Parenting Through Youth Mental Health Challenges


Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Sep 11, 2023

by Katherine Johnson Martinko

“This is a national emergency. It requires all hands on deck. We need more supports and services and interventions.”

With this call to action, Stephanie Malia Krauss hopes to help mitigate the mental health crisis that children and youth are facing. The educator, social worker, and author of a new book called “Whole Child, Whole Life: 10 Ways to Help Kids Live, Learn and Thrive” spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from her home near St. Louis, Missouri, about why young people need our help more than ever.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is an experienced educator, a social worker and an author. Stephanie Malia Krauss is also a strategist who has worked with organizations from not for profits and schools to government. She’s also a mother of two. Her latest book is called whole child whole life 10 ways to help kids live, learn and thrive. Stephanie joins us today from just outside St. Louis, Missouri. Thank you so much for being here.

Lianne, that’s an absolute pleasure to be with you today.

Lots to talk to you about because you have such a unique lens in many ways on the topic of youth mental health and the challenges that we hear about every day that are a global pandemic. Let me ask you, firstly, what is your current assessment of the global pandemic that is Youth Mental Health?

I think it is exactly as you described it, in the same way that we came to understand a global health physical health pandemic, beginning in 2020, we have to now understand that our rates of global mental health challenge for our kids have reached a level where most young people are directly impacted. So what that means is that for those of us who are raising kids, it is quite possible that however many children we have, they will have a mental health challenge. And that could be diagnoseable as a mental health disorder or mental health, illness, or face some kind of mental health crisis at any point. So are in the United States, we have a Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and our US Surgeon General, they came out back in 2021, and said, This is a national emergency, it requires all hands on deck, we need more supports and services and interventions. And at the same time, globally, we see that young people who are in crisis don’t always have the available services that they need. So again, think about the pandemic, when our hospitals when the virus was surging, and hospitals were at capacity, and people couldn’t get the medical care they needed. One of the changes that we’re seeing here that I think is important for parents to know, is that unfortunately, rates of mental health challenge among children and youth have been increasing over the past few years. The real crisis is that those numbers are continuing to increase me more kids are struggling, but we don’t have more adults who are appropriately trained and available to support and serve them.

I want to break down and unpack some of what you said there. First of all, with the whole idea of this problem requiring all hands on deck, the Surgeon General has said it you also believe that that is the case. What does that look like to you?

So for me, I think that any adult who is working with and raising young people, they need a level of mental health training that is equivalent to becoming a first responder taking first aid or CPR courses. As we we know how to give somebody medicine if they have a headache, or if they have a fever. We know how to handle minor scratches and bruises. And so on the one hand, it’s recognizing that historically we have often said, well, let’s save it for the professionals. This requires professional care. So once again, I want to bring it into this medical model. There is always need for qualified professional health care, in this case, mental health care if a young person needs psychiatric treatment and evaluation if a young person needs emergency room care, a qualified therapist or counselor sometimes in particular specialties for what they’re struggling with, like anxiety or obsessive compulsive disorder or depression. At the same time, our rates are so high with really no sign of decrease that if kids are in our care for any period of time, whether we are parents and caregivers, coaches, counselors, teachers or some combination of those roles. We have to get trained in what the signs and symptoms are that something is wrong, and then train And in what to do about it, there’s actually a global program called Mental Health First Aid, it’s often provided for free. Teenagers can also be trained in it. And so that’s the first piece, how do I respond to crisis, and the moment where a young person may need immediate intervention and help. The other piece of it, though, for parents, and where I try to really pay attention as a parent myself is emotional wound care or emotional hygiene. So in the same way that we teach our kids how to brush their teeth, and how they get changed, and how to stay clean, we need to find those equivalents for how do they keep themselves kind of emotionally fit and strong during the day, and what are the practices that work for them. The last part of that emotional wound care is if you think about young people at school, or in any kind of social environment, they get emotionally hurt and wounded more often than they get physically hurt and wounded. And so that might not rise to the level of needing professional care, because that could be rejection, humiliation, embarrassment, I’m struggling to focus or pay attention. But it does require specific support and strategies that work. And so in the same way that we would learn how to attend to physical wounds, we need to learn how to attend to emotional wounds, ones that ret rise up to the level of emergency, and then ones that are every day.

Along those lines, you bring a fairly novel perspective and a novel lens to this topic, because of the multiple roles that you’ve had in your career, starting as a middle school teacher, a grade five teacher, to being ahead of school, to your work with youth development. And you know, your work as an author. Can I ask you, Stephanie, what would you say makes your lens so unique on this particular topic?

Yeah, absolutely. So as you mentioned, my background, began professionally and officially in education as a teacher, I actually started in pre K, so the preschool early childhood years, and then went up to fifth grade, coached middle school sports, and then went on to run a high school or secondary school. But before that, even I was a resident advisor when I was in university, I was a coach of sports as a young person, myself, I ended up leaving teaching to go and get a degree in social work, because I knew that there were so many issues that were impacting my kids and their families, that I didn’t have the knowledge and training to take on myself. And it was a really big gap. So I had gone through and gotten my education to become a teacher. But that education focused on curriculum and instruction and behavior management, that curriculum did not include training on Mental Health or Human Development, or community and family engagement. And unfortunately, at that time, and this was some time ago, I thought that I actually had to leave the profession in order to get that education. And so I left the career entirely. I ended up becoming a house parent at a residential boarding school in order to pay for my graduate degree, and went to social work school, where I learned all of these things that would have benefited me in the classroom, I learned how to really understand the social structures and economic realities that my kids and families were experiencing the impact of poverty and trauma, I learned about how to work with individuals and families on conflict, negotiation, and Intergroup Dialogue. And so from that experience, I did end up running a school but I ran a school for young people who did not succeed in the traditional environment. So they were older. And in the States at the time, we called them disconnected youth. They couldn’t stay connected, say and succeed in school. Overwhelmingly, because of life issues. They were parents themselves, they were helping to raise siblings, they were involved in the child welfare system had been arrested, any number of things. And in that environment Lianne I saw the degree to which life and learning really intersect. I knew it when I was a fifth grade teacher. I studied it when I left for social work school. But here I was seeing the end of this pipeline at the end of secondary school, where young people wanted to learn and complete their degree. And they couldn’t because why had happened. And so since then in the years since I was on what I call the education frontlines, I’ve become a mom myself. I’ve also worked in higher education and workforce development. And so it’s given me this kind of full range of perspectives across science and disciplines, where I recognize that each of the spaces has training and information that the other spaces need. And that when we think about taking care of our children, we need them to be ready, which I think education does a good job of thinking about. We also need them to be well, which I think our counseling and social work fields and disciplines do a good job thinking about. But for us who are caregivers, we need to be cross trained across those spaces.

Stephanie, can I ask you what then inspired you to write your latest book called whole child whole life?

So for anybody who’s only listening and not watching Lianne is looking at me in my basement outside of St. Louis. And I sat here in this basement in 21, when my first book came out. So my first book Lianne was, I call it my love letter back to the frontlines. So it was about 10 years after I left working in schools to work nationally and internationally on youth issues and education issues. And I was writing back to the field and back to caregivers about what I’ve learned, young people really need to be ready, but it was ready for the future. So the book is called Making it what today’s kids need for tomorrow’s world. And so imagine the height of the pandemic 2021, I have this book that’s coming out about what young people need to be ready for the future. And I was doing this pandemic book tour from this basement. And every single time when I would do a q&a session at the end of a speaking engagement, somebody would say that you have told us what young people need to be ready for tomorrow’s world. And I am afraid they are going to my kids are going to burn out or give up before they get there. What do our kids need to be ready right now. And what I recognized was because of my professional experiences, and my network of professionals and scholars and scientists, that there were two things. The first is that was the question I felt in my own bones. As a parent, I was really worried in this very volatile and uncertain world, that my kids were not okay, and that my kids were struggling. And I also knew I that I knew that range of disciplines that people who could speak into that question and answer What do young people need not only to have a livable life, now and in the future, but a life that they love now and in the future. And so whole childhood life was really my in the same way that making it was a love letter back to the front lines, whole childhood life is a love letter back to parents to say, actually there is a way for our kids to be well, even as times are hard. And here’s what we can see across history. And culture and context are the practices and principles that have always supported young people’s ability to thrive. And then I wrote the book to any adult who is working with caring for or raising kids because I want anybody who is interfacing with my children, to have that same knowledge and cross training. Earlier this morning, I went to my kids summer camp and trained all of these young counselors on these whole life practices from the book, because what I wrote about is what I desperately want all of the caretakers who have a responsibility for my own children, to know and to consider into practice in the same way that I am trying to know and consider and practice that information.

Let’s delve a little deeper into some of those practices. And first of all, talk about the research that you undertook. For this book. Take us through some of the science that you found some of the evidence based research that you uncovered, that perhaps surprised you or maybe didn’t surprise you but that you think parents really need to know about.

So the book covers the science of learning and development, child and youth development but also lifespan development. So it considers longevity, what is it that needs to happen in Childhood that kids need right now. And what is it that we need to attend to in childhood that will continue to support them throughout their lives? What happens developmentally that is different for young children versus tweens and teens. And what has that experience been? How do we support young people in those transitions as they get older, it also looked at the science of flourishing and thriving, resiliency, trauma and stress, I think some of the things that fellow parents need to consider. One is that stress and trauma are very unfortunately, fixtures in our kids lives. This is a stressful time to be growing up. And we all know it’s a stressful time to be parenting as well. And trauma can happen at all different levels. But even the experience of enduring a pandemic was really traumatic. And some of those have residual impacts. So in the same way that years ago, we started talking about the need for young people to have life skills, we have to actually realize that stress management and recognizing the signs of trauma or grief or loss, and what to do with them, are part of the package of life skills that our young people need desperately that our kids need desperately. So for that piece, I would say to anybody who’s listening or watching. Stress is a normal part of life. And our kids are experiencing very high levels, we cannot necessarily reduce it as much as we would want. But we can teach them to manage it, which is really important. So related to that, particularly for tweens and teens, is this idea of cognitive fitness, which I really loved. So technology is so significantly different than it was when at least when I was growing up for sure. And I’m sure many of your listeners as well. And the technology that young people are on particularly on their phones are designed for usership repeat use, not designed with their well being in mind. That technology actually uses casino the sort of science behind casino addiction, multiple repeat use. And the science has shown that actually notifications for teenagers and for tweens can be as powerful as a crack addict wanting crack. So really hard drugs, that temptation. And so we also need to attend to the realities of what that technology has some wonderful opportunities for kids, but that could turn the lights on for addictive behaviors. And for compulsive behaviors much earlier than then they would have experienced. And so for us as parents, we really need to know and learn what the signs are of addiction and recognize that kids need help being able to turn on and off the device. So the last thing I’ll say relates to that, which is they now have discovered researchers and scientists that adolescence. So that’s that period that Lianne I know you focus on. So kind of the onset of puberty, which at this point is like 11 ish, all the way through now the mid 20. So age 25. That period is as intense a period of growth and development as early childhood is. So we used to think that those early years were we really know all of the neural synapses are firing and connecting. And kids are learning so much that that’s only wave one, that there is a second wave of that that happens 11 to 25. And so that level of exploration and identity development and human development and learning is really powerful. At the same time, the limitation is that the front part of the brain responsible for executive functioning, skills like self control, emotional regulation, focus paying attention staying organized, is it’s not fully formed until the mid 20s. And when there’s stress and when there’s trauma, which we just talked about. It kind of pulls the energy away from the front of the brain and it makes it even harder to engage those skills. So if a young person is stressed or has experienced something traumatic or is dealing or Feeling from that, it’s going to be extremely difficult to control emotions, to make decisions to pay attention to focus. I say that because I think very often we expect those behaviors, we think of those behaviors and skills as being a well behaved young person, a good student, a focused athlete. And actually, there is both the developmental and the experiential reality, that those skills are extra hard right now, if you were to add in a kid has an attention, disorder or difference, it’s going to be even harder. And so we have to sort of pause and get curious when we see that those executive functioning skills aren’t happening, reminding ourselves that they’re not supposed to be fully developed yet. And then asking what are the kinds of tips or tricks or tools that we can teach our kids to help them while they’re still under construction?

So much in what you just said there. And, you know, I’m wondering if we can look at breaking some of that down, you talk about stress, you talk about trauma, and you talk about parents being equipped with the skills to help support their kids with with those two issues, among others?

Firstly, could you take us through some of the other key issues that are facing youth today contributing to this global epidemic of youth mental challenges, and then we’ll get into what kind of tools parents can look at in terms of addressing those issues with their kids.

So what we know from the science and the research is that young people are wired and rewired based on their experience, and their environments. And so if their experience and their environment, tell them, the world is an unsafe place, then they’re going to develop anxiety and fear and apprehension, because the world is an unsafe place. If their experience or environment tell them, life is precarious, and precious, someone I love can be taken from me, I’m thinking of the pandemic in particular, then there’s going to be issues with attachment, why that I don’t want to let you go or social anxiety or I don’t want to leave home. So one of the things that we see with our kids of all ages. So whenever I talk about kids I really am talking sort of birth to 20 Is that the wiring and rewiring that has been happening over the past few years, very often hovers around this idea that there are risks and threats to my life, and to my family and to our livelihood. And so there’s this deep need for safety and security and stability. So the sadness in that the grief in that as a parent is that life in school. And community can be a scary place for our kids. The hope in that is we may not be able to promise them that global politics will get better, or that there won’t be another pandemic. These are promises we can’t make. But what we can create are the conditions inside of our relationships and in our homes where they have safety and security and stability and can thrive. We already talked about technology, technology is absolutely an accelerant of some challenges. Because there are so many social interactions that happen there. The platforms again, are not designed with you well being in mind. And so it can activate things physically, mentally, emotionally. And then the other piece, which is just an important reminder is that our kids spent more than two years in a pandemic contacts. Learning and development are inherently social and emotional. And so what we see is that our kids, this generation are growing up fast and slow. Their life experience has age them, but the stage of development has not kept pace. So they’re older, you know, they’ve they’ve grown up in too fast by what they’ve seen and experienced, but they didn’t hit all of the developmental milestones that they would have, if they had been in a in a more typical social context and emotional relationships, which means we have to kind of reconfigure what we expect for where they’ll be for being a particular age. Ah, are being of a particular space. And that might come with emotional volatility or things that surprise us. I have a tween, and I realized he didn’t learn to tie his shoes, because we were at home and we just were wearing slip on shoes. So it’s small things that are funny, all the way to the bigger things that really need attention.

There’s so much that goes into what you’re describing, right? There’s the whole idea of communication and how that works within a family. How, how do you communicate with a child? There’s the whole aspect of family dynamics, and what does that look like? Not every family has, you know, two parents, etc, etc. So, Stephanie, could you give us a sense for families who are struggling, who may find themselves with a child who, you know, potentially has a mental health challenge that they may or may not even be aware of? What could be a reasonable and realistic starting point for that mother or father or family member to support that youth properly?

Not to be redundant. But I’m gonna go back to this meant that this medical model, because I think it’s one that we’re most familiar with. And so it’s a helpful way to think about this. So if we think about mental health as health, and services and support as a part of health care, we have to think about what can be managed at home? And what do we proactively do at home? So when I moved to my new town, I proactively found who the pediatricians were in the community, and then I crowd sourced. What did people think of those pediatricians? I called the offices who had, who was taking new patients, I figured out which children’s emergency rooms would go to if there was an emergency, what did people think of the area hospitals, I set up in our house, we had resources and medications if we needed them. So if we transfer that or translate it over to a mental health context, the first thing is a parent who has children of any age to do what we do physically with, which is we have some sense of where they should be. We know if they’re not growing or gaining weight the way that they should we have a sense if they’re not eating the way that they should. So we have to educate ourselves. This is reading books, reading articles, going online, but educating ourselves on what are some signs and symptoms of illness. And also, what are the good things this is all of the whole life practices in the book are really the the good things like nurturing healthy relationships, and building community and belonging that we need to prioritize in our kids friendships in the activities that they do and what their experiences are. The second thing is we actually should have an emergency plan before we need it. One of my children has asthma, and we have an emergency action plan. And he hasn’t needed it, thank goodness in years, but we still have it. Having a plan before an emergency happens is such an important thing because it’s a very emotional and difficult time when you are in crisis. And to know that you already know where you would go, who you would call, who you would talk to is a really empowering aspect of parenting in the middle of a mental health pandemic. The third thing is to consider getting yourself trained in Mental Health First Aid, or even just going online and figuring out what the steps are and kind of walking or talking through it. If you have a partner, you have other adults who are in your child’s life. I think the last part that I’ll point out is braiding experiences where our young people our kids can just be kids and can relax and play, enjoy unplug, because a part of supporting their mental health, not a part a huge portion of it is promoting their well being and giving them space to heal and giving them space to be in healthy environments where they can just enjoy.

lots of incredibly important food for thought. Stephanie Malia Krauss, author of whole child whole life educator, social worker and mother, thank you so much for taking the time to share your perspective with us today.

These are challenging time to parent and be a child, says Krauss, who is an educator with an additional degree in social work, as well as experience in youth development. Kids are experiencing very high levels of stress, brought on by factors like the pandemic and addictive technologies; and while we cannot necessarily reduce that stress, which she says is “a normal part of life,” we can teach them how to manage it. Krauss tells Castelino that she particularly loves the idea of “cognitive fitness,” ensuring that youth are given the proper tools with which to manage any emotional distress they experience.

As a parent herself, Krauss says she is alert to emotional wounds. “If you think about young people at school, or in any kind of social environment, they get emotionally hurt and wounded more often than they get physically hurt and wounded.” This could take the form of rejection, humiliation, embarrassment, difficulty focusing or paying attention, none of which are at the level of an emergency, but still require specific support and strategies. “So, in the same way that we would learn how to attend to physical wounds, we need to learn how to attend to emotional wounds.” This is also known as emotional hygiene.

Book cover.Krauss Stephanie MaliaIn the podcast and video interview, Krauss tells Castelino that she was intrigued to learn that teens and young adults continue to undergo a period of intense growth and development between ages 11 and 25—a crucial second wave that builds on the early years. It is important for parents to understand that their older kids are still “under construction” mentally and emotionally, even when they may seem old enough to do other things independently.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Krauss also discusses:

  • What sets her perspective on youth mental health apart from other experts
  • What inspired her to write “Whole Child, Whole Life”
  • What an “all hands on deck” approach ideally looks like
  • Advice for families who are struggling with youth mental health

Related links:

Related stories:

The Current State and Future Vision for Youth Mental Health Services

Digital Detox Summer Camp for Youth Expands to Canada

My Mental Health Journey as a Dad: Corey Hirsch

Key Findings on The State of the Mental Well Being of the World’s Children: A Report by Unicef

Podcast: Tackling the Rising Mental Health Condition of Eating Disorders with Nutrition Therapist Alida Iacobellis

Practical Tips to Address Mental Health and Wellness Challenges in Families: Psychotherapist POV

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