they might crack the door open a little if you ask. Be curious. Take a genuine interest in what’s happening in their lives. Sometimes when I’m talking with students, I’ll ask, “what is one negative and one positive from your day?” Or “what was the worst part of today? What was the best?”
Kids engage more when you show interest in what they enjoy. I realize you have more important things to do with your time than listen to what is happening in this season of Fortnite. It’s very difficult to care about what they learned on YouTube today (but this could be a helpful conversation, as much of what they learn on YouTube is untrue. Ha!). It’s much easier to have them go tell their friend drama stories to Alexa.
You don’t have to love it as much as they do. The point is showing you are interested. That’s really what they want. They want you to be interested in what’s happening in their world. And they don’t want you using that interest to help them fix things. Well, maybe once in a while. But most of the time, they just want you to care about what is important to them.
Have you ever had a friend who listens really well? You go to coffee or dinner and by the end of your time together, you just feel lighter. You feel heard and supported. Some people are just really good listeners. They may come by this naturally, but I think active listening is a skill anyone can use and improve.
Conversations with your kids are a great place to practice active listening. Start by giving the conversation your full attention. Put down your phone and don’t pick it up until the conversation is over. Use verbal and nonverbal encouragement, such as nodding or saying, “that makes sense.” Summarizing is a great way to show your child that you are paying attention. Sum up what you remember of the story in your own words: “Sounds like you tried really hard to be her friend. You tried talking with her and even invited her to join you and she just totally ignored you. How frustrating!”
Disclaimer: It Won’t Always Work
These ideas aren’t a magic cure, and they are not 100% effective. There will be times when your kids don’t want to connect, especially as they get older. (Some distance is normal, but that’s for another blog post). Your job isn’t to make sure you have a lengthy conversation each time. Your job is to keep opening the door for conversation. Keep extending the invitation. Keep being curious.
Sure, use your curiosity wisely. Don’t bombard them every time they walk in the room. Balance is key. But don’t let an occasional slammed door and “leave me alone!” convince you to never ask them about their lives again.
The goal is creating safety. When you help build a safe conversational environment, it’s an unspoken invitation. Instead of forcing a discussion, you’re simply fostering an environment that is safe enough for your kids to open up if they want to. It’s still their choice. There’s no manipulation here. It’s about invitation, not coercion. Showing yourself to be a safe, trustworthy place is something kids will remember. They may not take you up on the offer every time. But the hope is that they will respond when it actually matters.
We believe it’s never too early to address mental health and emotional growth. Our hope for the School-Based Counseling program is to have resources on-site to help with these things. If we can uncomplicate the process and make it easier to have access to help, more people will say yes to it. We believe healthy kids grow up to be healthy adults. And we are honored to be part of that process.
If you missed part 1 of my series, you can find it here!