by Erin Petersen
Stonehill experts share ways for parents to help their teens develop resilience to life’s problems—and these tips might just help you, too.
Call it grit, call it resilience, call it perseverance in the face of obstacles: No matter what its name, there’s no question that the ability to bounce back from life’s inevitable frustrations and defeats is an essential life skill.
Yet research indicates that this type of resolve is proving increasingly elusive to young adults: According to a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association, there has been a steady decline in “average student resilience”—the ability of a student to recover effectively from everyday problems.
There are plenty of theories about the reasons behind the dip, but there is also some good news. Resilience is a skill that can be learned, and parents play a key role teaching it to their kids—particularly in the critical teen years.
So how do parents determine the best ways to teach their kids to grapple with life’s problems and come through them stronger and wiser? We asked four experts at Stonehill to share their best ideas about helping teens become resilient, self-sufficient adults.
Teach teens to advocate for themselves
We live in an age when moms and dads are negotiating their teens’ grades with their teachers, playing time with their coaches and working schedules with their bosses. Perhaps it’s not a surprise: Parents want the best for their kids, and it can be tough to suppress the desire to help kids when they need it.
But Pauline Dobrowski, vice president for student affairs (right) and a parent herself, says there’s more to the story. While the short-term results of these highly involved parenting approaches may be positive, the long-term consequences of preventing kids from taking ownership of their problems can have negative effects. “When we take away the chance for our children to face problems and find solutions, we rob them of developing the coping skills and the resilience that are so often the keys to success in life,” she notes.
Dobrowski says it’s essential for kids to learn how to advocate for themselves and take the lead in their own lives. “Ultimately, we want teens to have the tools to set the wheels in motion during difficult situations, not having to rely on others to walk them through those times,” she says. “I have found that when parents teach these critical skills, their child’s transition to college can be a bit easier.”
How to make the switch? It doesn’t have to be a sink-or-swim proposition, says Dobrowski. Parents can help prepare kids for tough conversations by role playing with them as the friend, teacher or coach. Open-ended questions—What do you think about that? What do you want to do? What would you like to see? If you could change it, how would you want it to be different?—can help guide the conversation.
Teens might seem exasperated or insist they don’t need help, but you can point out possible pitfalls before they’re in the moment and encourage them to come up with a plan if the results aren’t exactly what they expected.
Following up with kids after a tough conversation can help them cement the lessons they’ve learned. “You can ask how a situation turned out, talk about why it turned out well or not-so-well and what they’ve learned that they might be able to apply in the future,” Dobrowski says. “Not everything will work out perfectly, but the goal is to help them build confidence and self-assurance so that when they do something that works, they can learn from and repeat it.”
Help teens sit with disappointment
Every kid is going to experience painful moments in their lives: getting cut from the soccer team, discovering that they haven’t been invited to a party, getting teased by a friend.
When teens tell parents about these disappointments, parents may instinctively seek to sweep the emotional impact problems aside, says Psychology Professor Erin O’Hea (right). “Our tendency these days is to try to make our kids feel better immediately: Do you want to watch TV? Do you want something to eat? Don’t worry, it’s going to be okay,” she says. “All these messages are about not feeling bad—it’s about experiential avoidance.”
But avoiding the problem doesn’t solve it, and it doesn’t teach kids to cope with the disappointments that life will continue to send their way. Instead, O’Hea recommends a four-part process to help kids process and overcome challenges that they may face.
“Ultimately, we want teens to have the tools to set the wheels in motion during difficult situations, not having to rely on others to walk them through those times.”
—Vice President for Student Affairs Pauline Dobrowski
First, be there for them—both physically and mentally. Sit with them when they tell you about a problem, pay attention to them and truly listen to what they’re trying to tell you.
Next, acknowledge their sadness, anger and disappointment. “It’s okay to say something like, ‘I’d feel pretty bad, too, if my friend did something like that to me,’” says O’Hea. “Don’t try to fix the problem, but do try to validate it.”
Give them time to process the problem. It’s okay to feel bad about something for more than a few moments. Give teens the space to both acknowledge and accept a disappointment.
Help them take the next step. You don’t need to solve the problem, but you can ask the questions to get them headed in the right direction, says O’Hea. “Ask: What can you do about it? What’s the next step? How do you deal with this situation?” Such questions help teens understand that they often have the resources to solve their own problems.
While this process may take longer than retail therapy, it will help teens build the skills they’ll need to succeed in their lives. “Every time teens make a decision to cope and take care of themselves, they’re building the skill of resiliency,” she says.
Set the bar high, but be there when kids fail
Judged solely by the almost infinite number of parenting blogs populating the Internet, raising a child might seem like an entirely different proposition than it was a generation ago. Associate Professor of Psychology Christopher Poirier ’97 (right) says that despite this evidence to the contrary, it’s simply not so: “Good parenting is good parenting,” he says.
In fact, much of great parenting can be boiled down to two key principles, says Poirier: high expectations and high responsiveness. Get these two elements right, and you’re more likely than not to raise a child who can bounce back from even the most challenging circumstances.
“So many parents are concerned about how fast kids can do something, how often they get the right answer...But when you’re really learning something, we all go through what’s called ‘productive struggle.’”
—Assistant Professor of Education Kate Marin
First, parents must have high expectations for their kids, one of the ideas that some suggest may have fallen by the wayside in our participation-trophy culture. “Getting rewarded for just showing up and trying hard isn’t the way the real world works,” says Poirier. “Parents do need to be strict and to have real rules—rules that lead to consequences if they’re broken.”
In other words, you should expect that your brainy kid will work hard and get an A instead of a B-, and that you won’t give him second or third chances when he misses curfew, even by a few minutes.
That said, kids shouldn’t feel that their family is like boot camp. That’s where responsiveness comes in. “Responsiveness is about being warm and supportive. Basically, it’s displaying love,” Poirier says. “Listen to your child. Real communication goes both ways.”
So when your child breaks up with that boyfriend or girlfriend they’ve only had for a week? You shouldn’t dismiss it but have empathy for the pain that your child is going through, even if it seems like a minor blip on the scale of possible calamities. Talk with your kids about their lunchroom dramas and part-time job struggles so that they know you’re there for them.
Certainly, there are plenty of nuances to great parenting but following the larger principles of expectations and responsiveness can serve as guideposts when you’re stuck, says Poirier.
Help kids embrace the struggle
As a mathematics education researcher, Assistant Professor of Education Kate Marin (right) knows exactly how challenging math can be for some students.
But too often, parents wish the impossible for their kids: immediate and complete mastery of math or any other subject. “So many parents are concerned about how fast kids can do something, how often they get the right answer or whether or not they get the A. But when you’re really learning something, we all go through what’s called ‘productive struggle,’” she says.
True learning—not simply memorizing a series of multiplication tables, for example—actually requires students to do the inherently messy work of testing ideas, looking for patterns and searching for new approaches. It’s a process that demands a high level of resilience—kids must embrace a certain level of uncertainty and ambiguity.
Parents can encourage this approach to learning by giving specific praise when they notice their child engaging in it. They might praise their teen’s tenacity when she spends an exceptional amount of time on a difficult project or compliment the connections he’s made between two subjects. Parents can nudge their children in this direction by asking questions like “How is this problem like one we did last week? How might you think differently about this puzzle?”
Parents can also help by modeling “productive struggle” themselves. When parents offer to help with homework and find themselves just as perplexed as their children, for example, they shouldn’t throw their hands up and call the assignment ridiculous. “You might say, ‘Okay, let’s think about this. Could we call a friend? Could we go online and look for information that might help us?’” she says. “Modeling that resiliency yourself is important, because kids are always taking their cues from you.”
Parents should encourage teens to embrace the true challenges of learning by focusing not only on the end result but also on the process that gets them there. This will help kids develop the skills that will help them flourish under challenging circumstances.