Part one of two
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It is well-known that kids in today’s society are having mental health issues. Depression, stress, and anxiety are all increasing. For some tweens and teens, the problem gets so out of hand that they self-medicate with drugs or alcohol, or they harm themselves and can even become suicidal. These issues are complicated and may have multiple causes. How can you help your kids? Where can you start? One thing you have the power to do is to help
I attended a presentation by Dr. Dan Peters, Ph.D., who is a psychologist, author, co-founder and Executive Director of the Summit Center in Walnut Creek, California. He works with adolescents and their families and specializes in gifted children. He is known for helping kids learn to cope with worry and fear. The presentation was for the parents of gifted children in our school district, but many of Dr. Peters’ points relate to all children and can be helpful for all parents.
Life is hard
Dr. Peters talked about how life will always have struggles and obstacles. Parents CAN’T solve everything for their children, and if we try to, then we are robbing our kids of learning opportunities. Instead of solving our kids’ problems, parents must help children learn to solve problems themselves. We need to focus on coping, problem-solving, and resilience. All three of these are skills needed to be a successful person.
What is resilience? And how do I know if my kid has it?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficult circumstances. It is persevering when life gets tough.
- Headaches or stomachaches
- Loss of appetite
- Fatigue (especially seen in the over-scheduled)
- Lack of interest (such as grades dropping in school because they are no longer trying)
- Substance abuse/self-harm
Perfectionism can sap a tween or teen of resilience. Perfectionists experience more fear of failure than joy when they succeed. But real success involves failing repeatedly. You can’t expect to accomplish anything worth accomplishing without having any setbacks. We need to let our kids fail. They need to be able to fall down and then get back up.
It’s ok to fail! Kids who are afraid to fail often stop allowing themselves to be creative. They stick with what is easy, and don’t think outside the box. That behavior will not prepare them for the fast-moving world they will be immersed in as adults.
So how do we build resiliency?
Kids will rise to the expectations that we set. So we need to have expectations that are just beyond their abilities. They need to be challenged to reach up! They MUST have to work to achieve the expectations. For example, if their school work is too easy for them and they get 100% on their assignments without working at it, they aren’t gaining anything. There needs to be a bit of struggle to get to where they are going in order for it to have real meaning.
Picture the teen who is the fastest swimmer on his swim team, and wins race after race without having any real competition. He starts to realize that he wins whether he tries hard at his swim practice or if he is lazy and skips a few days of practice. What do you think he will do? Do you think the first place ribbons have much meaning to him? Kids need adversity.
Imagine the tween who gets the top grade in her math class every time there is a test. She doesn’t study, it’s just that the class is too easy for her. She zooms through her homework and doesn’t study for tests. Yet she still gets the top grade. Do you think that’s meaningful for her? Is she growing as a person? Will this experience help her to be successful in life?
Now think about our imaginary math student and her relationship with her parents. What should the parents say about those math grades? Simply, “great job?” Dr. Peters suggested that her parents should say something more like, “Did you work hard on that? No? Okay, then. Looks like it was too easy for you.”
Praising kids for a job not particularly well done is not going to help them become more resilient and build character. Sure they got a good grade or won the race – but if they didn’t try hard to do so, are they really improving themselves? Sure, they did well in the sense that they are “better” than the other kids – but you aren’t raising those other kids!!! Your job is to raise your child to be a successful, healthy, happy adult.
We as parents need to praise our kids for the WORK and the EFFORT more so than the outcome. What I mean is, it is not the end result – the grade on the paper or the blue ribbon for the race – that matters the most. What matters the most is the journey to that end – what the person had to do to get to that goal. The journey will determine how strong and successful your child is as an adult.
Dr. Peters referred to the work of Dr. Ken Ginsburg, who writes about how to help kids to become resilient. In his book, Building Resilience in Children and Teens, he talks about the 7 C’s of resilience: Competence, Confidence, Connection (learning to help others and let others help them), Character (believing in something), Contribution (realizing that what you do matters), Coping, and Control.
To learn more about Dr. Ginsburg’s book, read my article about how to help your tween and teen let go of negativity.
Real Tiger Vs. Paper Tiger
Dr. Peters also talked about teaching our kids to recognize whether threats are a real tiger or a paper tiger. Our brains have a fight or flight system that goes into action when we are threatened. We are designed to react quickly. He gave the example of when we see a stick lying on the ground out of the corner of our eye, we are likely to think it’s a snake. Our brains are trying to keep us safe like they would have kept our ancestors safe. If we need to run, better to start running sooner without worrying about assessing the situation!
So that thing you are worried about – is it a real tiger? Or is it just made out of paper? Many of us have seen these over-reactions in our children. Like that time the math homework was challenging, so your tween yelled about how mean his teacher is, left the room, and slammed the door.
Parents need to help their children learn to assess the situation. Help them think through what is going on. How much threat is there? Is it worth slamming the door and simmering in his room for 20 minutes? Or screaming about how the assignment is impossible? Dr. Peters recommends that we teach our kids about how the amygdala works in their brains and how it causes those flight or fight symptoms. He feels that if they understand how their bodies work intellectually, it will help them to recognize their responses. Of course, you need to talk about that when they are NOT upset.
Here is an easy-to-understand video that explains our brains’ fight-or-flight process. You can watch it with your kids, it is only a couple of minutes long:
And this video gives some strategies to overcome those stressed-out feelings:
Lengthen the fuse
Dr. Peters talked about the importance of helping our kids “lengthen their fuse.” They need to practice learning to not let the fight or flight responses take over when they are working their way through a problem. Think about the tween I referred to earlier who is LOSING IT because his math assignment is hard. Many parents would say to him, “Sit down and finish it!” (I’m sure you have never said that). Dr. Peters suggested that instead of that, say something more like, “Sit down and work on it for 15 minutes without _______.” Fill in that blank with whatever reaction your kid tends to have – yelling, leaving the table, having a meltdown, etc. This way, you are giving your kid the opportunity to work through the adversity and be praised for that work.
The issue isn’t whether they get all the math problems right, the issue is whether they can focus and work on it without throwing their pencil across the room and screaming at you about how unfair their life is (not that your child would ever do that).
Then when the fifteen minutes are up, praise the effort. Praise the control and will-power. Decide together what the next steps should be. Should you go for another fifteen minutes? Do they need your help or to call a friend for help? Do they need to email their teacher for guidance? I know with my kids, if they can just focus for a bit they will likely realize what they were misunderstanding and handle it.
If you would like some direct guidance to help you build resilience in kids, Big Life Journal is a company that has products for both younger kids as well as tweens and teens. They have journals and lessons available to help you guide your children toward resilience and perseverance. They have a new Resilience Kit for kids ages 5-11 that has a wealth of information. For tweens and teens, there is the Big Life Journal Teen Edition. If you click over to the Big Life Journal website, you can sign up on their newsletter list and receive free printables every Friday.
If you’re looking for books for kids about resilience and mental toughness read my article Resources for Teaching Resilience to Kids.
Alright, I hope you try out some of these strategies for helping your kids to become more resilient! Click here to read part two! Please comment below and let me know what strategies have worked for you and your kids. Or let me know what challenges you face, and maybe I can cover that another time!