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Mental Health Online Diaries: Understanding Child-Parent/Guardian Relationships


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On behalf of Born This Way Foundation, Benenson Strategy Group conducted a series of online ethnographic diary interviews between young people and their parents/guardians to:
▪ Explore questions surrounding the family dynamics of mental health and wellness, and begin to understand what makes for supportive environments and relationships
▪ Further understand the ways in which young people and their parents/guardians feel connected or disconnected to their families and broader support networks
▪ Ethnographic diaries are a qualitative methodology and should therefore be considered directional. This ethnographic research will be used to inform the next phase of quantitative research that will dimentionalize family dynamics on a quantifiable scale, allowing for conclusive findings.

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Mental Health Online Diaries: Understanding Child-Parent/Guardian Relationships

  1. 1. June 2018
  2. 2. On behalf of Born This Way Foundation, Benenson Strategy Group conducted a series of online ethnographic diary interviews between young people and their parents/guardians to: ▪ Explore questions surrounding the family dynamics of mental health and wellness, and begin to understand what makes for supportive environments and relationships ▪ Further understand the ways in which young people and their parents/guardians feel connected or disconnected to their families and broader support networks ▪ Ethnographic diaries are a qualitative methodology and should therefore be considered directional. This ethnographic research will be used to inform the next phase of quantitative research that will dimentionalize family dynamics on a quantifiable scale, allowing for conclusive findings. 100+ Pages of diary entries Young People Ages 13–24 Entries from May 7 – 14, 2018 2 Parents Ages 25+
  3. 3. Communication plays an essential role in fostering positive mental health. When people feel heard and understood, a good day gets better and a bad one feels more manageable. On balance, families feel they are open, trusting and understood by one another, and for many, the family relationships that foster positive mental health continue well beyond the time when a roof is shared. Still, for both children and their parents/guardians there are real pain-points in their lives and miscommunication on important issues; these factors weigh down on positive mental health. For the most part, pain-points are common, ordinary, and often unavoidable life experiences; suggesting that many feel they lack coping mechanisms to overcome daily obstacles to positive mental health. As the dialogue surrounding mental health continues to grow, advocates must continue to broaden their understanding of mental health and wellness and look to further develop a mental health toolbox of techniques that youth, parents/guardians, friends and teachers can fall back on to help individuals navigate their way to positive mental health. Positive mental health is a collective and contagious effort.
  4. 4. Supporting Mental Health
  5. 5. If a Profile Were Written about Your Life over the Last Year, What Would the Title Be? By identifying what daily factors support and harm positive mental health –what makes people feel good and what drags them down– mental health advocates will be better positioned to understand the underpinnings of a robust support system. This understanding will help advocates build a “positive mental health toolbox” of techniques to facilitate better mental wellness for individuals confronting obstacles in their lives. 5 “I have emotional ups and downs caused by daily life, but nothing out of the normal cycle of emotions and well being.” – Mother, 50+ “A few months ago was hard, but with my health improving so is my mental wellness. Setting and achieving goals is really the best thing for me. Some days I feel like I am just spinning my wheels, but mostly I am moving forward inch by inch.” – Father, 35-49 “I’d say my "metal wellness" is 100%. Yes, things go bad, and I have bad days, but I expect that. I don't let it affect me. It would be like playing a baseball game and never expecting to make an out. Of course you will [strike out sometimes], you’ve got to just make sure you win the game.” – Father, 25-34 “I'm a constant work in progress, always trying to better myself, feel better.” – Mother, 35-49 “Why I’ve Gotten Up One More Time Over the past 12 months, I have had numerous struggles put on my path but no matter how hard a moment might be, I must remember to stand up one more time.” – Young Man, 13-17 "I’m Strong but Not Bulletproof I've had a lot of sad things happen. I'm a bit messed up now but I'm still alive and breathing. Hence why I believe heartbreak is healthy. We know we can survive.” – Young Woman, 18-20 “Better Days to Come Over the past 12 months, [I’ve been] dealing with school, losing and gaining friends, stressing out from work. I've had times when I was very happy and sometimes sad. Overall everything I've been through has helped to make me a bigger person and happy in the end, after all the trials and tribulations.” – Young Woman, 18-20 How Parents Think about Their Mental Health Some parents see mental health as an aspect of life in need of constant work… …while others see it as something that does not matter unless emotions “affect” them.
  6. 6. Sources of Mental Wellness for Young People The power that simple, everyday routines and gestures can play in boosting mental health cannot be overstated. While many cited special achievements as sources of positivity, many diarists, both parents and young people, recounted the ordinary, easily overlooked, moments in their lives that put them in a positive frame of mind. Further understanding the moments that boost an individuals’ emotional wellbeing, as well as exploring the potential to replicate or how to further facilitate these moments, is an important area of future research. 6 “My friends gave me a standing ovation after a speech that I was super scared to give last week. That was cool and made me feel good.” – Young Man, 13-17 “I was so proud of myself is when I made honor roll.” – Young Woman, 13-17 “I felt so happy, excited and proud when my art teacher picked my drawing to present and bring for viewing on our main campus.” – Young Woman, 13-17 “Normally when I wake up, I feel very tired and am not excited to go to work but for the last few days, I’ve had a lot of energy… I’ve started using the ‘bedtime’ feature on my iPhone more consistently and I’ve had the window open and can hear the birds chirping when I wake up.” – Young Woman, 18-20 “I am optimistic about the upcoming months. My daughter is getting married the end of May, and hubby and I have a trip planned for our anniversary the end of June. It is going to be an exciting summer.” – Mother, 50+ “It makes my day perfect when my mom makes bacon fried rice for breakfast.” – Young Man, 13-17 “Sundays have traditions I look forward to… we go to church, have lunch and movie time. If there’s no good movie, we go bowling as a family. Sunday is a family day. Everybody needs to be available.” – Mother, 35-49 “An ideal evening would be eating a good meal with the family, going for a walk with my wife, sitting around watching movies or baseball with my boys.” – Father, 35-49 “Little” Things “Bigger” Things Sources of Mental Wellness for Parents “Little” Things “Bigger” Things
  7. 7. Contagious Positivity of Mental Health and Wellness for Young People The routines and gestures that facilitate positive mental health for one person also impact the people who surround them. Predictably, parents describe how their children’s happiness is inextricably linked to their own. Young people, too, however, are highly aware of others’ mental health, and also describe how their own mental wellness is buoyed or brought down by the mental state of others. Our young diarists cite traditional interactions with others as sources of mental wellness. They feel comfortable reading and are deeply affected by signals like body language and tone. 7 “I can tell when someone is feeling good by how they talk and their body language… I respond with the same positive vibes.” – Young Man, 18-20 “My older daughter complimented me on how nice the house looked the last time she was home. She had her new boyfriend with her so I really made an effort to have everything clean and looking nice. It made me feel really good. Someone noticed my efforts and acknowledged them!” – Father, 50+ “I can tell when my family is feeling good. They will have more excitement in their voices and will be more engaged in conversation. Whenever they are in a good mood, it will help my attitude improve. Other people's attitudes can very much effect your own.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “My children are a great reminder that I am loved and appreciated! It doesn't have to be a special holiday to get an uplifting boost from my children! Little things like picking me a flower / a hand written note / helping around the house without me asking / a great big hug are all examples of how my children make me feel loved!” – Mother, 35-49 “When my family feels good the overall environment is better, it’s something I can feel in the air, less tension and more genuine smiles and laughter.” – Young Woman, 18-20 “When a family member is not feeling good, the house is very, very quiet.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “Getting a call from my girlfriend in the morning is the best thing ever. I'm not friends with people who bring me down. The interactions that make me feel good on a day to day basis [are the ones I have] with my friends and family.” – Young Man, 18-20 Parents’ Positive Interactions
  8. 8. How Young People Connect over Good News Because mental wellness doesn’t happen in a vacuum, interactions, especially in-person communication, are paramount. The sense of accomplishment or pride is multiplied when shared with loved ones. Critically, the most mileage comes when news is shared in-person. Despite widespread fears that tech has hurt our ability to interact offline, diarists revealed a preference for in-person (offline) communication to share positive and negative experiences, challenging the perception of a “share obsessed” culture – particularly among youth. Young people are looking for real human interactions, not online “Likes” when sharing the highs and lows of their lives. Parents/guardians, prefer to share good news in person more because of a concern that sharing online is tantamount to “bragging.” 8 “The best way to share good news is in person because you can see the person’s expression and maybe get a hug. And hugs are better than likes.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “If something good happens to me, I usually would want to share the news right away with my best friend… she would see my happiness in my facial expressions…. I’d rather share the news in person to see their reaction.” – Young Woman, 18-20 “I share good news with people closest to me... I share good news in person, always. I’d want to share it in person so I could see their facial expressions and know if they’re excited for me based on their facial expressions.” – Young Man, 13-15 “I’d tell my family about good news, but I probably would not post on social media because it would seem like bragging. If it was about my daughter I might post it, but would check with her first.” – Mother, 35-49 “If I had a promotion at work, I’d tell my wife and my family. I’d tell them immediately because it would be exciting and rewarding... I’d tell only close associates because I feel it is uncalled for to brag. I would tell some of my family online but tell most face to face.” – Father, 50+ “[If I got good news] I would tell my wife face to face. I love to see her smile, and what better time to smile then with some good news. I am not a social media kind of person, I like to hear or see the reaction, not read about it.” – Father, 35-49 How Parents Connect over Good News
  9. 9. “Tech-niques” to Support Relationships Social media certainly plays a large role in young people’s lives and its effects should be considered. But young people talk about more conventional technologies like text and voice and video calls as playing a more important role in their relationships than public- or follower- facing social media profiles and posts. Notably, several referred to texts and calls as “easier” than social media. 9 I chose to [share good news] over text or in person is because it is easier and also removes the complete group social aspect from the news. -Young Man, 18-20 “I’d want to tell good news over the phone, in person, or by FaceTime. I think any other way doesn't feel personal enough.” – Young Man, 18-20 I will share this news over phone, online or in person if I see them frequently. I always prefer to share information in person, but settle for other means due distance reasons. – Young Man, 18-20 “The best way to share good news is in person [but] the next best way is verbally over the phone. Then probably through text.” – Young Woman, 13-17 I wouldn't put [good news] on social media- people can talk to me if they want to know! - Young Woman, 20-24 If I got really good news I would want to share it right away…. I‘d want to share the news in person because it’s much more personal and its easier to enjoy sharing a moment with somebody when you can see them in person. Social media is very non personal. – Young Woman, 13-17 I would share [good news] by texting them, I don't really like to talk on the phone but I also wouldn't want to share it with the whole world on social media so texting them would be the best option. - Young Woman 13-17
  10. 10. The People Who Understand Young People For some young people, the person who gets them best is a parent or guardian. For these young people, spanning age all ages, knowing their parent/guardian will never “judge” them is key to feeling understood. Tellingly, many parent diarists continue to rely on their parents for emotional support. However, unlike their children, these parents cite intuition and experience as the source of understanding, rather than non-judgement. This reiterates the need to understand and support child-parent/guardian relationships, as strengthening these relationships will help build long-term support networks necessary for positive mental health. For those who turn to peers, they tend to look for confidants who don’t just understand them but are fundamentally like-minded and therefore able to apply the same perspective, albeit some greater objectivity. 10 “Good listeners tell me when I am right or wrong and they can relate to me.” – Young Man, 18-20 “[My best friend] gets me more than anyone else… we have compatible personalities with similar senses of humor and similar work ethics.” – Young Woman, 21-24 “At the risk of sounding like a momma's boy, I have to say my mother understands me the best.” – Father, 35-49 “My best friend completely understands me….We are very similar and we tend to feel the same way about specific situations. Often we can just read each other's minds.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “People like my parents, who are understanding, fun to talk to, caring and never judge me.” – Young Woman, 18-20 “I’ll tell my mom anything…she doesn’t judge people. She loves and gives without expecting in return. She is a great listener.” – Young Man, 21-24 “My mother [understands me best] because she has the mother’s instinct, she raised me.” – Mother, 35-49 “My mother understands me best... She's my mother and has raised me, so of course she should understand me and why I am the way I am.” – Mother, 25-34 The People Who Understand Parents For some it’s parents… …For others it’s peers
  11. 11. What Gets Said and What Is Left Unsaid
  12. 12. Young Peoples’ Feelings of Being Understood/Misunderstood by Parents There are things that are left unsaid within the child-parent/guardian relationship. Lapses in communication happen when children fear judgment and parents/guardians want to protect their kids from some of the painful realities of grown-up life. Young people largely agreed that their parents/guardians understand positive aspects of their personalities and emotions, but many don’t feel like their parents/guardians “get” the challenges they face, the choices they have to make, and the role anxiety plays in all of it. Parents understand who they are as individuals but not how they lead their lives and the choices they have to make. 12 “My parents and I are close, and for the most part they understand me. They understand what motivates me and my work ethic. I can talk to them about those things and they understand why things frustrate me. With my transition from college into the workforce, however, there have been moments where I feel like they don't understand; that they don't understand the stress of trying to be independent or the stress of having a relationship. Sometimes I feel like they think that I want to intentionally hurt them by trying to be independent.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “My parents typically understand me but it's hard to talk to them mainly because they are my parents and I don't want to show them what is really happening with me because they may not agree with it. I am pretty set in how I do things.” – Young Man, 21-24 “I feel understood in most departments. My parents understand my willingness, playfulness and humor best [but] I feel misunderstood when it comes to my anxiety and emotions sometimes, it’s hard to dissect for them.” – Young Woman, 18-20
  13. 13. Parents struggle to keep their households afloat, and many describe anxieties born from romantic or spousal relationships. But while some are comfortable discussing these issues with parents, siblings, and friends, many parents draw the line at talking about sources of stress for them with their children. This may be contributing to young people’s belief that their parents don’t understand the stress they face. Building out techniques that alleviate adult- specific stresses will require further investigation. A starting point will be to better understand the specific things in parents’ lives – such as work, financial or relationship stress– that impair their mental wellness. “Rat Race My children are involved in sports (hockey / soccer / swimming / gymnastics). We run from school to practice to errands every night, while I maintain a full time job and run a household (cleaning / laundry).” – Mother, 35-49 "Stress Stressing You Out? After going through a separation and court dates regarding child support and my daughter, not to mention unhealthy communication with my ex.” – Father, 35-49 “Great Unknown Over the past 12 months, my wife has had to undergo a surgery, which may or may not have helped her situation. I’m living with a cloud of uncertainty over me. I [also] have a son going to college, and I have no idea how much that will cost me.” – Father, 35-49 “The Sandwich Generation: Caring for a Parent with Dementia, While Still Raising Your Own Family While caring for my mom, I know I did the best I could, but was forced to sacrifice time with my own family. I am happy I was able to help my mom, but sometimes I’m frustrated about the time it took away from my children and husband.” – Mother, 50+ If a Profile Were Written about Your Life over the Last Year, What Would the Title Be? But Many Parents Don’t Discuss Their Own Stress with Their Kids “My sons are too young to understand.” – Father, 50+ “I really wouldn’t want anyone worrying about my problems.” – Father, 35-49 “I would share [stressful news] with my mother… [but] I would not share this with my kids. I don’t want to stress them out. It’s my job to protect them from these things.” – Mother, 35-49 13
  14. 14. But there is a disconnect between child and parent/guardian perceptions. Parents/guardians strongly believe there’s been a sea change in conversations about mental health since they were kids. For them, previous generations of parents weren’t open to talking about mental wellness, as they believe themselves to be open to talking about today. But on this matter, young people have a somewhat conflicting perspective. By and large, young people don’t think they are having productive and supportive conversations about mental health at home. 14 Parents/Guardians Young People “Mental health was not a thing in my childhood [but] I have spoken with my daughter about mental health in the context of mutual friends and students having mental health issues.” – Mother, 50+ “I don't want to talk to my parents about mental health. My boyfriend has depression and anxiety. I feel like my parents think that I’ll be choosing a hard life if I date him because of these disorders, despite the fact that he’s very kind and generous. I don't think they’re bothered by mental illness, but I get the impression they don't want anyone around me to have mental illness.” – Young Woman, 21-24 “My family didn’t discuss mental health & wellness [when I was a kid]… but I believe it’s very important to talk through these things. Let my children know people are different and have different personality styles - some including mental illness. My youngest daughter has depression / anxiety issues. Her moods affect the tone of the whole house. It’s only fair to everyone that they understand this is sometimes beyond what my daughter can control on her own. So everyone in her life needs tools to help her be successful without them driving themselves crazy!” – Mother, 35-49 “I haven't talked to my parents about my mental health in many years. When I was a young teen I struggled with depression and took medication, but for the past eight to ten years, I have not had many problems.” – Young Woman, 21-24 “My parents never talked about ‘hard issues’ with us. I believe my uncle had some type of mental illness (bipolar disorder) but that was never spoken about…I have talked with my daughter about anxiety issues, she sometimes has mild panic attacks. I encourage her to go to counseling at college.” – Mother, 50+ “I've talked to my parents about anxiety but sometimes I think they don't believe me. They tell me I can choose to be happy, just ignore it. They have told me to go and meet with a counselor at school, but that gives me anxiety too.” – Young Woman, 21-24 “I always speak with my kids about mental wellness and health. We discuss dealing with everyday stress, how it can be managed by rest, healthy food and exercise.” – Father, 50+ “I’ve talked to my parents about anxiety and stress. My mom is a bit more understanding. My dad sometimes doesn't always recognize the issue.” – Young Man, 13-15 …and their own… Conversations within Families
  15. 15. Families with first-hand experience of mental illness were more likely talk about mental health. But in households with both direct and indirect experience with mental illness, a few factors seem to facilitate productive environments for parents and children to discuss mental health: Parents take the initiative to begin the conversation. Conversations are specific. Conversations discuss the spectrum of mental wellness/illness. Conversations are open and on-ongoing. 15 “In the last six months, mental illness has become a very real factor in our lives, but I’ve always spoken to my kids about it and made sure I’m aware of changes in their wellbeing, mentally and physically. We’ve talked about people in our family with a history of issues and also the effects that stress and negativity can have on your mental and physical being.” – Mother, 35-49 “My dad is a classic bipolar disorder case so YES my family talks about mental health. My mother and I typically talk about our mental health and lean on each other since dad is a bit nonsensical at times.” – Young Woman, 21-24 “I encourage my kids to talk to me or my wife if they have problems. We also have others in our church that are willing to listen if they are embarrassed or if mom and dad are just not cool enough to talk to. I try to talk to them everyday about their day and listen. It is not easy because they are not always wanting to, but they know that if they need me I am there. The kids sadly have had a few suicides and other tragedies happen at their schools, which puts more of a focused conversation about how their feeling but I try not to pry to hard. I feel it just drives them further away.” – Father, 35-49 “I’ve had conversations with my parents about mental wellness and health. They have told me that I need to do what’s best for me and if someone or something is making things hard for me, I need to remove it from my life. I feel as though my parents understand how big of an issue mental health and wellness is with our age group, so they are open to talking about it a lot.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “As for my two sons, one suffers from bouts of depression, the other has suffered from cyber bullying. Not easy issues to deal with. I've had many discussions with my sons regarding their well being, mentally as well as physically. It's an open door policy in our house. The discussions are always ongoing, and can be reopened at any time.” – Father, 50+ “I’ve talked with my parents about mental wellness and health. We’ve covered everything about these topics: sex, life, depression, drug use, changes with puberty, and much, much more. In the early years, my parents usually started these conversations. As I grew, I asked more questions. My parents took initiative to teach me the right things growing up. ” – Young Man, 13-15 Parents/Guardians Young People…and their own… Conversations within Families
  16. 16. But the tendency to steer-clear of sensitive topics isn’t absolute; both children and their parents say they’re open to talk but neither feel particularly confident about how to start difficult or uncomfortable conversations. There’s a real need to better understand how to dispel judgement, to bridge the divide within communication gaps between children and parents/guardians, particularly in talking about relationships and sex. “I recently had to confide in my mom about a serious problem. She didn't lecture or judge me, she just helped me take care of it. I think that started me seeing her more as someone I could go to, not just a "mom”. – Young Woman, 21-24 “I would feel more confident speaking to my parents at home about [sex] if I knew that they wouldn't be so judgey.” – Young Woman, 13- 15 “I wouldn’t want to talk to my parents about my dating life… [but] I would feel more confident speaking to them about this, if I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble or they would listen and not make any judgements.” – Young Woman, 13-15 “The hardest topic [to talk about with my kids] is sex because it’s not a topic I would want to initiate, especially with my daughters. But if they came to me with questions I think I would have no problem answering them.” – Father, 35-49 “I wouldn’t want to talk to my daughter about whether she is having sex with her boyfriend, but I would feel more confident if I knew she wanted to talk to me about it.” – Mother, 50+ “As a parent, it‘s hard to talk about sex. My daughter never wanted to talk about it even if I would bring it up but I felt it was good to start a dialogue, my mother never really did, I wanted to make sure I was there for my girls.” – Mother, 50+ “I guess I would feel more confident speaking to my kids about [sensitive subjects] if I knew that they WANTED me to talk to them about it!” – Father, 35-49 “I’d tell my parents more secretive stuff if I knew they wouldn't judge me or make me feel stupid.” – Young Man, 21-24 “[I wouldn’t talk to my parents about] sex.. I'm afraid they would be scared to let me out of the house because they would think that something bad would happen while I was out.” – Young Man, 13-15 Difficult Conversations: Young People’s Perspectives Difficult Conversations: Parents’ Perspectives 16
  17. 17. There is a human voice to mental health– but all too often it goes untold. Exploring the real, relatable experiences of mental health/illness could play an important role in helping youth overcome fears of judgement and showing parents/guardians that sometimes their efforts to shelter their kids from the realities of life, lead to unintended consequences that negatively impact their family’s mental health. Bottling-up conversations about mental health can have detrimental effects on families. On the path to positive mental health, communication and openness are essential. “Growing up, my mother was the guardian of her brother that was a paranoid schizophrenic. He was a part of our lives as long as I can remember. Therefore, from a young age mental health and illness was something we were very aware of and spoke of frequently. My mother openly discussed his illness and her involvement. I remember visiting him in psychiatric hospitals and hearing how my mother had to go to court to get him committed. My children were also raised with this uncle in their lives. So they were also aware of mental illness. My oldest struggled with depression after losing his father at a young age and then being sent off to the gulf for 8 months. He began self medicating with alcohol. I dealt with it on my own not sharing with my other children until things got very bad. I got sick from the stress and realized I had to open up about the situations. I got professional help and I later had to so sit down my younger children and explain and open the lines of communication regarding, mental health and self medication with alcohol and/or drugs. We have openly discussed this many time with each other. They have now openly discussed it with their brother who is clean and maintains ongoing treatment for over 3 years.” – Mother, 50+ 17 Case Study: Why Communication Matters