“If you think your teen is more stressed, anxious, and depressed than you were back in your teen day, you’re right. If you think that’s because he’s lazy and weak or self-centered and spoiled, you’re wrong,” writes Dr. Michael Bradley in his new book Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Kids With Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience.
According to Bradley, kids today are in trouble, but this is because the world has changed. While that may sound like grim news, it is also a powerful reminder to parents that successfully raising a teenager today requires a kind of resilience-focused parenting that helps teens cope with the challenges they will face.
Comparing today’s teens to those of fifty years ago–according to the work of Jean Twenge of San Diego State University and her peers–anxiety and depression rates among teenagers are up by as much as 500 percent. One kid in every six has thought about or tried to commit suicide, and the majority of teens do not feel that their world is in their control.
But parents today also spend much more time disabling their kids with excessive care-taking, according to Bradley. As a result, kids today are a lot more self-centered. To confirm this assertion, Bradley points to the work of psychologist Michael Borba, who shows that kids are 40 percent less empathic and 60 percent more self-centered than they were thirty years ago.
Teens today grow up in a technology-saturated world where, thanks to social media, they maintain a much larger public perception than their parents did in their adolescence. They are more likely to be the subject of cyberbullying, to become addicted to a screen, and to have trouble focusing. They are also more likely to struggle with desensitization, aggression, sexual dysfunction, sleep disturbance, and weight management. While they turn to marijuana and alcohol more often, the form of marijuana they consume is significantly more potent than what their parents may have used in adolescence. While teens may be attempting to insulate themselves from the stressors they face, drugs in particular actually decrease resilience.
“First, regular use essentially freezes the social/emotional levels of young teens through the very years when they are supposed to do their greatest growth. Second, since the drugs do anesthetize the worry, the worrier never gets stronger because she doesn’t go through the critical resilience-building exercise called standing up to the stress and coping,” writes Bradley.
And while impulsive, reactive, and moody teenage brains often result in parents who over-control and excessively vie for power, reckless behavior in adolescence is not unexpected.
“…Our kids are supposed to do this stuff we hate. Like it or not, this is Mother Nature’s way, forcing the rebirth of your child, a second breaking away process you cannot and should not want to stop any more than you could or would the first such process,” writes Bradley.
Much of the reason for this, Bradley says, is that developing resilience requires exposure to difficult and scary things in graduated doses. Unlike what many people believe, resilience is not inherited; rather it can be built and developed just like a muscle.
Building resilience begins with allowing teens some autonomy to choose their activities, along with a little rope to make mistakes. Over time, this allows teens to develop a feeling of competence. Bradley says parents should also praise their teens for efforts rather than outcomes, and characterize mistakes as essential components of learning.
Connection is one the most important parts of resilience, and can be developed when parents make the home a secure base, allow for their teens full range of emotional expression, and express love even when they are upset. By modeling good behavior, morals and values, as well as taking time to discuss meaning and purpose with teens, parents help teens develop character. By acknowledging their successes, and linking autonomy with responsibility, parents can help their teens develop self-control–a core component of resilience.
Parents can also model how to cope with stressors, contribute to the world, and engage in community, all of which can help build resilience in teens.
But resilience-parenting also requires an adept set of skills, Bradley notes. For example, parents should “discipline smart” by separating punishment from consequences, and “talk smart” by choosing the timing for important discussions wisely. Parents should ask more questions than they offer answers, listen fully, stay connected, and think about ways to incorporate resilience into other parenting choices.
What parents should avoid, Bradley cautions, is taking teens’ behavior personally, making decisions while angry, trying to handle a serious drug problem without qualified help, allowing unsupervised screen access before 14, and underestimating the effects of excessive stress.
With disarming charm, clear-headed advice, and a tool chest of skills parents can use with their teen immediately, Bradley offers parents an invaluable resource in today’s overwhelming (and overstressed) world–the gift of resilience.
Crazy-Stressed: Saving Today’s Overwhelmed Teens With Love, Laughter, and the Science of Resilience
Dr. Michael J. Bradley
Amacom Books (2017)