When it is time to be away from our children — whether that’s just for the day at day care or school or for longer periods of time for travel or a co-parent’s turn to have the children — we can still strengthen our connection with them.

I became focused on bridging the time I was away from my children because leaving them was ripping at my heartstrings!


GIF via "Despicable Me."

When it was time for me to go conduct a parenting presentation, even if it was just for an evening, one of my young ones used to have a complete meltdown. He’d start hanging on me while I was getting ready and even chase me down the street as I drove away. This was so stressful for him, the babysitter, and me too! I needed to find a way to teach him that I still loved him when I was gone and it was OK to be away from each other.

Thankfully, I discovered some techniques, which we worked on as a family and I passed along to my clients, that address the main reasons children hit the panic button or feel sad when their parents aren’t around.

Imagine creating a “connection bridge” to span the time when you are away from your child.

The three keys to successfully use a connection bridge are: preparing your child in advance that you will be apart, letting your child know the specific time when you will be together again, and using some sort of small object to “hold the connection.”

1. Prepare them in advance by filling their "tanks."

Fill your child's "tank" with love and attention before you leave. Photo via iStock.

A good bridge involves already having filled their “tanks,” which are imaginary containers that hold our children’s capacity for our connection. Each child has a unique tank that gets filled by their parent(s) through love, attention, and focused time together.

When our child’s connection tank is full, they are much more tolerant of separation. With a full tank, you can then add a time promise and an object for your child to remind themselves of your connection when you are apart.

And here's a tip: The first thing our family does every morning is gather on the sofa for snuggle time. When the kids start peeling away to play or eat, I know their tank is full. “Hitting the ground running” can drain everyone’s tanks very quickly and is the first thing I talk to clients about when they say mornings are their least favorite time of the day.

2. Young children can tolerate being away from their caregivers when they know exactly when they will see them again.

For little ones — as most young ones can’t tell time — use a marker they will understand like, “I look forward to seeing you right after circle time,” or “Daddy will be picking you up right after your afternoon snack.”

You can also use a calendar to mark out “sleeps” if you need to be out of town or they will be at a co-parent’s for a period of time. Note the day you will see them again on a calendar. If there is a family calendar where all the activities are posted, write in which day you’ll return.

"Daddy will be picking you up right after your afternoon snack."

Your child might feel upset and powerless that you need to be apart, so try to give some of that power back with choices (between two things). Perhaps ask, “I’ll see you again in three sleeps. Do you want to color that day in the calendar with a marker or put a sticker on it?”

Use technology to your connection bridging advantage when you are away overnight: programs like FaceTime and Skype are the next best thing to being with your children in person. In order to connect with little ones through the internet, rather than asking questions, which you are likely to get one-word answers to, walk around the room you are staying in with your computer to show your kids around. Children can find the view out the window and what the bathroom looks like very interesting!

For day-to-day separation like school drop off, try a banana note! Use a fine screwdriver to imprint a note into a banana skin. The imprint will be invisible at first and darken throughout the day.

Photo by Andrea Nair, used with permission

3. In addition to knowing when you will return, find a small object that a child could keep in a lunch box or pocket to hold when they are missing you.

My son made rainbow loom bracelets for me to wear while I'm away. Photo by Andrea Nair, used with permission

I like using small rocks, old pieces of costume jewelry, rainbow loom bracelets, or sticky notes to do this.

When you are still together, take your connection object and rub it in your hands or hold it close to your heart. Saying something like, “I’ll fill this rock full of my love so if you feel sad when I’m gone, you can rub it to get some out.” Use language that you and your child are used to. Also, stuffed toys are great for longer separations: Hug the stuffie and say, “I’ll fill this guy with love so you can hug him whenever you’d like to.”

When we create a connection bridge with our children, we are essentially teaching them how to miss us.

We want the main messages to be that it’s OK to be apart and that we don’t love them any less or feel they are any less important when this happens. Sometimes we have to be away from the people we love and showing our children how to do this will help them feel less sad during times of separation.

What kind of connection bridge objects does your family use?

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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