I love the story of a pioneer woman who worked all day making jam, then left the jars out a little too long in the sun. She realized the jam had fermented and was no longer good to eat. She figured she could at least give the jam to her chickens, who devoured it happily. A few hours later she came back to find her chickens lying motionless all over the yard. “I killed my chickens!” she moaned. She sat for a minute and then figured she couldn’t just leave them like that. She did the only thing that made sense. She plucked out all the feathers so she could cook the chickens. After hours of plucking, the woman went to tend to something else and came back to find the chickens back on their feet, running around the yard again–naked. (Apparently the chickens had not actually died but had only passed out temporarily from the fermentation). Naked chickens would get too cold with winter coming on. So she did the only thing that made sense. She knitted a sweater for each and every one.
I can’t think of a better example of resilience. This woman didn’t let a setback (or two or three) get her down. She didn’t fester on what a failure she was or give up entirely because it was too hard–although it would have been easy and understandable to do either one. Those early settlers were made of some tough stuff, and I, for one, would love to gain more of whatever it was. What makes the difference between someone who responds to adversity with courage and optimism and someone who feels incapable of going on?
We live in an era where mental fatigue in the form of depression and anxiety is growing rapidly around the country, especially for young people. According to a 2016 American College Health Association survey, nearly 37 percent of college students reported feeling so depressed at some point during the previous year that they found it difficult to function. That’s a 40 percent increase from 2008. Kids are having a hard time facing the challenges of life. Some of these challenges come in the form of chemical imbalances that can only be addressed with counseling and medication. But some of these challenges are just life’s way of pushing us ahead in our journey. We can get passed them if we have developed a resilient soul.
“Resilience,” is a word that can be used to describe a material that bounces back quickly when it is stretched. Defined another way by renowned psychologist Adam Grant, “resilience is the strength and speed of our response to adversity.” As he explains in his and Sheryl Sandberg’s new book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy, “It isn’t about having a backbone. It’s about strengthening the muscles around our backbone.”
I’d love to help my children strengthen those muscles so that when they face obstacles in this crazy, complicated world, they’ll know what to do. In the next 10 years, my kids are going to be stretched by school, jobs, relationships, technology, social media, sickness, peers, temptations, and all sorts of other challenges. If I have a child that at some point faces a mental health challenge, then I will do my best to help them find the resources to get through it. But even the healthiest of children will need to know what to do when their best friend moves away, or they fail a test, or they lose a job, or they trip on stage, or they miss the game-winning goal, or they just flat-out mess up. Is there anything I can do to prepare my kids to walk away from these challenges successfully? Experts say yes. Here’s how:
- Let them fail. This sounds counterintuitive. I don’t want my kids to fail! At least, not big failures, or long-term failures. Yet small failures help us to grow. We all have to fail at some point. If our little ones can figure out how to work through some of the smaller challenges now and see that they can come out on top, then they will know what to do when bigger failures come down the road. As David Bush, Director of Utah State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services, put it in an interview with BYU Magazine: “If you do too much for the child, you actually cripple them and undermine their confidence and ability to be self-reliant.” We can’t always stop our kids from falling down when they are small or they won’t know that they can pick themselves up when they are grown. We want our kids to believe in their ability to succeed after they fail. I mean, where would we be without Thomas Edison’s failures? He just chose to look at things differently. “I have not failed 10,000 times,” he said. “I have just found 10,000 ways that it won’t work.” Let’s reframe the concept of failure.
- Let them feel. Have you ever been in the middle of a really painful experience and had someone say to you: “You’ll be fine.” Trying to push someone past their feeling doesn’t allow them to work out the emotion of the moment or let them know you are their to share the pain. Sheryl Sandburg, whose husband recently passed away unexpectedly, said in an interview on the podcast On Being that hearing people say “You’ll get through this” wasn’t helpful because it didn’t acknowledge her experience. She didn’t know whether she’d get through it so how could they? What did feel supportive and helpful was when people could say, “I don’t know if you’ll get through this, but you won’t go through it alone. I’m here with you.” That’s a helpful reminder to me that when one of my kids gets hurt I shouldn’t be too fast to tell them they’ll be fine. Sometimes all they need us to say is: “I know it hurts, but I’m here with you.” Then, when they are ready, they can move on.
- Teach them about grace. Matthew 5:48 says we should “Be ye therefore perfect” but we have to understand that perfection comes only with the saving grace of Jesus Christ. We do our best, and He fills in the gaps–every time, no matter how big the gaps. Apparently kids who understand this concept have an easier time with adversity. According to a recent survey of 574 BYU students, ancient scripture professor and psychologist Daniel K. Judd found that students who believed their salvation was primarily up to them had dramatically higher levels of anxiety and depression than the students who embraced the principle of grace (that Christ already has our salvation covered, as long as we try our best). It’s a reminder to me that I need to help my kids understand they can make as many mistakes as they need. Christ has already taken care of it.
- Praise the effort, not the outcome. As much as I want to jump up and down and clap when my son finally plays (almost) perfectly the piano piece he has been working on for weeks, I have to remind myself to praise his struggle along the way. Rather than saying “That piece sounds awesome” I try to say while he’s learning “Great job working out that tricky part. I love seeing you try that over and over again.” Then he learns that I am proud of him for working through something hard, not just performing it well. That’s something I learned from a conversation with a neighbor who has been involved in educating children for decades. As she said, “We have a hard time with the perfectionists who only receive praise when something is finished well. It makes them afraid to try new and hard things because they think they might not be able to succeed.” Let’s praise their effort instead.
- Teach mindfulness. Mindfulness is the exercise of being aware of what is happening with your own internal experience, free of judgment. According to the American Psychological Association, people who regularly practice mindfulness have lower levels of depression and anxiety, have more positive feelings, healthier relationships, and have an easier time focusing. Teaching kids to be still and listen to their own body can help them notice when they are feeling anxious about something in the future or keep them from ruminating on something in the past. When they can sense emotional turmoil coming on, they can take steps to acknowledge and then resolve it in a healthy way (say listening to music, going for a walk, or talking to a friend) rather than in a destructive way (such as extensive video gaming, pornography, or binge eating), which only leads to more stress.
- Teach and model healthy habits. We can’t feel well emotionally if we don’t feel well physically. After all, the brain (which processes all our thoughts, emotions, and reactions) is just an organ. Have you ever noticed that your kids fight more when they are hungry or tired? I have. Everything seems better after a snack and good rest. Talk with them regularly about how this works. Let them know–sleep, exercise, and healthy eating is a trifecta that can make us strong for our whole life. Oh, and guess what works better than telling them? Show them how it’s done!
- Make their voice important. As Adam Grant said in an interview with On Being, “They need to know they matter. They need to have a say.” If we are always telling our children what to do and what to think and how things should be done, then they won’t learn to trust their own voice. It’s as simple as asking them around the dinner table, “How do you feel about this idea?” Or when they have a problem, starting with “What do you think you should do?” The more practice they have trusting their abilities now when they are young, the more capable they will feel later in life.
- Encourage them, but don’t push. We want our kids to feel strong and capable. Being there to support and love and answer questions is great. Pushing them, shaming them, or causing guilt over things they didn’t do right will probably backfire. Kids need to know we believe in them. That’s not to say we can’t insist on follow-through. I love the way my tennis teacher once put it when I asked her how her son became such a great tennis player. “Did you ever push him?” I asked. “No,” she said. “I didn’t push. But as he moved ahead, if he ever wanted to quit or go backwards, I was always standing right there behind him.” I like that visual. I’m far from perfect but I hope to be the cheerleader my kids need in this life–letting them know I believe in their endless possibilities.
Yes, depression and anxiety are rising, possibly because life has never been quite so complicated. My kids are still young, and I have no idea what kind of physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual difficulties they will face. But I’m a big believer that I can help them have a few tools ready for the oncoming battle. I can teach them to make mistakes, take a deep breath, shake it off, and try again–when they are ready. After all, we all have mountains to climb. Sometimes we rise and sometimes we slip. My goal is to help myself and my kids keep moving ahead. And every once in a while, we can look back, enjoy the view, and be darn proud of how far we’ve come.