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Middle-School Social Worker Shares What She Wishes Parents Knew


  • I work with students going through a tough time, including some dealing with anxiety and depression.
  • Parents often try to fix their kids’ issues instead of listening to what’s bothering them.
  • Many of my students try to live up to the expectations their parents have of them.

As a social worker for middle schoolers, I talk with many students who are struggling with anxiety and depression, who are feeling worthless, and who have self-harmed. It is a privilege to be entrusted with their vulnerabilities.

I know parents are often doing their best when it comes to their children — I’m a parent myself — but there are simple but powerful things I wish they’d implement to help improve the self-worth of their child.

Empathetic, genuine, and clear communication is vital

As they work through new and complex issues, kids need someone to hear them, empathize with them, and support them. However, many parents try to fix the situation with quick advice.

Airing out thoughts in a nonjudgmental space is powerful. I see it over and over again as I actively listen to the young people in my office and see their demeanor change from tearful and frantic to relaxed and relieved. However, listening well takes energy and focus, especially when there is a constant battle for our attention. Our body language, posture, tone of voice, and ability to decode the intention behind their words are essential.

Humility in communication is also important. Parents need to accept criticism and apologize, as we want kids to do. As we listen to our kids, they may feel comfortable giving us honest feedback, which can hurt. We should thank them for letting us know how they feel.

These are rare opportunities to gain insight into ourselves — friends and coworkers are not likely to be so honest. And modeling the ability to hear others and give authentic apologies is the most effective form of teaching.

Finally, communicate your values before your children infringe on them. Their questions are the doorway to learning, and it is ideal when your child leans into a tricky topic with curiosity. Take these opportunities to talk with them about what and why you have values regarding things like relationships, dating, pornography, sex, identity, and religion.

Heavy topics are often best covered over many bite-sized conversations when strong emotions aren’t in play. If kids don’t receive guidance from their parents, they’ll get it from their friends and the internet.

They want to make you proud — and be loved for who they are

All kids want to make their parents proud — I hear them say it. But they often feel like they’re noticed only for what they do wrong: the chores they didn’t get to, the homework they haven’t finished, the skill they haven’t mastered.

A helpful concept called the love bank is the awareness that parents need to make more love deposits than withdrawals to keep a relationship healthy. This is commonly referred to in couples therapy, but it is just as important for parent-child interactions.

Love deposits include affirming words, saying “I love you,” enjoying quality time, listening to them, laughing together, and doing something they enjoy. Withdrawals include critiquing, nagging, yelling, breaking promises, using a disrespectful tone of voice, and bribing. Ideally a parent would have a ratio of at least five deposits to one withdrawal.

My students often feel that to make their parents proud they need to live up to the perfect older sibling who got a lot of attention for athleticism or good grades. Or they’re trying to live up to their parents’ legacy. But they need to know their value is not determined by how they perform.

Doing something just for approval and validation, rather than living to their unique and personal potential, is a waste. Yes, they need a parent to help push them to get their math homework done and support them in learning. But they also need a parent to help them know that their performance isn’t their identity — to help them cultivate their talents and interests and appreciate making their own path.

At the end of the day, they need to know they are loved no matter how they perform. Their value is innate, not earned.


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