I recently had a discussion with a local group of school counselors and administrators and asked them why they thought there has been such an increase in cases of self-harm, depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide among their students. During this conversation, we found ourselves on the topic of resiliency. Resiliency is what gives people the ability to adapt to life’s challenges and setbacks. While some people may crumble when faced with a tragedy or disappointment, people who are resilient are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover.
I have heard the saying, “Kids are resilient,” a dozen times. However, if a child has never been taught the necessary skills required to build resiliency, how can we assume that? While some people are born with a more natural ability to overcome challenges, many are not. So how do you instill resiliency in your child or teen?
We know that the human brain does not fully develop until our mid-twenties. This includes the prefrontal cortex, which is the area of the brain that controls impulses, emotions, forms judgement, weighs outcomes, and helps people understand one another. So it’s no mystery why teens are often more emotional and impulsive than the average adult. In this day and age, I feel like we demand so much more from our youth than we did even a decade ago. Our kids are growing up faster and experiencing challenges that many of us never had to deal with until we were much older. And of course, with maturity comes a more developed prefrontal cortex more capable of decision making.
Among many others, some of these new challenges are brought on by technology and others are introduced because of the cultural shift in the family unit. It’s no surprise to me that when a youth is faced with some of these new, but increasingly common challenges such as bullying, divorce, gender identity, and romantic relationships, many of them are having a tough time. When a person doesn’t know how to positively cope with stress, they often turn to unhealthy coping skills, such as using drugs, alcohol, and self-harm.
When I grew up, we had family dinners every night with the exception of Saturdays, which were usually pizza nights with a babysitter while my parents enjoyed date night. Today, I feel like people are too over extended. We as a society don’t know how to relax and just exist. As a culture we are so connected to our phones, email, and text messages; families have started to lose critical family time.
Our family dinners gave us all a chance to sit, relax, pray, and reflect on our day. Good or bad, we talked about what was happening in our lives. And, like it or not, our parents gave us guidance on how to overcome any challenges we were facing. Rather than swooping in and saving the day, like so many well-meaning parents often do, they gave us the tools to make our own decisions. While we didn’t always make the right decision, it taught us how to fall and get back up. They allowed us to fail. We learned from a young age that no one, including ourselves, is perfect . . . and that it’s okay. It’s a natural urge to want to protect our kids from disappointment and failure, but by doing this, their generation is beginning to lose the ability to adapt to change and overcome adversity.
At a recent youth event, a young man bravely stood up and shared his experience with anxiety and depression. One of the adults leading the discussion asked him if he had ever shared his story with his parents, and he said, “They wouldn’t understand. Plus, we aren’t that close.” Hearing this broke my heart. Here is a teen who felt more comfortable reaching out for help to a room full of strangers than to his own parents. I won’t pretend to know why he felt this way, because I don’t. But could it be because like so many other kids, the only time he spent with his parents was when he was in the car being shuffled to and from school and other activities? With so much of our teens’ lives being lived online and away from home, many of our parents and caregivers are missing out on the opportunity to get to know and understand their kids. Ask yourself, if your child had a problem, would they feel comfortable coming to you for advice? Too many of our youth are facing challenges that they are simply not equipped to face alone. Rather than reaching out for help, too many are turning to extremes, including suicide.
So I ask again, how do we teach our kids and teens to be resilient?
1. Help them find a sense of purpose in life. Mark Twain once said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you found out why.” While finding this level of purpose may be tough for a child or teen, help them discover their hidden talents and interests. This will help them develop confidence and positive self-esteem.
2. Help them develop a strong social network. Having strong friendships and family relationships is critical in developing a sense of community and belonging. It will also act as a protective factor when crisis arise. Having healthy relationships will give them people they can confide in when they need to talk, as well as provide them with advice and possible solutions to future problems.
3. Teach them to embrace change. Change is an inevitable part of life. The sooner they learn to look at change as an opportunity, the better. By learning how to be more adaptable, they’ll be better equipped to respond when faced with life adjustments.
4. Teach them to be optimistic. This is one skill my husband would say I struggle with. As a realist, I know that life isn’t always sunshine and roses. Bad things happen and life is often hard. When a problem arises I have to make a conscience decision to practice optimism. It’s okay to admit something didn’t go right or is a challenge, but teach youth to focus energy and thoughts on what positives can come out of the situation. After all, with rain come rainbows, right?
5. Help them develop self-care techniques. When people are stressed and spread too thin, these critical self-care techniques are often the first thing that goes to the wayside. Exercise, healthy eating, and sleep are all important to our health and well-being. Be sure your child is taking time out of his or her own day to do something just for them. Whether it’s listening to music, reading, journaling, or playing sports, it’s important that they find a way to escape the stress of the day. These skills will help them better cope with bigger stresses in the future.
6. Teach them a variety of problem-solving skills. Research shows that people who are able come up with solutions to a problem are better able to cope with problems than those who cannot. Whenever they encounter a new challenge, have them make a quick list of some of the potential ways they could solve the problem. Resilient people immediately look at a problem and say, “What’s the solution? What’s this trying to teach me?”
7. Set realistic goals. All parents want the best for their kids, so it can be easy to get carried away with setting goals for them. If a child is struggling in a class, rather than setting a goal of earning an ‘A’ in chemistry, set a goal that they study at least 30-60 minutes of chemistry each night. Rather than focusing only on the outcome, celebrate their commitment to improving their current grade. My mom was always good at understanding my strengths and weaknesses, and set realistic goals for me. She knew that I would never be a straight ‘A’ student, because math was always (and still is) a challenge for me. However, I was strong in other areas such as writing and art. As long as I always tried my best in all of my courses, she was pleased, and I developed much a needed confidence boost as a student. Not feeling as though I needed to be an expert in every subject allowed me to finally relax during tests and focus on accomplishing one assignment at a time.
“Too often we tend to look at our youth with a deficit-model trying to identify and rectify the lagging skills,” says Gayle Christensen, Community Counselor with Bellevue Public Schools FASE Team. “By assessing and recognizing the strengths our youth possess we can help students nurture the innate resiliency we all contain. This strengths approach is not a program to be implemented but rather a cultural shift, designed to provide our youth with developmental supports and opportunities.”
8. Practice what you preach. Reflect on how you deal with disappointment, conflict, and change. When faced with disappointment, do you stay positive and look for opportunities, or do you point fingers and place blame? How do you cope with stress; do you pour yourself a drink, or do you go on a run? These are all things that your child will pick-up on, so be sure you are leading by example.
Resilience may take time to build, so don’t become discouraged if your teen is still struggling to cope with problematic events. According to child psychologist, Dr. Russ Newman, “Research has shown that resilience is not an extraordinary thing, but is rather ordinary and can be learned by most anyone.” Some people may need more time and practice utilizing these skills than others, so be patient.
Jill Hamilton, Project Coordinator, The Kim Foundation
Jill Hamilton has been the Project Coordinator at The Kim Foundation since 2014. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and public relations from The University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. Since working at the foundation, she has become an active member of the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition, Nebraska LOSS Advisory Committee, The Omaha Metro Hoarding Taskforce, The Early Childhood Mental Health Coalition, Nebraska State Conference Planning Committee; she is a volunteer mentor with Y.E.S., and serves as the Outreach Coordinator for the Metro Area LOSS Team.