Thank you for beginning the year-long series on teen mental health. I am relieved to…
Building Resilient Kids – Spotlight on Teen Mental Health
Our youngest daughter is turning 5 this month, a “whole handful” as she calls it, but trust me — she’s been a handful for a while now.
This milestone has sent me down memory lane, and I’ve been flooded with memories of her older sisters when they were her age. I’m struck by how similar, yet very different, they are. I’m not just talking about who slept through the night first or what toys they each preferred. I’ve been noticing the differences in their personalities, how they interact with life and, in particular, how they interact with challenges.
As adults we tend to idealize childhood as a carefree time, and there can be some truth to that. But there is also the reality of our children having to face daily challenges, emotional hurts and traumas.
How we cope with adversity is called resiliency. The good news is that although resiliency can be connected to internal personality traits, resiliency skills can also be learned. As parents, we are not only saving our own sanity by teaching resiliency, we are contributing to our children’s overall mental health — today and tomorrow.
According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, 13 percent of children had a diagnosable mental disorder in the past year, and half of mental illnesses begin by age 14. Promoting resilience in children and adolescents can contribute to better mental health.
We have an expression at our house for those little moments when our girls get a boo-boo. Most people may say, “Let me give it a kiss to make it better.” (Not going to lie, we also say that sometimes.) But my husband and I tend to ask the girls, “Can you shake it off?” (Of course, this sometimes results in one of them shaking their hips and singing the Taylor Swift song.)
The difference in our minds is that if we always give them a kiss to make it better, they will always look for someone else to fix it. Today, they are boo-boos; but down the line, my girls will have bigger problems to cope with. Which is why we ask, “Can you shake it off?” The question implies that they themselves have the skills to handle the situation. Notice that I ask it in the form of a question; I don’t tell them to shake it off. Asking a question offers them a sense of control, and sometimes they can’t just shake it off and really are in need of help.
When help is needed, it gives us as chance to model empathy and problem-solving skills. My older daughter, whose boo-boos in life are growing right along with her, is beginning to think of ways she can handle these challenges herself. Does she need alone time to draw? Does she want to talk about it? Would a family game night make her feel better? Although I have a desire to help fix everything, I am building resiliency (for both of us) by setting the expectation that she is capable.
Just as I said my girls are similar yet different, sometimes the same event will happen to each of them, yet one is able to shake it off, while the other is completely derailed. Each person is different and needs different ways to develop and grow her resiliency. Just as I have had to learn the differences in my three girls, you will need to tap into your knowledge of your child. You know your child best, and I am confident you will continue to meet all of life’s challenges and milestones together.
Erica Saum is the mother of three girls, wife to an amazing husband, and senior director of family life & wellness at Jewish Family Service. Currently, she is trying to raise resilient children so that someday she can enjoy her cup of tea in peace and harmony, if only for 10 minutes.