It’s no surprise that in a year of extraordinary challenges, there is renewed conversation in every sector about supporting and improving emotional wellbeing. Parents, educators, and school administrators are all working hard at envisioning a healthy transition back to in-person education. While many students are excited to get back to campus and leave the realities of the pandemic behind them, others are experiencing unprecedented stress, grief, and anxiety. Recent studies indicate that mental health challenges such as unmanageable stress or anxiety have drastically increased for many students during the pandemic. Let’s face it: the same is likely true for many of the adults stewarding them through it all, too. People of all ages are in want of emotional support right now.
For teens, support often comes in the form of creating a safe space that will allow them to release any of the feelings that are bottled up inside. “Letting go” is what might happen when they can discuss their struggles with family, friends, mentors, and even therapists. Yet, if they share their struggles and are met with activating responses such as unsolicited advice, judgement (both overt and implicit), and the expectation to do better or differently, letting go may not seem possible. In fact, stress, anxiety, and depressive responses may further entrench and augment the struggle.
What might be a healthier approach? Deep acceptance, emotional warmth, and a commitment to listening—instead of trying to resolve your student’s pain in the moment—can help young adults heal and develop emotional coping skills that will strengthen their resilience post-pandemic.
This period of transition before the next academic year begins serves as a terrific time for parents and educators to reimagine their narrative about “success,” discarding any expectations they foisted on students in the past, encouraging self-reliance, actively demonstrating support and taking their own emotional well-being seriously so that they have the wherewithal to be “the rock” young people need right now.
High achieving grades always provide a boost of confidence. They indicate personal success and institutional validation. The rewards—even if your student always achieves them—are actually short term compared to the long term benefits of emotional resilience. This may sound counterintuitive, but for the sake of your child’s wellbeing, it is important for now to drop the pressure to make perfect grades. Instead, focus should shift to the quality of what they are learning instead of the quantitative data seeking to contain it. Ask yourself and your teens, what does “top tier” learning look like and feel like for you? Perhaps slowing the pace of racking up external achievements and transitioning toward cultivating “A+-level” learning experiences can help alleviate overwhelm and truly set students up for their own personally tailored version of success.
This doesn’t mean it’s time to love bomb your kids for any little thing they do right. Instead, it’s a good time to model healthy responses to stress and anxiety and consistently acknowledge when your child does the same. The development of confidence in their EQ and coping style is a better measure of personal success right now. An ”A” grade does not encapsulate a student’s true worth, potential, and current nor future success.
Hard work isn’t the solution
The good old-fashioned Horatio Alger story generalizes that success is a result of working as hard as you can. It’s a model kids internalize at a young age, and it’s time to challenge that thinking. Intelligence comes in many shapes and sizes, yet rewards and accolades are often reserved for those who excel with traditional, top-down, hard work educational models, including rote learning and memorization. We need to expand our definition of “smarts” to include social and emotional intelligence and creative expression, which is often cultivated through other methods of teaching, such as project-based learning, experiential learning, or design thinking. There is not a one-size-fits-all model that works for everyone, and not all students are going to achieve their best thinking the same way.
Insourcing vs outsourcing
There are essentially two ways to pursue validation: outsourcing to family, social circles, institutions, and cultural expectations, or insourcing from oneself. Self-reliance and self-trust take a lifetime to cultivate, and even if you raise your children to have self-confidence and self-esteem, their inner compass will be challenged. Young people (and old!) can’t help but seek external validation (such as straight A’s) though it’s important to cultivate the practice of looking to oneself for acceptance, kindness, and security. Instead of comparing oneself to others, the same energy and attention can be turned into questions such as “How am I uniquely good?” “How am I uniquely smart?” “How am I uniquely talented?,” rather than “Am I good enough for others?” “Am I smart enough to others?” and “Am I talented enough compared to others?”
How parents and adults can help
In the words of my colleague Jeff Morrow, Director of College Counseling for Oaks Christian School: “Leave no doubt.” Leave no doubt that they are loved, supported, appreciated, valued, and noticed. Leave no doubt that they can handle their emotions over time, and that you will be there with them until they can support themselves. Here are a few more tips:
- Make home life safe for a range of feelings. It’s critical to feel emotions rather than bury them. If you promote a safe, non-judgmental environment for your kids to express and hold space for their emotions, they may feel less overwhelmed by them and understand it is normal and healthy to have a range. Don’t judge your kids for their negative emotions. Welcome them and accept them.
- Implement self-care. Nervous systems have been hijacked and activated in sometimes unfamiliar ways during the pandemic. Self-care can help your child regulate. Remember that “self-care” isn’t just calming activities like yoga and meditation (though those practices help). Sometimes the right kind of self-care for emotional regulation is high-energy activity like bouncing on a trampoline, running, playing loud music, or dancing as fast as you can.
- Offer tools to locate their inner compass. Young people can discover who they are, what their purpose is, and their why early in life if they work on it. By developing their inner compass, trusting its guidance, and integrating it into everyday life, they will be able to assess how far they’ve come, what they’ve learned, what’s served them—and what hasn’t. Share your personal strategies for locating and listening to your inner compass and openly discuss the process. However, also allow your child to find their own tools and don’t pressure them to adopt yours. They are, after all, their own unique person. Even when very young, kids have an intuitive sense of what works for them–and what doesn’t.
- Accept failure. Parents can help by being patient with failure. They don’t need to shine a spotlight on it with the hope of motivating change. If your child understands that failure can create an opportunity for growth, they will be less intimidated by it. See failure as a way of falling upwards rather than falling down. Encourage opportunity and growth after a big pratfall—as opposed to shame. Invite discomfort instead of running away from it.
Give yourself a break
We all want to thrive, but sometimes it’s better to relax and just get by in the short term to allow you to crush it in the long term. Whether it’s a season of success, failure or a mixture of both, allow circumstances to be as they are instead of judging them or getting worked up over them. Parents and adults can also help by not normalizing perfectionism. Life is not always peachy and does not always progress in a linear way. Feelings of sadness, anxiety, or fear should not be suppressed. Instead, they should have all the breathing room we give to joy, play, love and appreciation. Every emotion has its place. Life’s purpose doesn’t come ready-made in a box; it’s honed over time through allowing it all — the highs and the lows.
Cindy Chanin is founder of Rainbow EDU Consulting & Tutoring. For more information, check out RainbowEDUConsulting.com.