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Your kid’s college is engulfed in protests. What should you do?

Your kid’s college is engulfed in protests. What should you do

Whatever their personal or political allegiances, many college students are seeing their experience on campus influenced by the Israel-Hamas war.

For some, division among their peers, disruption to academics and potential violence have affected their first experience away from home in what is expected to be a haven for exchanging ideas, said Dr. Gail Saltz, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, who also has grown children.

While students navigate their own place in the conversation, many of their loved ones back home are worrying about them.

Saltz spoke to CNN about the stress that families might be feeling and what they can do about it.

This conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

CNN: Why is the conflict over the war happening on campuses stressful for many parents and families?

Dr. Gail Saltz: There hasn’t been much discussion about parents who are already in the unusual position of having children who are adults — I am supposed to respect their adulthood and their decision-making, and maybe offer an opinion if asked, but I’m often not asked.

But at the same time, I’m still their parent. I still want what’s best for them. I don’t have eyeballs any longer — probably for the first time in their growing up — on what exactly is happening (around them).

The uncertainty of what exactly is going on with your kid, while the atmosphere is filled with a lot of information, some of which sounds kind of dire, is very stressful.

Dire can range from the university will not be able to function in the way that universities usually do, so that will impact their classes or social situations or grading, to things that are (really) dire, like when local police come (on campus). What will the impact of that be? If there will be suspensions and expulsions, then will this affect my child’s future?

CNN: Now that their kids are adults, many families might be feeling a bit helpless. Is there anything they can do?

Saltz: Parents can talk to their kids, but the talking needs to be more in the question format than in the lecture format.

When you’re anxious, your tendency is to want to control, which would quell the anxiety. Every human feels the way to control is to dictate what to do. And so, it would be understandable that a parent would feel the best thing to do is to say, “Listen, I’m hearing about X, Y or whatever it is. I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to do these things.”

But the reality is that your kid has aged out of when that would be remotely productive or impactful, and so it won’t even achieve what you were hoping.

The best way to deal with what we’re talking about is really to do it in a question format.

“I would like to understand what’s happening. Can you tell me how you’re feeling about what’s happening? What’s your thought process?” Everything you’re concerned about may be framed in a “tell me what you’re thinking” sort of way.

It’s difficult if they start saying they’re thinking something that freaks you out to not jump in and say, “Well don’t do that.” But really, I advise you to hear them out.

You can definitely pose another question. For example, “And how do you feel if the administration says these students are expelled?”

You hope that they’re developing in their mind, on their own, (a way of) questioning what ultimately are good decisions for them, that fit with their values and morals but also consider things like their safety and well-being.

CNN: Many families may be struggling with not being with their children as they navigate a complex issue. How can families support their students emotionally?

Saltz: There’s a lot of division (on campus), and some of the division is even amongst people who previously felt they were friends or people who were trying to be friends … or were certainly their classmates.

There’s a great sense of (people sorting out) what you think and what you’re willing to do to show what you think indicates what team you’re on. And so, people are having difficulty maintaining a friendship if they now somehow feel they’re not on the same team.

As is pretty much always the case, being able to talk about emotional tolls with anybody who you feel very supported by and is in your corner — whether it is your parents or siblings — is helpful.

Just the venting part, without having to solve problems, can help, because really what they’re looking for is just empathy, just being listened to, being understood and being allowed to say what a hard time they’re having.

Remind them they can ask for help. They can go talk to professors. If something is going on, there are resources at the school, and you hope that they will make use of that.

Sometimes when kids become really overwrought, they sort of turtle and forget that, really, there are people at their school who are very aware what a difficult time this is for their students and are very willing to be there.

Parents can listen for things that are concerning. If a kid is like, “I can’t get out of my bed. I’m not hungry,” you should be arranging help to get your child to see a mental health professional.

CNN: If a parent or guardian’s views differ from their child, that might feel like a rejection. How can parents provide that listening ear if their child has different beliefs?

Saltz: Hopefully as a parent, you understand that your purpose in raising a child is to produce a full-fledged human being (who) has found their identity. That identity won’t always match yours, and that they might even adopt — as teenagers do all the time — various identities. Whatever identity you even currently see might not be their endgame.

I think all parents want their children to be happy and healthy. And to do that, they have to have the freedom to establish their own identity, and it might disappoint you that they don’t have the same religious identity or the same political identity. Lots of parents struggle with this.

In the healthiest parent-child relationship, to maintain closeness and to keep that relationship, you will allow that to happen. And you will say, “While we don’t agree, I understand where you’re coming from, and I hope that you will continue to remember and understand where I’m coming from, which does not mean that you have to be my clone.”

CNN: What would you say to parents who worry that their child’s identity may feel threatened on campus?

The reality is both Islamophobia and antisemitism have risen astronomically. If that happens to a kid, they may feel understandably emotionally threatened.

If in anger, when their identity is being threatened, they have a behavioral response that provokes a physical confrontation, then they may be in danger. One thing a parent can do to help their student is to discuss through and analyze in a problem-solving way.

A preplan helps with impulsive feelings that are brought on by being emotionally supercharged.

If the safety issue is one of emotional safety, I go back to a parent helping a child through anti-bullying techniques. Those have to do with not engaging in the intended provocation and recruiting bystanders to support you.

Bystanders can be more the pushers back on someone who is purposely bullying. But many of these protests are not about bullying. Many of the kids out there doing the protests are not saying anything antisemitic.

CNN: How should parents and caregivers take care of their own mental health and well-being during this time?

Saltz: Once your kid is an adult, there’s a certain amount of acceptance that you can’t walk them home and tuck them in. There is a point where you’re acknowledging, “My child is an adult. That means that I can’t control everything, and I have to accept that they will have failures and mistakes that I would not have wanted them to make.”

Those mistakes may feel dire and irrevocable, but that for the most part is pretty rare.

There is a certain amount of perspective-taking that helps calm yourself down a little bit about what the possible outcomes you’re worried about are and how they may be a bump in the road.

Some parents are prone to high anxiety, particularly if you’ve recently gone through or going through something else very difficult or traumatic.

If so, I would advise you to seek some mental health care because it’s really hard to help your child if you’re undone. Take your own temperature. It’s been a hard time, even before this war started for a lot of people.

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