Help Youth Cope with Uncertain Times by Fostering Resilience (article featured in The Tennessean)
The recent media coverage of mass shootings and bombings has inundated both television and social media. Adults are discussing the news and the related politics, and children are listening. In the wake of these serial acts of violence, parents are asking what they can do to foster resilience and a sense of safety in our children and youth. We attempt to shield them from the details of such senseless acts of violence and terrorism, but it is impossible to protect them from the awareness that there is a certain amount of danger present in the world. Caregivers wonder if we can protect our children from feeling afraid when hearing about these topics, while also instilling a healthy sense of self and awareness. There are certainly healthy ways of building resiliency throughout childhood and adolescence, which can mitigate fear and anxiety, even in the face of tragedy.
Encourage independence. This is a controversial topic because some experts assert that we are too focused on developing independence in children and adolescents, while others assert that caregivers can be too controlling and enabling. The key is to balance independence with affection. Should we encourage our children to do the tasks that they are able to complete without assistance? Yes. Should we expect that they do most things on their own, without exception, the large majority of the time? No. For example, if a teenager is capable of making his own lunch for school, encourage him to do so on a regular basis. But also do it for him when his schedule is demanding. This is not going to impede his independence and resilience, but rather it does the very opposite. It teaches him that he can rely on others to help him when he is feeling overwhelmed. It allows him to feel cared for and loved. As adults, we teach our children to do things for others out of kindness, not merely because others are incapable of doing things for themselves. The best method of instilling this is to model the behavior for them. This will communicate that they can reach out for and expect support when they are feeling vulnerable, which is a key factor in resiliency.
Give praise. It is much easier to point out shortcomings and to punish negative behaviors than it is to give positive reinforcement for the “good” behavior that is expected from them. For example, if two children are playing quietly, a caregiver may use this opportunity to get other work done and may not think about praising the children for their prosocial behavior. But, if one of the children steals a toy from the other, the caregiver immediately steps in and doles out discipline to one or both parties. Discipline is important, especially in circumstances when children are physical with one another. But, praise and positive reinforcement are equally important. Children want to please us and they seek our approval. If we make a conscious effort to focus on praising positive behavior, then they will want to do more of what is getting them positive feedback. When they display more positive behaviors, they glean more positive social interactions, which, in turn, fosters a positive sense of self. They will internalize these affirmative verbalizations from caregivers, which will build emotional resilience that they can access when they are faced with future adversities.
Keep communication open and don’t let it be one-way. Talk to them, and most importantly, listen to their concerns and questions. Do not dismiss their inquiries about controversial topics and be careful not to send a “You’re too young” message with your responses. Be sure to give age appropriate explanations in response to their questions about difficult and anxiety-provoking topics. Do not be dishonest, but rather provide responses in a language that they understand and can handle. Younger children will be satisfied with less detailed explanations while teenagers will be more inquisitive. Create a safe environment for them to discuss what is concerning them so that they can get answers from trusted adults. Having answers will give them a sense of control, which decreases anxiety and increases resilience.
Resist the temptation to overcommit. We want to provide our children with opportunities to succeed. But quality certainly outweighs quantity when it comes to extracurricular involvement. Racing from one activity to another typically leads to stress for both parents and children. Being the best athlete on a plethora of teams comes at a price, as does making the perfect score on every school assignment. There needs to be a primary focus on communicating and instilling morals and values (thus increasing resilience), and a secondary focus on improving performance in other areas. Being great at a sport or activity certainly improves self-confidence and self-esteem, but children and adolescents have a reserve of cognitive and emotional energy that gets depleted if they are tired and overcommitted. Stay focused on the bigger picture, which is that every interaction with them is a lesson in resilience, or lack thereof. Staying focused on teaching resilience, as opposed to always being focused on the outcome (i.e., “winning” or being “the best”), will help them to become healthier and more resilient adults.
Focus on the positive. Point out their strengths. Raise their awareness of the positive impact that they have on others and allow them to volunteer for an activity that contributes to the greater good. Encourage young children to interact with children from other cultures and teach them about the positive contributions of people from differing backgrounds. For teenagers, increase their awareness of political efforts aimed at fostering positive relationships and increasing peace. Help them to understand that, even though violence is present, there are people working diligently to keep our country, communities and, most importantly, our children and youth, safe.