Trauma looks different for everyone. What may seem like a trivial life event to some might be a defining moment for someone else. As adults, we often find ourselves saying things like, “Kids are resilient. They’ll be okay.”
While that may be true, kids turn into adults. And if kids don’t learn coping skills while navigating through traumatic life events, those kids grow into adults who don’t understand the importance of accepting help and managing their mental health. And how do kids learn these skills? They are modeled and discussed by the influential adults in their lives.
There’s a theory out there, Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development to be exact. Erikson maintained that personalities develop through eight stages of development, from infancy to adulthood. Look it up; it’s super interesting. But I’m mostly concerned with stages four and five right now. Stage four is “Industry vs. Inferiority,” typically ages 5-12 when children either are either encouraged to develop skills and to take initiative to reach goals themselves or are restricted by teachers or parents and are made to feel inferior. Then stage five is “Identity vs. Role Confusion,” between 12-18 years. In this crucial stage, adolescents search for a sense of self…they intensely explore personal values, beliefs, and goals. Essentially, they learn how to transfer from childhood to adulthood.
So if we, from parents and teachers to family and friends, don’t teach and model mental health maintenance, coping skills, and healthy boundaries during these important developmental stages, how will these developing children learn to become self-sufficient adults? Yes, kids are resilient. But they need to learn adult coping skills.
As an example, our boys, currently ages 13 and 10, have been through a lot. Beginning in 2009 when our second son was born, my husband started showing signs of severe depression. Over the course of the next six years, Jeremy was mostly emotionally absent as he learned how to live again as opposed to just staying alive. He survived five suicide attempts, one of which involved a near-fatal car accident, two life flights, six surgeries in five days, eight days in the ICU, and one month in the hospital away from our young boys.
As our boys grew older and learned how to be open and honest about our reality, we began explaining the truth of Jeremy’s mental illness. We used words they could understand and not fear. We openly talked and allowed our boys to ask questions. Sometimes, today, I feel our kids understand mental illness better than we do. So much so that our boys helped us write a book to help other families open up conversations about mental illness.
I wish I could say I know exactly what we are doing as parents, but that’s not the truth. Parenting is a series of trial and error, try and try again, and hit your knees and pray over and over again. But I will say this…as Aunt Karen says, “Our kids win.” Our kids are growing up watching the struggle and the triumph with mental health. From counseling and doctor appointments to brain scans and sharing our truth in public talks and on social media, our kids are growing up unafraid to be open and to accept help. I believe they win.
Just the other day, our oldest confirmed to us that he is, in fact, understanding the importance of accepting help. You see, this past summer my husband’s father was killed by mental illness when he completed suicide. Just a few weeks before Randy died, our oldest son and I had to go through his house and remove all guns while Randy accepted help in an inpatient mental health facility. Sadly, there were guns hidden in places we didn’t know about and Randy died a few weeks after leaving treatment. My husband lost his father, our boys lost their grandfather, and I lost my father-in-law…all because Randy didn’t understand that it was okay to not be okay. He was facing an overwhelming new normal and he wanted others to be the reason he was okay; it was too much for him. And our son is struggling with feeling responsible. “Mom. I don’t understand where he got the gun. We went through that room. We went through everything.”
My husband and I knew he was struggling, so we asked if he’d like to go speak with his counselor, someone he trusts and has been speaking to off and on since he was much younger. He did. And as I entered the room for the last ten minutes of our son’s counseling appointment in order to schedule more visits and talk about what to work on at home, he looked at me and said, “Mom, I feel like I need to come every week for a while…instead of every two weeks or every month.” He’s processing his trauma, and because he has watched his dad accept help, our teenager has no problem with it. We scheduled the appointments and are already seeing a world of difference in our boy. Proud momma.
So yes, kids are resilient. But we have to remember that kids grow into adults. If they don’t learn these mental health maintenance skills from an early age, they won’t be able to use them as adults. But if they do see these important issues and skills discussed and modeled, we may just help change a generation’s mind. We may just be able to stop the stigma attached to mental illness. We may just be able to lower the rates of suicide, and that’s something worth fighting for.
~ Bailey J. Koch, Ed.D. – Special Education
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Purchase autographed copies of our books, “Never Alone: A Husband and Wife’s Journey with Depression and Faith,” and “When the House Feels Sad: Helping You Understand Depression” on our website at www.jeremyandbailey.com.