Raising a Resilient Teenager in a Stressed Out Society

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By Deborah Sloss, LCSW
OCC Program Site Director, JLS Middle School

As parents, we remember the joy of holding our newborn child in our arms, and the powerful drive to provide for their needs and keep them safe.

As they became toddlers and began to explore the world, we tried to ensure a safe environment where they could grow. We baby proofed our homes, bought safety-rated toys appropriate for their age, and then smiled tolerantly as they took all the pots and pans out of the cabinet and happily banged on them, impressed with themselves for their power and ingenuity.

We watch them expand their horizons and develop new skills, all the while being aware that with each new step comes new risks and new dangers. They run excitedly chasing a new discovery, only to trip and fall. But amazingly, they get themselves up and try again; building confidence, overcoming frustration and developing inner strength. We marvel at their resiliency and determination.

As they begin school, they enter a period of life where their focus shifts from parents being the center of their lives to negotiating the complex world of interactions with peers, teachers and other adults. We help them do homework, give them hugs when another child hurts their feelings, cheer for them at soccer and basketball games. We read stories, tuck them in at night and watch them sleep, all the while feeling thankful that they successfully navigated yet another day in an increasingly complex world.

Fast forward to the teenage years. Now we are spending hours at the mall while they try to find the perfect pair of faded jeans and plead with us to buy electronics, and other accessories so they can “keep up appearances” as they head off to school the next day.

Why then, do our teens often express feeling stressed out and dissatisfied? Do we chalk it up to teenage hormones, or is there something more going on?

In her book, The Price of Privilege, psychologist Madeleine Levine describes a disturbing trend among the teens she sees in her psychotherapy practice. Despite being raised in an affluent environment, with many material goods, these teens are unhappy.

They “describe ‘being at loose ends’ or ‘missing something inside” and feeling “too pressured, misunderstood, anxious, angry, sad and empty”. Levine continues, “…they don’t seem to know themselves very well. They lack the practical skills for navigating out in the world…” Levine, The Price of Privilege, p 5 Levine believes that the young people she sees in therapy are failing to develop a strong, confident sense of self. Instead of looking within themselves to define their own values and priorities, they are externally motivated to please parents and teachers. Instead of focusing on who they are, they focus on what they achieve through school and extra-curricular activities

As a child, I remember spending hours sitting on the swing in my parent’s backyard, looking at the grass under my feet and pondering the meaning of life. Today’s youth are not given the time and space for daydreaming, fantasizing, or reflecting. Such times are critical in thinking about interests, values, skills and talents that help clarify how we see our place in the world. According to Levine, “Parents pressure their children to be outstanding while neglecting the process by which outstanding children are formed.” Levine, p 65 While seeming to “have it all”, many teens today have an underdeveloped sense of self that as adults we know is so important to function successfully in the greater society.

Author Wendy Mogel (The Blessing of a B Minus), also provides another useful perspective on how our teenagers are getting waylaid. Mogel states:

“It is good for adolescents to be bored, lonely, disappointed, frustrated, unhappy…When we intervene to prevent the pain of tough situations, we create a reflex: Whenever a child feels sadness or confusion, frustration or disappointment, she believes she cannot survive the feeling…If teenagers don’t have the opportunity to recognize their bad feelings or problems and learn to manage them, they go off to college and seek out quick, reliable methods to make the pain disappear.” Mogel, Blessing of a B Minus, p 97

Mogel goes on to suggest that parents employ the following strategies to help struggling teens build internal strength and resilience:

Wait it Out: An overly anxious response on the part of parents sends the message to teens that they can’t handle distress, confusion and poor choices.

Normalize Setbacks: Talk to your teen about times things don’t work out for you as planned and how you deal with these situations.

Be Empathetic, Not Entangled: Be curious and kind but not alarmed.

Encourage Them to Advocate for Themselves: Many issues can be resolved by talking directly to teachers and other adults in their lives.

Demonstrate Confidence in Your Teen’s Problem-Solving Skills: Give your teen the opportunity to demonstrate resourcefulness in handling problems. 

When They Create Problems, Let Them Experience the Consequences: When we deprive kids of freedom in an attempt to “keep them safe” they miss opportunities to learn to use good judgment.

It is through such experiences that young people develop the ability to tolerate frustration, delay gratification, and regulate their own internal state. They are able to create an internal psychological “safe haven” that provides a retreat when they need to think things through and take care of themselves.

According to psychologist Erik Erikson, the developmental task of adolescence is to successfully navigate the developmental phase of Identity vs Role Confusion. During this period, teens ponder the roles they will play in the adult world. It is during this stage that adolescents will re-examine their identity and try to find out exactly who they are. Mastery of this phase results in a successful transition from childhood to adulthood. Failure to establish a sense of identity can lead to role confusion. It was Erikson who coined the term identity crisis.

Young people with a healthy sense of self feel more in control of their lives and demonstrate an ability to act in their best interest. They have a budding identity, with hobbies and interests they feel passionate about; they value and accept themselves for who they are.

How can we, as parents, help our children to develop a healthy sense of self? We can remind ourselves, and them, that we support their growth and development by not always jumping in to protect them and solve their problems. We can foster their exploration of who they are. We can support them as they grow into strong, self-confident young adults by being available and ready to listen, by providing guidance, and by believing in their decision-making ability and in their capacity to figure things out.