My son Aaron, a freshman in high school, said to me casually one night a couple months ago, “I’m not doing too good in my AP class. I’m at a ‘C’.”
Even though he had never received a ‘C’ in his life, I didn’t flinch; I didn’t get curious. In fact, I didn’t think too much about it. This is his first year in high school, plus he’s taking an AP class. He’s busy with sports. We’re in a pandemic. He’ll be fine, he’s strong.
I responded, “Okay. No problem Big Guy. I know you’ll get your grade up.” I smiled, patted him on the back and walked out of the room.
A month later after the holidays, Aaron came to me and my husband Ron. His voice shaky, his face red, it was immediately apparent that he was distressed.
“I got a ‘D’ in that class… I don’t know what’s wrong with me… I’m not myself. I’m struggling with mental health stuff… I wanted to tell you, but…”
Ron and I were shocked.
Looking back on the night Aaron mentioned the ‘C’, I made an unfair assumption that Aaron was fine, believing he’d figure it out and thinking everything would be okay because ‘It was Aaron. He’s strong.’
Here’s a list of things I could have done better in that moment (which I’ll use to make positive change in the future):
Be present: Although Aaron came to me with a cool tone, if I were more in the moment, perhaps I would have picked up on the real message: he needed help. Maybe I would have noticed his energy was off. Maybe I would have noticed him looking down to the floor. Maybe I would have heard a crack in his voice.
Probe: I took Aaron’s words at place value. I didn’t ask how the ‘C’ made him feel. I didn’t ask why his grade was low. Was it trouble with vocabulary? Not enough time to study at night? Not turning in assignments? If I had been more curious, perhaps one of those questions would have sparked a deeper conversation.
Be more involved: Ron and I had the opportunity to attend an open house at Aaron’s school, but we didn’t. We reasoned, “It’s not needed. Aaron always does well.” Ron and I have access to Aaron’s school grades; we never checked them, “Aaron always gets good grades.” If Ron and I were more active in Aaron’s studies, we may have seen the signs of Aaron’s struggles earlier.
Although I missed signs, I never got down on myself when I realized I could have done better and I never lost sight that Aaron could have done more on his part. As my Dad used to say, ‘It takes two to tango.’ What I did do is turn this into a learning opportunity and a way to get closer to my son.
What I hope you take away from this story is that, especially in these difficult times, take time to check on your ‘strong friends’ (or kids). Those in your life who you perceive as having it all figured out, those in your life who are usually the ones taking care of others, those in your life who are usually crushing it at school, work and life… They may need you.
I also hope you walk away with this: You’re human. You’re not going to be that ‘perfect’ parent or that ‘perfect’ friend or colleague. You’re going to miss some signs and some moments, and that’s okay.
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PS – Here’s an affirmation if you’re struggling with mental health: “I will come through this challenge with a better understanding of myself. I deserve help and feel confident asking for it.” Here’s an affirmation for those who have missed signs from loved ones: “I did the best I could yesterday and today.”
PPS – Are there people in your life who always seem strong and put together, but perhaps there’s more happening underneath the surface? Let’s focus on pinpointing signs of help or distress in others. Here’s a journal prompt: Jot down the names of a few of these seemingly strong people. Then, consider the last time you interacted with each of them and consider the list above in my blog post. Were you present and invested in the conversation? Were you genuinely curious about how they were and did you probe/ask questions? How would you describe your involvement in their lives in the past couple months? Based on these reflections, what can you do now to show them you are there if they need you?