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What students want their parents to know: Panel creates an open space for students and their parents to talk 

For a little more than four years now, Ana O'Sullivan and Kerri Mahoney have worked together to research and understand student social-emotional wellness and mental health, sharing what they've learned through connectbewell.org.

The pair is taking their studies a step further by trying to understand and fill the resource gap that exists in schools, curriculum, and communication at home.

They did this by creating a panel on March 20 for students to openly talk to their parents about issues surrounding stress or the pressures of school success, and also for parents to understand how to approach the conversation with their students.

In 2016, the duo helped create the REACH Club at San Luis Obispo High School that meets weekly during lunch. The club creates a space for students to connect with one another and talk about ways to cope with stress and anxiety.

"With the REACH Club, and also the work we're doing within the school district, we really want it to be the catalyst for the social-emotional learning component that hasn't been here, but we thought, 'How often do we listen to our students?'" Mahoney said.

So their next step was creating a space for students to talk about what they're feeling or going through, share the resources that SLO County has to offer, and listen to the students.

Mahoney said that she and Sullivan surveyed all the 10th and 12th grade students at SLO High School using a questionnaire that asked about the top three things they wished their parents could understand better.

They received more than 1,600 responses from students.

The answers laid out five areas that students wanted to talk about: handling stress, pressures and expectations for school success, becoming an adult, anxiety and depression, parental relations and communication—all things the duo learned about in their research.

O'Sullivan and Mahoney worked with SLO County Behavioral Health, Cal Poly, Transitions-Mental Health Association, counselors from the high school, and students to create the panel titled, What We Wish Our Parents Understood. The goal was to talk about the issues raised from the survey.

Along with the discussion, mainly led by students, parents in the audience had the opportunity to privately ask questions from anyone on the panel by scanning a QR code.

Mahoney said the panel's most discussed topic was stress and the pressures of school success.

"How can we use it for a way to catapult forward versus it stops us in our tracks? And the nice thing was when the professional panel came up and focused on the same questions and what they were seeing," Mahoney said.

Chris Inman, a SLO High counselor, was on the professional panel and is new to the high school. He said that the event, while very important for students, was equally important for parents.

"It was nice for parents, after hearing all the students' responses, to be able to ask follow-up questions that wouldn't really put the students on the spot because it was really more of a night for students to express their feelings and have them be heard," Inman said.

He said there is a barrier to having these discussions because students may not go to their parents or the school counseling staff to talk until they feel it's their last resort.

"The hard part is that sometimes it's the last straw for a lot of students, where they'll come to us after they can't think of something else, so it's sort of how we break down these walls of communication and break the taboo of seeking help," he said.

His No. 1 piece of advice for parents is to really listen to their child.

"A lot of times without even intending to, parents will try to solve a problem or fix something for their student or their child immediately because that's what they think the student is coming to them for," Inman said.

Instead, Inman said, parents should say, "Thank you for sharing that with me. Did you need to vent or is there something I can help with?"

His second piece of advice is for parents to ask themselves who they're doing this for.

"Sometimes the parents will want to do something for their child but you have to really ask yourself: Is this step or whatever you're choosing to do because it will make you feel better or because it will make your child feel better?" he said.

What O'Sullivan and Mahoney are doing with their research is learning how society's culture and climate is changing in regards to communication.

"For the kids to really feel like they're being seen and heard and for parents to be willing to be brave enough and to be willing to listen, because you know it's hard to listen sometimes to what our kids might need to say," Mahoney said.

This panel was the first of many that will take place at different high schools in San Luis Obispo County. By customizing the events to the students and families at each school site, O'Sullivan and Mahoney believe that the school and the community will have a better understanding of what their students are going through. Δ

Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at kgarcia@newtimesslo.com.

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