In years of teaching both confident and anxious college students, we learned a crucial lesson that makes us better moms. And science agrees. It's one thing we can do now that WILL build their resilience and grit and prepare them for adulthood.
I couldn’t believe it happened again.
I was running late that morning, and a million things raced through my mind as I drove to work: finding ways to make our mornings less stressful, figuring out what to make for dinner, wondering how I was going to finish grading papers on time, trying to remember which students were coming in for office hours, realizing I had forgotten to write a letter of recommendation, thinking about how to carve out more time to exercise...the list goes on.
I had almost reached campus when traffic slammed to a halt. Oh, come on! I definitely didn’t have time for this. Why couldn’t people just get to their garage and park? My fingers were tapping on the steering wheel and I’m sure my sighs were audible. The only person I was thinking about was myself and how this delay was going to impact my day.
And then I got the text. A student had fallen from the top floor of a university parking garage.
It took my breath away. It gave me instant perspective. I was worried about trivial things when a young man’s parents would soon pick up the phone to the most devastating news they would ever hear.
He is the third student on our campus to die from a parking garage fall in less than two years.
TODAY'S KIDS ARE GROWING UP IN A TOUGH WORLD
We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. The National Alliance on Mental Illness pulled together some sobering statistics about children and teens in this infographic:
Having battled depression and anxiety in my own life and extended family, when I walked into class later that morning, I knew what I needed to do. To stay on schedule, I didn’t have time, but I couldn’t afford NOT to take the time. I moved up the conversation I usually save for the middle of the semester - an honest conversation with students about their mental health. It has absolutely nothing to do with the content of my class, but it just might be the most important 15 minutes over those 15 weeks.
So that’s what I did. We talked about the death on campus, and I shared a document with campus resources. And then I said this:
You must take care of yourselves. Life is bigger than your grades and assignments and the stress of college. And you’ll never again be somewhere with access to more free resources and people who are invested in your success. Yes, you need to develop resilience and grit. To do that, you need to be physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy. Talk to someone. Take advantage of counseling and wellness coaching and suicide prevention. If you don’t need any of that right now, pass it along to your friends who do.
I care about you first. Your work in this class is secondary. My door is always open and you can email me anytime. College life is overwhelming and hard and stressful. I wish I could tell you that it gets better, but the reality is that life is often difficult and terrible things happen. You need to figure out how to push through it with resilience and grit. So communicate with people you care about and get help when you need it.
A week after this conversation in class, I received an email from one of my students asking some questions about campus counseling sessions and thanking me for taking time to talk about it. If this semester is like previous ones, I’ll have several students in my office over the coming weeks who ask for help or end up in tears because I asked one more question than other instructors, friends or family have. I don’t give them the option of glossing over what’s happening in their life. I don’t ask for details, but I do ask how they are. Without fail, my 15-minute focus on mental health is referenced by multiple students in their final reflection papers and official evaluations of my course. It surprises me every time because something that required so little of me has such a strong impact on them. Why?
All I did was talk to them and care about them. I learned who they were and I asked questions. That’s it.
WE HAVE THE POWER TO DO SOMETHING
Mary spends a tremendous amount of time building relationships with her students outside the classroom as a mentor. Her public relations and journalism background help her give students professional skills for the workplace, but she also keeps a pulse on those around her with a quick text message or email, or a longer chat over coffee or lunch. She cares so much about connecting with people, and she makes it a priority.
I know Mary's students would agree that she's pretty amazing. She sets up a series of meetings, networking events, and company visits for them every year in NYC.
We love supporting our student athletes too! Lauren and Maddy invited us to be special guests for their senior day field hockey game.
We don’t do anything special. But we do communicate.
That’s the key.
In everything I’ve read and heard about mental health, communication--in some form or another--is mentioned:
- To end the stigma around mental illness, we need to be willing to talk about it.
- If you are feeling depressed or anxious, tell your doctor.
- When we notice changes in a loved one that concern us, we need to start a conversation.
Another excellent resource from NAMI.
So when Mary and I wondered what we should be doing with our kids right now to equip them to take on life with the right attitude and skills, healthy communication was the most logical place to start. We can’t clear a path for our kids and remove the obstacles they will encounter, and we can’t promise them a life free of crisis or pain. But we can apply what we’ve learned from our college students and share it with the parents of today’s kids who will soon be tomorrow’s adults. And we can put all of that knowledge into practice with our own families.
HEALTHY COMMUNICATION HELPS BUILD RESILIENT KIDS
According to an article by Virginia Tech professor Rick Peterson, “Researchers agree that clear, open, and frequent communication is a basic characteristic of a strong, healthy family. It’s an essential building block of strong marital, parent-child, and sibling relationships. Poor family communication can lead to numerous family problems, including excessive family conflict, ineffective problem solving, lack of intimacy, and weak emotional bonding. Poor communication is also associated with an increased risk of divorce and marital separation and more behavioral problems in children.”
Take a minute to reread that quote. Healthy communication is incredibly powerful. When we prioritize and harness it, we can have a lasting impact on our kids.
Mary and I want to be proactive in this time of mental health crisis. We tell our college students that they need to build resilience, so we should make this a priority with our own kids. It won't prevent or solve everything, but it will give our kids a solid foundation. We want to raise resilient kids who are healthy communicators. But how?
THE HOW-TO: BUILDING SEVEN KEY TRAITS IN YOUR KIDS
Researchers at the International Youth Foundation as well as Dr. Ken Ginsburg, a pediatrician, professor, and author, developed a model called "The 7 Cs: Building Blocks of Resilience." It identifies the key characteristics of youth who positively contributed to society. We read it and said "Yes! That's what we see in our college classrooms every day. You're right on point." Communication isn't officially one of the "Cs," but we think it's the secret sauce that helps you build these "Cs" in kids. So what are these building blocks and how do we help our kids learn them?
BUILDING BLOCK 1: COMPETENCE
Kids become competent only by experience. They learn how to trust their judgments and make responsible choices by DOING (this includes succeeding AND failing).
- Take an honest look at your kids' strengths. Identify and talk about them with your kids so they can develop those strengths. Check out Strengths Based Parenting: Developing Your Child's Innate Talents for more about identifying strengths.
- Next time you realize you're lecturing your kids, try to turn it into a conversation about the issue. Commit to really listening to their perspective. Clarify your own points and give your kids a chance to take ownership of their actions.
- Pave the way or protect your kids from every failure. Have you heard that helicopter parents have now been replaced by lawnmower parents? Check out this great article by We Are Teachers:
BUILDING BLOCK 2: CONFIDENCE
Kids develop confidence when they learn how to cope with challenges and try out new things on their own.
- Focus more on character than achievements. Talk to your kids about the personal qualities you want to see in them (persistence, integrity, kindness), and start putting greater emphasis on those qualities.
- Consider if your expectations are realistic. Sit down with your kids and help them establish a few goals that are just out of their reach.
- Confuse confidence with the false self-esteem that results from only telling kids they are special and precious.
Mary's son wanted to run a 5K. He had to stop and walk a few times, but he finished! Gold star for setting and meeting a goal!
BUILDING BLOCK 3: CONNECTION
Close ties to family provide security and strong values that help prevent destructive behaviors. Kids also develop a sense of belonging through connections to civic, educational, religious, and athletic groups.
I played softball all the way through high school and it's fun to stay in touch with many of these girls on Facebook, all these years later. (Glad I am no longer subject to giant glasses and grandma's perms!)
My family spent Christmas week with my mom and brother's family in Charleston to celebrate her 70th birthday. We all felt ridiculous walking around the beach in our matching handmade pjs, but those are the unique points of connection that make the best stories and memories!
- Take an honest look at whether your family deals with conflict in a healthy way. Talk to your kids about the importance of resolving problems by addressing them directly and talking through them together. This may result in awkward apologies and strained conversations with both friends and strangers, but it's worth it.
- Make sure, at the end of the day, your kids know beyond a doubt that you love them unconditionally. Make a habit of telling them how much you love them, and reassuring them that you won’t give up on them even when life gets hard or they make bad decisions.
- Take the challenges of parenting too personally as your kids move toward independence. You WILL get major sass, eye rolls, tears and slammed doors through the years. That doesn't mean you're doing it wrong or damaging your kids.
BUILDING BLOCK 4: CHARACTER
Kids have a fundamental sense of right and wrong. With guidance, they can learn to make wise choices, contribute to the world, stick to their own values and become stable adults.
- Talk to your kids about how their behavior affects other people in good and bad ways. Explain to them how you take the needs of others into consideration when you make decisions. Model what you want them to do.
- Ask your kids if they see themselves as caring people. If this isn’t how they would describe themselves, point out times when you see them caring for others in big and small ways.
- Spend your days satisfying your kids' need for immediate gratification.
BUILDING BLOCK 5: CONTRIBUTION
When kids see the importance of their contributions, they gain a sense of purpose and they realize the world is a better place because they’re in it. They take actions and make choices that improve the world.
- Instill a sense of gratitude in your kids for what they have compared to others. Talk to your kids about differences in money, freedom, and security so they understand that not everyone has what they need. Grab our Guide to Raising Grateful Kids if this is something you want to tackle.
- Serve and volunteer with your kids. Spend time talking about the importance of giving back and model generosity with your time and resources. Find at least one new way to serve with your family.
- Assume your kids will give and serve generously if they don’t see you modeling it for them or making time for it. Our next SALT effect box provides a service project that gives hope to sick kids if you need a place to start.
BUILDING BLOCK 6: COPING
Kids learn how to manage stress and overcome challenges with positive, adaptive coping strategies (check out these ABCs of stress management and coping skills) instead of dangerous negative behaviors.
- Look at whether your kids know the difference between a crisis and a minor setback. Ask them about recent situations and help them differentiate between serious situations and things that just feel like an emergency in the moment.
- Consider your natural response to stressful situations (especially when you're tired or overwhelmed). Talk with your kids about how they can approach situations with step-by-step problem solving.
- Forget to model healthy coping behaviors like exercise, nutrition, relaxation techniques and adequate sleep.
BUILDING BLOCK 7: CONTROL
Kids know they have internal control when they realize that their choices and actions determine the results. We're big fans of E+R=O -- the idea that you can't always control an Event, but you can control your Response, and that's half of what creates a certain Outcome.
- Reward your kids with increased privileges when they show responsibility. Ask them how they show responsibility, and then talk through some possible privileges that you might extend to them.
- Talk to your kids about the difference between events that are and aren’t under their control. Discuss the differences and how positive and protective behaviors can help even when they can’t control a situation.
- Treat discipline as punishment or control when it’s really about teaching that actions produce consequences.
PICK A BLOCK TO BUILD AND START NOW
One last thing. It’s important. As communication professors, we know that people are much more likely to do something when they make a public commitment. So I'll go first:
I commit to focusing on the coping building block. I tend to get frustrated when my kids overreact, and instead of calmly discussing what an appropriate reaction would be, I tell them to relax and stop being ridiculous. Right now as I type, I realize that this doesn’t help them at all. And when I get busy or overwhelmed, I manage it for a while, but it eventually catches up with me. One of my coping mechanisms has always been to do more, and it’s not healthy. So, I’m going to work on coping in my family over the coming weeks.
Which of the 7 Cs needs more attention from you? Let us know in the comments which one you’ll focus on, and we will help hold each other accountable!