With school starting in the middle of a global pandemic, everyone’s anxiety is running on high: parents’ anxiety, teachers’ anxiety, and—don’t forget—kids’ anxiety, too. We also have a high-stakes presidential election coming up. The news is scary: colleges are shutting down; experts are worried about this coming flu season. Whether you’ve chosen to do homeschool, virtual school, or in-person school, we’ve all learned that we’re in this pandemic together. We’re not going to make it to the other side happy and healthy unless we pull together, and making sure to check in with each other is one of the most important things we can do.
We need to teach that skill to our kids, and we need to teach it now.
Aside from being an important interpersonal and empathetic skill our kids will need later in life, a check- in helps everyone. Kids often know things before adults do. A child will tell another child things they won’t spill even to a trusted adult; a simple check in can show a kid who may not be in trouble now, but who might see trouble later, that there’s a safe place to go, a safe person to talk to. Moreover, when kids are having trouble, a whole family may be having trouble.
Kids want to help others. They just don’t know how. When we proactively teach them how to check in with their friends, we give them the tools to help, and that boosts their own self-esteem. They have a way to help; they have something to add. They can be a vital part of this web that holds up our world right now. And to a kid in the middle of all this worry, that little bit can go a long way.
Obviously, these check-ins are going to look different than they would before COVID-19. Normally, your kid might talk to their friends on the bus or at recess or in the lunchroom. But with so many schools going virtual, they’ll have to rely heavily on classroom behavior and social media to monitor their friends. Their check-ins will look a whole lot more like PMs and DMs, like Snapchats and Facebook messages, than they will the traditional sit-down and chat.
Some of the signs of sadness will be different, too: statuses that seem off, comments on Twitter or Snapchat or TikTok. It’ll be easier to text a friend than it will to grab a latte—it’s hard to hold a decent conversation from six feet away. But nonetheless, you have to teach your kids to look for signs and to reach out to friends. Here are some ways to do it.
How To: A General Check In
There are several different ways to check in. The first kind can happen in any situation: when a person seems okay or not okay; when they seem like they need help or don’t need help. It works in any situation, and kids can use it casually with their friends as a chance to practice active listening (really listening and asking questions based on what’s said, not waiting for their turn to talk, keeping the focus on the other person). It can help cement friendships and make your child more empathetic in general.
This check in, adapted from the one by Mental Health America, has your child ask another several things:
How do you really feel today? No (giggle) “fine” isn’t enough of an answer!
What kinds of stuff have you been thinking about? Is it good stuff or bad stuff?
What are you looking forward to?
It’s important that when your kid does this check in, they let the person speak as long as they need to. They can ask questions, but the questions should ask for clarification of the answers, and any comments they make should be brief and sympathetic (“Wow, that’s hard,” or “Cool! Tell me more!”or “Man, I bet that made you sad,”), and keep the focus on the other person.
Keep It Non-Judgmental
They should never say things like “it’s no big deal,” or “don’t worry about it,” or “chill out” or “calm down.” Those phrases invalidate a person’s feelings. Use an example like this with them: maybe a really smart kid is worried about a test they’re certain to ace. Rather than say, “Oh, chill out, you know you’ll get an A,” they could say, “We all worry about tests sometimes. That’s such a rough feeling. I believe in you, though.”
When they invalidate a person’s feelings, they’re judging which feelings are okay or not.
Teach your kids that’s not their job. They are not the arbiter of someone else’s inner life. You feel what you feel. Period.
Tell them that a word to a trusted teacher—”Hey, if you could do something special for Josh today, that would be cool. He’s kind of sad”—could go a long way. Then it’s your job to ask if they checked in with their friends that day. You don’t want to turn them into mommy’s little spy, but you need to ask questions about who they checked in with, and if the kid seemed sad, probe a little deeper. If a certain kid seems sad or anxious all the time, take it to someone who can do something about it.
The Check In: When Someone’s Sad
Your child is going to encounter sad people. You want your kid to be the kid who steps up, not the kid who steps away; the one who does a check in, not the one who check out. To make them that kid, arm them with the right words to say and the right things to do to help someone who’s hurting. We’ve adapted this helpful checklist from Beyond Blue, an anxiety and depression service:
Ask if they want to talk about it. Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. If they don’t, your kid could say something like, “Talking can be good. Do you have someone you’d rather talk to who I can go get?” If they say no, skip to #3.
Listen. Just… listen. This is where that practice in active listening we talked about above is useful. Sad people don’t want you to talk about yourself, wait for your turn to talk, or hear about this one time your life sucked the same way. They want you to hear about them and validate them. And remember not to judge!
Be there. Your child can say something like, “Do you mind if I stay with you while you’re sad? If I can’t do anything else, maybe I could make sure you aren’t sad by yourself. You don’t have to talk.”
Later, tell an adult. Assure your child that doesn’t mean the kid will get hauled to guidance or the principal’s office. It means that adults need to know who’s having a rough time, and if kids keep having a rough time again and again, they may need help.
When Something Seems Really Wrong
Your kid, especially if he or she is a teen, may encounter people who are more than simply sad. The National Alliance for Mental Illness gives a list of things to alert your child to watch out for: things that merit an immediate check in and a report to an adult. Be honest: these things will trigger all the alarm bells. But also be honest that these behaviors are life-threatening and trigger all the alarm bells for a reason. Explain to your child that telling an adult about this type of check in might make their friend angry—but it’s better to have an angry friend than a friend in dire straits that they didn’t help.
A withdraw from social activities, or seeming down for an extended period of time
Self-harm: cutting, burning, etc.
Threats of suicide, or even comments like, “The world would be better if I wasn’t around,” or “My family/friends would be better off without me.”
Sudden and extreme anxiety that prevents them from doing normal things
Signs of an eating disorder: not eating, vomiting, using laxatives, taking appetite suppressants, etc.— no matter what their weight
Use of drugs or alcohol (at all, if they’re younger, and excessively or dangerously, if they’re a teenager
Obviously, you’re not going to tell your elementary schooler to watch for the use of drugs and alcohol. But a check in is something every single kid can do, even a kindergartener, and they can have a big effect not just on the kid who’s being checked on, but on your kid’s self esteem. It gives them a sense of agency: they can help too.
When we say we’re in this together, we mean all of us. That includes kids. Give them the chance to be there for others, too.