Recently I saw “Race to Nowhere” a great documentary about the stress kids face in school. I liked the film, although I wanted a “take away” from the film that provided a list of things I might do to reduce stress with my teens. I came up with this list – as always this is not a comprehensive list. I’d love to see ideas from readers about things they do to keep their teens mentally healthy.
Increase Communication: Try to have dinner together at least three evenings a week. Engage conversation by telling teens about your day and asking them to talk about theirs. Talk about things that are important to them (friends, sports, music, art) not just the academic grill (how did you do on that test? Have you done your homework? How could you get such a bad grade??)
Advise your own children, but live your own life: Teens often do not have the experience, maturity or prefrontal cortex development to understand when they are overloading themselves. Advise them to them look at their time, abilities and help them plan realistically (e.g., 4 AP classes might not be a good idea at the same time s/he is starring in a show).
On the other hand, try not to live vicariously through your children. It’s great to experience (again), the joy of life with children, but when a child becomes the tool to do the things parent never did (e.g, star of a sports team, be “popular” or star of the school play); the parent feeds his or her own ego and is not nurturing the child. Had an interesting example of this with my son. When he was nine years old, I got calls from a long list of select soccer coaches. They cajoled me (he’s so good!), threatened me (if he doesn’t play select he will never fulfill his potential) and played to my ego (he has enough talent to be a college player – he obviously has your athletic build). My son said – “Mom – I want to play with my friends. Plus I want to play other sports.” I let him do what he wanted. My gut feel was the friendships he would develop through a less competitive team were more important than building creating the next soccer star. This was a tough choice because I had already invested hundreds of hours in his soccer (coached his early teams, hired special coaches, drove him everywhere). I had to step back, and think long term for my child. Coaches want to fill a team for a year or three years tops. You are trying to build a child into adulthood. Keep that goal in mind.
Praise is good, Over praise leads to unrealistic expectations and a hollow win: Kids need to be able to achieve and have their work mean something. When we give a trophy for participating and not winning – we are creating future monsters of expectation and entitlement. A person has to work to win. It is okay to lose, as long a strong effort took place. But kids need to experience losing early and frequently. Failure teaches resilience.
Model life learning: When was the last time your child saw you read a book, newspaper, go to a scientific event or arts event? How can we expect our children to be curious if we aren’t? Do you love your job? Do you talk about the positive things at work at home?
Model good self care: Do you take care of yourself? Get enough sleep? Eat healthfully? Do things you love? Engage healthy discussions with your spouse or significant other in front of your kids? OR Are you the doormat for your family’s and community’s needs? Kids learn more from actions than from words. If you show them how to protect yourself, there’s a better chance they will model that behavior.
Say “NO” or limit school activities that destroy family vacations: I’m still working on this one! My 16 year-old child cut out a week of Christmas vacation because of Varsity soccer. He did not see his 85 year-old grandmother or cousins who he only sees once a year. Was this worth it? No. Will he get a soccer scholarship or be a professional soccer player? Probably not. If family is important – we need to put family first.
Provide a venue for connection with nature and exploration. When I was a kid in suburban VA, I’d explore in the woods, by myself, with friends and fighting the bullies in the neighborhood (I was an adept dirt clod fighter). I formed much of who I am in those explorations. One of my biggest regrets about living Dallas is the lack of exploratory time my kids have. I drive them everywhere, and their time is scheduled. So our family has made an effort to go places on vacation where our kids can have more freedom. Go to a small town where kids can walk or ride a bike to a store by themselves. Go to a national forest and let them do a hike by themselves (with instruction, of course). Give them opportunities to take risks, get lost and recover.
Encourage interaction with positive family members or friends outside your child’s age group. As a parent, sometimes our relationship with teens is hostile. Sometimes a grandparent, an aunt or uncle or a reliable family friend or “cool” but good older teen is better at providing comfort or perspective. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. When children are only exposed to kids in their age group, they get stuck in the landmines of that age group. Someone who has survived the age your child faces might provide better insight on how to handle the situation.
Get out of the house and turn off electronics. Get your kids to go outside – create a pick up basketball or baseball game. Encourage them to get some exercise and face to face interaction with other kids, without direct adult supervision. Brain development is enhanced by exercise and games that require coordination. Exercise also relieves stress.
Let your kids have space, but hold them accountable. We tell our kids they have plenty of freedom until they screw up, but if they do, the screws tighten. Kids need some freedom figure out who they are. Set boundaries clearly and punishments that fit the crime swiftly. A child in a cage can’t be a creative thinker. A child without consequences learns to be corrupt at an early age. Freedom and accountability is a tough balance, but perhaps the most important one we can strive for as parents.
Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain: John Ratey
Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age: Maggie Jackson
Mindset: Carol Dweck
Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Wendy Mogel
Struck by Living: From Depression to Hope: Julie K Hersh (not about teens)
For more information on Julie K Hersh and Struck by Living, please check out our website: www.struckbyliving.com
Revision 3 – 2/1/11
Recently awarded the Mental Health America Ruth Altschuler Community Advocate Prism Award and selected as one of the 2010 Distinguished Women by Northwood University, Julie Hersh is an outspoken advocate for mental health. “Despite medical advances,” Julie says, “too many people die by suicide because they are afraid to seek help.” Julie’s goal is to provide a living example that mental illness is a manageable disease. Her Struck by Living blog is featured on the Psychology Today website. Julie is also a guest blogger on the Menninger Clinic “Say No to Stigma” website.