As a child, I remember all the times my mother said “I love you” to me. She’d say it before she hung up the phone, every single time. She’d say it as I was walking out the door to head to school. She said it every time she dropped me off at a friend’s house, right before I stepped out of her car.

I used to feel embarrassed and a little annoyed because I didn’t understand what she was really saying. But now that I have children of my own, I know that she wasn’t just saying those three words over and over.


Me with my sons in 1999. Photo used with permission of the author.

When a mother says “I love you,” it means so many different things. So this is a letter to my sons about the many true meanings of my “I love you.”

Dear son: I need to tell you that I love you.

And I want you to know how complex and intricate and meaningful those three words are when they come from me. I have been saying them to you throughout your entire life, but I often wonder if you know exactly what I mean when I say them.

You, my child, are supposed to take my love for granted. You should know that I love you just as well as you know your own name. My love was your very first love, and it will last last your entire lifetime, even long after I’m gone. But in case you ever wonder, I want to tell you exactly what “I love you” means to me.

When I say I love you, it’s more than a natural feeling a mother has for her child.

It means I think of you all the time. All throughout my day, my thoughts of you are too many to count. When I think about you, it can be a simple hope that you are making the best of this current moment. If you’re at school, I often hope that you’re content, that you’re patient, that you’re learning or challenged or enjoying yourself.

When you’re home, I hope that home is serene, peaceful, and comfortable. If you’re out with friends, I hope that you’re fulfilled and happy. My love is much more than admiration. My love is more than pride for who you are and what you’ll become. My love is steadfast hope that never fades.

I love you also means you are the person for whom I would stop everything.

If you ever need me, even if I can’t (physically) be there for you instantly, in my heart, I’m by your side. I’m holding your hand. I’m holding you up. I’m holding you close. I’m guiding you forward. I am there for whatever you need. No matter where you are, I am with you. No matter what, you can always call on me. So when you run out the door and you hear me say, “goodbye, I love you!” remember, this is what it means.

Because I am your mother, my love is part of your foundation.

It helped you grow into who you are today. But I know it’s not enough. I hope you know your priceless worth, yet you are humble and graceful. I hope my love has helped your heart become strong, yet vulnerable and open. I hope all your efforts are brave, but careful. I hope your heart is generous, but discerning. You must believe that you are enough to make this world a little bit better. When I tell you I love you, I’m also reminding you to believe in yourself and to love who you are.

When I do special things for you, it’s not to hear you say “thanks” or to watch for your appreciation. It’s another way to say I love you.

When I prepare your breakfast before you wake up, it’s because I want your morning to be a little easier. Your carefully crafted birthday cakes are a way for me to say, “I love you so much that my time, energy and creativity are for no one else but you today.”

Every stitch of every Halloween costume was from my heart to yours so you could be whatever your imagination desired. When you wonder why I ironed your shirt when you didn’t ask me to or why I made your favorite meal two nights in a row or why I made sure you could find your gloves and hat on a cold winter day, it’s only because I want to give you little bits of comfort and joy, even if you barely notice them.

My love for you won’t erase your mistakes.

It won’t always catch you when you fall. It won’t spare you from heartbreak or failure.

But my love for you is why I always want what’s best for you. And while what’s best might not always be what’s easiest, you can be sure that I will always have space to encourage, champion, or comfort you.

It doesn’t matter how far away you are or how old we both become. It doesn’t matter how many years go by or how many children of your own you have someday. You will always be the fire in my heart, the greatest joy in my memories, and the reason I sometimes stay awake and worry. I will love you on your happiest days, I will love you through your lowest points, I will love you when you break my heart. This love of mine will take on a thousand different forms, yet it will never change.

As you grow older, you might forget some of the little things I used to do. But I hope you’ll always know how much it means when I say I love you.

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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

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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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