How To Tell If Our Kids Are Okay With Kyle Cruze

March 3, 2024

How To Tell If Our Kids Are Okay With Kyle Cruze

This month we’re talking about parenting and today we’re going to be talking about how to tell if our kids are okay. One of the most heart wrenching parts of parenting is seeing our kids struggle. When our kid is dealing with physical pain, we obviously rush to them to get help. And, even if they’re insisting they’re fine, you know a broken bone when you see it. But mental health is altogether different. While mental illness can and does present itself physically, much of anxiety and depression happens inside the mind. Mental health is a serious topic that thankfully has become more widely talked about, but we often feel helpless or unsure of what to do when our child is mentally struggling, especially as solo parents. How do we effectively help our kids deal with anxiety or depression in a healthy way and how can we actually tell if our kids are doing okay?

Today we have a special guest, Kyle Cruz to help us navigate this topic. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist in the state of Tennessee. His passion and expertise is with adolescents and their families who are struggling to navigate through the difficult and confusing aspects of this culture and life. Also, he works closely with those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. He practices out of the counseling center at Christ Community Church here in Franklin, Tennessee, and we’re really grateful to have him. I’m looking forward to this conversation. And Kyle is my son’s counselor, so I’ve been on the receiving end of all his wisdom and expertise, and he’s helped Jax a ton. So, I’m very excited about this conversation as well. At the end of the podcast, we’re going to answer a question from one of our listeners about positive and negative traits in our exes.

Kyle, give us a little bit about your background, what led you into what you do now?

Yeah, it was a bit of a windy road. I graduated from an undergraduate with an economics degree. I thought I would follow my family’s path into the business world and didn’t really think much about it frankly. I played sports in college and focused primarily on that. I just figured I would fall into some kind of business dynamic. When I graduated, I did that for about two years. I realized at 23, 24 that I had to wake up every single day and go do something for a living. It was probably a little late to be realizing that, but it came at the time I was in therapy myself and realized it sounded really intriguing to “sit with people and engage with them on stuff a bit below the surface and make a living doing it.” I went to school and graduated. Initially, I thought I would save every marriage that I possibly could. I realize now that was quite a vain idea, but I took a job right out of grad school because I needed one, not because I was necessarily looking for this. I was working with high school guys and inpatient treatment for drug and alcohol abuse and addiction, and I fell in love for two reasons. One: I realized they are massively, massively underrated. When you say “a teenage boy,” and particularly when you say “a teenage boy using drugs,” you get immediate negative pushback. It’s unfair. They’re brilliant, they’re good kids with some real hard stuff going on.

Second: I learned that I’m decent at engaging with them and thought, “This is fun.” It’s challenging. Kids change. Adults have a hard time changing. Kids do change by nature, and so that was fun because there was always some transient process planned out. I haven’t looked back. I worked with the high school age for a while and then kind of expanded my range, so to speak, to late elementary, and now even early college age. Primarily males and then the families that come with them. I can’t do this work without engaging the parents, the families, the grandparents, the aunts and uncles sometimes.

If you want to talk about what anxiety and depression is, that’s fine, but more so what does anxiety and depression look like in kids and in teens that you’ve seen?

It’s important to differentiate, specifically as it relates to depression. Depression is a physiological state. It is not a feeling. Our culture overuses a lot of words these days, and as a therapist, I’m a bit particular around this kind of stuff. You’ll hear someone say, I feel depressed. That is a descriptor of how someone is feeling in that moment. Does that mean that they are depressed? Depression is a clinical state of being. There’s a lot of criteria that goes into that. There’s got to be a time frame in which people feel or experience those symptoms. And so it’s important when we are talking through both anxiety and depression, that we are defining these words appropriately because they can be a bit misleading, particularly with young people. Young people are known for using [words] the best they know how but it’s inappropriate language for what they’re feeling: I’m so depressed, or I just want to die. We go into modes that we should because we need to consider what they are saying—but that’s not what they mean.

There are different types of anxieties. What we know in a clinical sense are phobias. These are just intense fears. It’s like there’s a spider crawling across the floor right there, and I am intensely afraid of spiders and go into a reactionary mode. There are social anxieties, so any type of social engagement, and there’s varying social contexts in which a young person might be struggling: school, youth group, family gatherings, field trips, sports teams, new tryouts, things like that. And then there’s just general anxiety, which we tend to see the most of. That’s typically going to be around competence and performance. This is a massive topic, one that I could talk about for a while, but competence and performance are what—and how—our kids perceive their competence and their ability to perform, and it often translates into anxiety. And so they call it generalized anxiety. Again, there’s the disordered type of generalized anxiety, and then there’s basic, I’m feeling a bit anxious today and that may kind of ebb and flow. When we’re looking at it with our kids, to what extent is the anxiety interfering with his or her ability to navigate day-to-day activities? To what extent is that anxiety interfering with the ability to get up in the morning and go to school? To what extent is that anxiety interfering with the ability to jump into an extracurricular and participate? Not “crush it and perform out of this world,” but just be a part of it. That’s a basic litmus test for whether or not this anxiety is starting to get to be bigger than it needs to be.

Depression is a whole different animal in a sense. I will say that depression and anxiety play very well together. So a depressed person can oftentimes express or manifest their depression through anxious symptoms. And if you think about it, if you’re anxious all the time, that’s a relatively depressing existence. But what you’re going to see a lot with depressed young people is a bit more flat and emotionless. A lot of times, boys in particular are going to be highly irritable and angry and it can go from zero to ten in a matter of seconds. You’ll see a bit more isolation. You’ll see the stereotypical lack of motivation. They’re finding the things they once were really involved in to be less exciting and less attractive.

This is the million-dollar question: How do we differentiate between age-appropriate behavior and true clinical concerns? How do we tell the difference between things that are physical, adrenal, thyroid, etc., physical things and mental?

They’re related, I think. I know that this can be controversial depending on who you’re talking to, and I think the medical world and the mental health world are starting to get along a little bit better. I like to say that at least anyone who is struggling with chronic emotional distress has physical limitations. Their immune system is compromised. We know these things, gut health problems. So, we ask, “What came first, the chicken or the egg?” When a kid comes into my office with a certain presentation or certain symptoms, we need to consider it all. Physical limitations or medical concerns can manifest in mental and emotional problems and vice versa. Sometimes it’s hard to tell immediately, but they both need to be considered, not necessarily one more than the other.

We need to be comprehensive in our assessment and comprehensive in our treatment. That’s why I’m excited about more collaboration between the medical community and the mental health community. There was a time where there was some friction there but I’m thankful when I get to speak to a pediatrician on the phone. There are a lot of pediatricians around that are more than happy to jump on the phone and collaborate because they are interconnected in so many ways. I think we still have a lot to learn. I think we’re finding there’s still a lot we don’t know, and I think people are more comfortable admitting that these days.

Jax struggles with some anxiety, and I’ve talked about it on here before, but I see who I call my “witch doctor.” She’s a natural gal and Jax is having some stomach issues and this more generalized anxiety. She’s working on his adrenals and his gut right now as a result of that. And so I definitely think it all plays together and is interconnected. We need to be looking at more of the holistic approach versus just trying to mask it or band-aid it. I think there are some deeper-rooted issues. It’s helped me a lot to look at some of those deeper-rooted things like my adrenals, my gut health, and what’s going on with my body in general.

If we can get a good assessment done (blood work and good mental psychological assessments), there can often be some relatively simple fixes. We might be deficient in iron and it can, especially in young people, come out sideways. It can be a vitamin D problem. There’s a lot that I am continuing to learn and continuing to hear that if we are able to wrap our hands around it a bit more comprehensively and be a bit more curious, it may not be quite as difficult to get our finger on some of the deficit or some of the root.

Just to clarify, are we saying the physical issues that arise, arise from emotional and could turn into gut health issues, adrenal issues? Or are we saying that you could just have an imbalance that causes the anxiety or is the root of everything emotional that turns into physical?

I don’t think we can say that 100% right, because I think some have a physical ailment over time and it’s going to impact their emotional state. If you have chronic pain, for example, that didn’t necessarily originate from emotional distress or trauma. Chronic pain for obvious reasons is a hard thing to deal with emotionally. But I do think that a lot of times we can look at physical issues and at least help some of those physical issues by taking care of our mental and emotional wellbeing.

If we suspect that our child is struggling, what should our first step be and how do we handle it if our child doesn’t want to acknowledge it or walk into it? If they don’t want to talk to us about it, how do we get in there?

I help coach parents. I find that kids do want to talk about it. They typically just don’t want to talk about it when you want to talk about it. Now there’s going to be a lot of blanket statements made and every kid is different. But in general, I find that kids do desire to talk about things with their safe people. It’s typically just not right when they get in the car after school, it’s typically a time that’s the most inconvenient time.  My kids typically want to talk when I’m ready to go to bed.

And so there are levels of concern here. If there are some immediate concerns going on with your child and they’re not talking and we need to get some traction going with some of these conversations, then I would suggest expediting the process and bringing in other support. But if you know that there’s something in there and they’re just not expressing it quite as quickly or quite as openly as you would, I would make it known. I think kids appreciate direct conversation. I would make it known that, “Hey, I see that there may be some more going on inside of you. I respect the fact that you may not know exactly what it is. You may not know how to put words to it, but I would love to play that out with you at some point. It can be when you’re ready, but I just want you to know I see it.” It’s an invitation. It’s not a, “Hey, sit down, we need to talk about something.” It’s not going to go anywhere. Most of the time you’re just putting it on the table and inviting them into it and also saying, “I see it. I know it’s there. I know you” and there’s often an appreciation with children. Then wait for it. It’ll come. It’ll come when you’re not really expecting it. It’ll come likely when it’s relatively inconvenient, but so goes parenting; that’s what we deal with. Just make it known that you see them and that you would love to hear them and then be patient and let them come to you.

A lot of single parents find themselves in a situation where they can’t control the environment, especially if your child is living half of the time or part of the time or a weekend at a time away. You have no control over what happens at the other house with your ex. You can’t necessarily change the environment. What do we do in those situations?

I think it’s important, first of all, just to take a step back. Naturally, we want to protect them. We want to eliminate any potential distress that they might experience. But I think it’s important that we take a step back and consider the benefits of potentially struggling or the benefits of potentially getting triggered. I think most parents would agree, at least the ones I’m talking to, that our kids are becoming less and less resilient. There’s an inability to deal with hard things. And so obviously this is on a spectrum. If you have a child that’s at your ex’s house and there’s stuff going on at that house that’s clearly problematic, there’s a level of discernment there that we as parents have to step in on and consider. But if there’s just some differences at his or her house—and it happens to be something that your child is struggling with, then we need to first consider if it’s an opportunity for us to name it for what it is and create some strategy around it. Learn how to not necessarily avoid it or eliminate it altogether, but navigate through it.

It’s empowering for kids to feel triggered and then to have something within they can access in that moment and move through it themselves. It’s relieving for them. When we rescue them, of course, no kid is going to protest against that, but their confidence in themself does not grow. They almost subconsciously know that. In some ways, it’s counter to anything you feel as a parent. But you’re looking for opportunities for them to experience hardship in order for them to grow some healthy callouses. And they’re better for it and they’re actually appreciative of it. They might not verbalize that.

And I didn’t do a good job of this when I was a single dad. I think it’s almost counterintuitive to a single parent because you’ve seen them struggle already. You’ve seen them go through a bunch of stuff, and I love the idea of being the hero for my child and stepping in and protecting and taking them out of the situation. It fed my ego, my hero ego, and that’s all my stuff. But I think it’s a natural tendency, especially if our kids have been through hard things, to want to jump into the role of fixing because there’s an element of us that feels like failure: We couldn’t keep our marriage together in some way. We failed.

When it comes to the whole rescuing thing, how do we help them through some of their struggles?

My son goes to his dad’s and he needs me at certain times or wants me to be there at certain times, but I know that I can’t always be there. I know that it’s also healthy for him to be able to do some of this on his own—take what we’ve practiced at home and work through some things on his own when he’s in those situations and scenarios. He is empowered to do that.

But what’s that line of you wanting to be there for him?

You want to know that you’re there if he needs you, but also him not feeling more abandoned on the other side of it. It feels like a thin fine line of wanting to continue to be that safe person that’s always there, but also creating resilience at the same time. So it feels like a healthy balance, but I don’t know what that healthy balance is. And it may be a little bit of a moving target. I think one of the hardest questions is: Why are you doing this? Is this for him? Is this for her or is this for you?

To your point about wanting to be the hero, I appreciate that type of parental humility. It draws me because I don’t see it very often and so often (and I’m raising my hand as I say this), so much of the way I parent is for me, it’s not for them; it’s to calm my own anxiety to deal with my own performance-oriented mindset. So I think that’s question number one that we have to be able to answer honestly, and if you can’t answer it yourself, then you need a good friend that can lovingly say, “Yeah, this sounds more about you than it is about your son or your daughter.”

It’s a brutal question, but it needs to be considered. And I think parents know their kids most of the time and so there is a level of discernment there. If you know this isn’t about me. This is about his or her wellbeing, and right now my gut’s just telling me he needs some reprieve. He needs a breath of fresh air. He needs some “rescuing.” Do it. Trust the gut as long as that question number one has been answered genuinely. If that question hadn’t been answered genuinely, then it’s hard to trust the gut. But if it has, then go with what you know is best.

Yeah, my counselor has encouraged me to ask, “Is this more about me or is it more about him?” I can tend to fall into that rescuer stage being a recovering codependent. And so there was another fine line of how to empower his dad to be more involved without falling into rescuing his dad and trying to control that situation. And what she’s encouraged me to do is just invite him into more things and give him behind the curtain views into what I know and just be upfront and not withhold information if I know something. So for example, just a couple of days ago, Jax wanted me to be with him when he downloaded this video game he had been looking forward to, and it was coming out on Saturday, and he’s like, “Hey, can you be with me when I do that? I don’t want to be alone. I want to share the excitement with you.” And he’s with his dad. So obviously we talked about the fact that I couldn’t be there. I could FaceTime him if he wanted to do that. But then after thinking about it the next day, I actually called his dad and said, “Hey, he’s really excited about this. It would be really cool if you would engage him with this and be like, ‘Hey, I heard your mom said that you’re excited about this,’ and then be with him in it and share that with him.” I know not everyone has that ability with their child’s other parent, but if you can, invite the other parent into the journey too—especially if you have someone who’s a little more standoffish and doesn’t know what to do. His dad’s pretty avoidant and it’s more so because he just doesn’t know what to do. Invite him into that for the sake of the kids, not out of a rescuing situation. Genuinely, Jax just wanted someone to share that with. I know he struggles with loneliness.

What are some ways that we could be contributing to their anxiety and depression that we don’t even realize?

I run hot. I’m a pretty anxious person, and so I almost always blame myself. Well, hopefully this is encouraging. We don’t need to overthink it. Anxiety is weird because it’s contagious. It’s a generally well-known idea that if you sit in close proximity to a viscerally anxious person, you naturally start to feel a bit uneasy. If someone’s pacing the room right now, you start to wonder what’s going on and you feel that. So the one-on-one kind of answer is if you tend to deal with anxiety yourself and that’s going undealt with or untreated, then it’s likely going to rub off on the people that you’re around the most, namely your children. Anxiety is the most frequent diagnosis that we have, especially in the United States.

Depression’s another one, and it’s also the most treatable. Anxiety is not a difficult thing to treat in terms of success rates. It’s different from some other mental illness categories that might be a bit more stubborn and sticky. If we name it for what it is and are honest with ourselves and do the work, it gets better. It really does. That’s the foundational spot from where I start with parents: Don’t just live with it, do something about it. It doesn’t make you less of a parent that you’re anxious. You don’t have to be superman or superwoman, but you do need to tend to your anxiety because it tends to rub off on your people.

Are there ways to deal with your own anxiety/depression/mental health struggles in front of your kids in a helpful way?

Yeah, and I think this is where the nuanced conversations can begin to take place. If I have a 7-year-old, my conversation and disclosures to that 7-year-old are going to be very different than a 15-year-old. I’m not sure that a 7-year-old is built to hear, Hey, dad struggles with anxiety. I think in the right moments and in the right times, good conversations can happen because it is a relatable topic in so many respects. I think one of the ways is being able to converse with them on age-appropriate levels. I think it goes without saying that our kids don’t need to be our primary supports. They can so often become that, and I fall victim to this at times as well. They love us. They’re sometimes the best listeners that we have in our lives. They know us and we can lean on them a bit too much because relationships as adults aren’t easy either. Even friendships. And so it is not uncommon for that dynamic to play out and it can really begin to weigh down the child over time. But I think, from your child’s perspective, they see what’s going on. Even the 7-year-old sees what’s going on. If they see mom or dad taking care of themselves, either having healthy relationships or having somewhat of a regular exercise regimen, they have a model for health on some level.

They interpret that. They may not exactly know what it’s about, but they think, “Wow, dad takes care of himself in these capacities really well. Mom really focuses on these things and I don’t have to worry about that. She seems to be handling that quite well.” Again, kids think these things, they can’t verbalize them. They don’t know how to put words to them, but I think a lot of times their subconscious is so strong. And so if mom or dad’s taking care of themselves, “I’m okay.” If they’re not, alarm bells are going off, they might swoop in to try to rescue. A lot of times we fall victim to that. It feels good. Oh, he wants to know what’s going on, and I’m really tired and feel like telling him right now. And then it just becomes messy.

What is your number one piece of advice for parenting your children when they’re kids, when they’re teens, and when they’re adults?

I think children and teens are very similar. I don’t know why it’s been set up this way, but I fully believe that God in his work did it. Children are a great mirror. We don’t like the fact that they’re a great mirror. In other words, they will reflect back a lot of what we don’t want to see in ourselves. Either because they’re acting the way that we used to act or still do act and we don’t like that. Or just because they have a way of calling us out on stuff even if they don’t know what they’re doing. And so my biggest piece of advice is to embrace the fact that your children are a miracle. They’re a gift in the sense of giving you opportunities to grow as a person.

They indirectly benefit from your growth. If you are willing to put down the cape for a minute and, I know it sounds self-serving, but seek out your own support, whatever that looks like. If that’s therapy, wonderful. If that’s church, wonderful, if that’s a good friend, wonderful. If that’s a support group, wonderful. It can come in a lot of different versions, but do your own work. Your kids are going to benefit immensely from it. It’s also a tremendous model for them.

I would say to the adults: Don’t let your kids outgrow you. In other words, I see a lot of parents and we stop growing, we stop learning. There’s some science behind this too. Our brains become a bit more fixed in how we think about things and how we perceive life. And naturally adult children from 18 to 35 are continuing to grow and evolve and see perspective and want to engage. And what I see happen, sadly, is that the 35-year-old has outgrown from a maturity standpoint, the 65-year-old. Now, that’s not like 100% across the board. I mean, the 65-year-old father may still have a lot more business sense or may have a lot more understanding about how life works. But from an interpersonal or maturity standpoint, the 35-year-old has become more mature, in a sense, than their mom or their dad. It is wildly disruptive for adult children to approach life from a healthier, more mature perspective than their adult parents do. And so I plead a lot of times with parents, “Don’t stop growing. Please don’t say you have it all figured out. Or say, ‘I don’t have it all figured out,’ but you’ve given up because you’re tired and you’ve been through a lot.”

And I have to be careful since I’m not quite to that stage of life yet. So I don’t ever want to pretend like I know what it’s like to be in that stage of life, but I do know what it’s like to sit with a kid who has outgrown their parents and the disappointment (to put it lightly) that comes with that. There are feelings of I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do with that. What’s my relationship supposed to look like with a man or a woman who’s supposed to still be out ahead of me and who I still seek for discernment and ideas and thoughts, but I can’t because I already know what they’re going to say? And it’s very rigid.

I know we could talk for hours about this, but I’m going through the same thing with my dad right now who I feel like I’ve outgrown. And so there is this disconnect with me, and this is probably his last year. I wish I could have the kind of conversations that I have with my friends, but he stopped a long time ago and I’m not angry with him. Or maybe there is some underlying anger, but I’m saying on a conscious level, I’m not. But you’re right. I mean, he just kind of stopped and that’s heartbreaking.

I had a mentor tell me one time that if you walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, they always make sense. And so I can sit in this chair here and throw out all these ideas and thoughts and my fear is that it comes across as egotistical or insincere or insensitive. Your father makes sense. Why he is the way that he is makes sense. Does it make it okay or does it make it ideal for a relationship? Not necessarily, but there’s empathy there if you just sit with somebody, you’re like, “Oh, I see why you kind of packed it in. It makes total sense. I get it.” I don’t even fault them necessarily—it is what it is. It’s heartbreaking to me, but I also need to pay attention to that as I have adult kids now. That’s a good reminder. And it doesn’t remove the desire of what you’re wanting and needing or what you wish you could have out of that relationship. So it’s almost like you can hold both true as you understand why, but it still doesn’t take away the pain or the fact that you wish it was different.

There’s so much I’m taking away from this. It’s hard for me to define just one thing and there’s a lot that I’m going to need to process with this. But the underlying or overarching issue is to pay attention and be present and aware. Don’t beat yourself up, but just keep trying and getting up; keep going. And ask questions. Wonder. How can you tell if your kids are doing okay? There’s a lot of clues, but it’s not one size. And it really is being in this constant state of awareness and discipline in that sense.

Listener Question: If you remarried, which traits from your former partner would you seek out again, and which ones would you like to avoid?

I don’t know that I took inventory but I did realize that what got me here won’t get me there. And I am remarried. Spontaneity was definitely something that my ex had that I wanted, that I valued. It’s so interesting that the spontaneity that I want can also be the achilles heel, so it’s really hard to answer this question. But I do think the process of inventorying what got me here isn’t going to get me there. And some has to do with the partner, the person. If they’ve got their own stuff, then being spontaneous can look just playful and good and that kind of thing. But you don’t exist in that place all the time. So I don’t know. But I think this is a good question. I think it’s not one that you can really answer as a “one size fits all.” It’s just a good question to ask yourself.

Well, like we talked about in February, it feels different the second time around. And especially if you’ve healed or have done some healing, we’re never all healed. But if you’ve done some healing, you’re going to be with someone who’s different. And I’ll say this, I’m dating someone as most everyone knows, and we’ve been dating for a while now, and he is the antithesis of my ex-husband. And my wife is the antithesis of my ex-wife. It’s more so knowing what things I’m willing to put up with these days now that I’ve gone through some counseling, and what are things that I need that I know are going to be healthy for me, for Jax, and for my situation? And it looks a lot different now than it did when I was in my mid-twenties when I met my ex-husband. You know what I mean? It’s just different. I don’t have this checklist of I’m definitely staying away from this and this. I think it was just natural, as I started dating. It’s like, that feels a little familiar and that doesn’t feel good at all, or this feels familiar, but it actually supports where I’m trying to go and what I want to do.

This question is important because we can tend to think, “Because someone was spontaneous (I’m just using it as an example that all spontaneity is bad), I’m just going to go with someone that’s rigid and we can go to the other extreme.” So much of it is not just the traits, it’s the person that’s attached to the traits. Often as single parents, we go, “Okay, that didn’t work. I’m going to go to the opposite extreme.” And that’s not healthy either.

Though. Yeah, great question. Thanks for sending that in. And if you want to send in a question, go to our website. You’ll find directions on how to email, call, or leave a voice message. You can also shoot us a message on Instagram or Facebook. You’ll find us under Solo Parent Society.