I think we can all agree that the last 2 years have challenged us in ways that we could not have imagined. As we have navigated the impact of the events of the last couple years personally and globally we have made adjustments and adaptations the best we can. As we take a minute to reflect, many of us are noticing that our kids/teens are more anxious than before and often lacking confidence to try new things.
When we began making changes in 2020, we were focused on the impact a shared trauma can have on a person, family and society in general. We recognized our children/teens would struggle to manage tasks, regulate moods and maintain connections. Our kids also had depleted resources with schools closed and families in quarantine. It made sense at the time to recognize these deficits and lower the bar. We decreased schoolwork requirements, deadlines were optional and retakes became more the rule than a special exception. In addition to us changing what was required, choices our kids used to make independently were now based on what was best for the entire family. Depending on your comfort level with COVID-19 and other families similar practices dictated who our kids could play with and where and what would be appropriate. All of this made sense at the time. However, it decreased kids’ ability to make independent choices, and as we began to be more involved we also shielded our kids more and more from adverse situations. Which brings us to today.
Our kids, especially our teens, are lacking resilience. Resilience is a person’s unique ability to cope in the face of adversity, trauma and stress in a way that allows us to bounce back to our previous level of functioning (Cornell, 2022). As responsibilities and accountability remained lowered for an extended time, the message we communicated was that when you are uncomfortable just do less. In the short term, this strategy can be helpful, however when in a constant challenging situation we need to build resilience. It’s no wonder we are seeing teenagers fail to turn in assignments on time, ask for extensions and question the intensity of tryouts for sports. When we accomplish a task we are reminded of our strength and then feel more empowered to try again. It becomes the building blocks in the foundation of our self worth and confidence. So you may ask, now what. The long and short answer is it is time to raise the bar and start building resilience.
Change is hard and our kids, just like adults, are going to resist change. Ultimately change is a part of life and a necessity to experience growth and the pride that comes with overcoming challenges. There are some ways to support our kids as they push themselves outside of their comfort zones
Build Routines and stick to them: Routines allow us to know what to expect. Trauma and unpredictability leave us with a sense of unease. As we begin to rebuild after our shared trauma from COVID-19 we need to rebuild our foundation. Routines allow us to do that and provide the structure and predictability kids crave. As kids become more comfortable with routines, they can free up energy to take on new challenges. Three areas to focus on are morning routines, after school and bedtime. In times of stress, routines can be more flexible but should also be presented to kids as a special exception to the rule. Teens may look different as we want them to start creating their own routines. This is where we think about using external structure to build internal routines.
External Structure: If we think about the circle of security, we want to be a home base for our kids as they venture out on their own. For teens they should be needing that home base less and less. If they are managing, this holds true. If your teen is not completing tasks then we create external structure until they internalize success and create their own. This means working at the kitchen table if they are distracted in their rooms, using timers, turning in phones at a certain hour to increase sleep, insisting they participate in one extra curricular activity, etc. As they manage more and more independently then we return to being a support when needed and provide space for them to manage independently.
Increase comfort level being uncomfortable: Everyone is uncomfortable trying new things. There is a fear of embarrassment and making mistakes. When your teen is anxious and apprehensive to try something new, start with validation. Simply saying “I can see that you are scared to try out for softball. That is a really normal feeling and it’s okay.” Feelings just provide information about our environment but we get to choose what to pay attention to. Helping our kids acknowledge their feelings, remember their reasons for trying and praising the accomplishment is helpful. They can always try distracting themselves by humming their favorite song, focusing on a favorite memory.
Growth Mindset: Encourage a growth mindset that helps kids focus on effort and not end results. Mistakes become opportunities to learn. When kids focus on the outcome they become afraid to fail and limit their opportunities to what they know they can accomplish. With academic pressure we are seeing teens immobilized. If you are creating external structure make the goal effort based and focused on time studied, and not as dependent on the grade. Acknowledge trying and praise effort. You can use the concept of being a detective about what worked and what they want to try next time. Another skill for encouraging kids to continue to try is to “Mark the task” (Purvis, K. B., Cross, D.R., 2007). When marking the task we highlight the steps taken and then add in the next step being specific about what they have accomplished. For example if they are cleaning their room, acknowledge removing items off the floor and making piles before helping them to think about organizing a closet.
Set goals: Goals provide direction and purpose. Make goals simple and easily achievable. You can always build upon them later as self esteem grows. If you set the goal too high you will reinforce that the person is not capable of achieving what they set out to do and it may deter them in the future (Lee-Bagley, D 2019). Goals are just a way for us to break something down into smaller pieces to make it feel more manageable and allow us to feel the pride of the progress we have made. If your kids have phones and use apps, there is an app out called Finch. It helps you set goals and practice self care, rewarding you by earning outfits for your penguin friend on the app. It has been popular among some of my college age and high school clients.
Make connections: One of the most important aspects of building resilience to build is making connections (Cross, R., Dillon, K., Greenberg, D. 2021). When we have a team in place that is supporting us in meeting our goals then it is easier to manage adversity. Help your teens think about what is missing. Do they need someone to share a laugh with, do they need to add an activity that gives them purpose, recognize strength when challenged. Depending on the need you may choose a different direction. If your teen is searching for meaning and purpose you may help them find a volunteer group, if they need a common goal and connections that push them to keep trying then maybe a sport makes sense for them, and if they just need a friend then encourage social opportunities that are fun.
Self care: It is important to remember that our bodies store trauma too. We need to take care of ourselves by focusing on hygiene, nutrition, sleep and exercise. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of movement in healing. Just adding in a bike ride, game of basketball or a 15 minute walk allows our brain to use bilateral movement and begin connecting reason and logic to the emotions we experience. If your teen is struggling with the idea of trying something new or completing something challenging, have the conversation while walking or shooting hoops. It oddly enough can make a difference.
As you begin raising the bar, recognize that they will resist the change and may not feel capable. Your first reaction may be to comfort them and lower the bar again. This ultimately may reinforce the belief that they are not capable. Instead, practice using validation as your way of nurturing and break the goal into smaller achievable steps, partnering with your teen. Child and Family Solutions Center is here to help support you and your family in these difficult times. Please do not hesitate to reach out if you believe that your child/teen is needing the support of a Mental Health Professional to regain their confidence. We are in this together.
Lee-Bagley, D, & Oakland, CA New Harbinger Publications (2019) Healthy Habits Suck, how to get off the couch and live a healthy life even if you don’t want to.
Purvis, K. B., Cross, D.R., &Sunshine, W.L. (2007). The connected child: Bring hope and healing to your adoptive family.
APA (2020, August 26) Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers. https://www.apa.org/topics/resilience/guide-parents-teachers
Cross, R., Dillon, K., Greenberg, D. (2021, January 29) Harvard Business Review, The Secret to Building Reslience. https://hbr.org/2021/01/the-secret-to-building-resilience
Cornell University, Cornell Health. Building Resilience