How do we, as parents (and educators), negotiate the line between protecting our children and giving them the freedom they need for their psychological growth?
Building effective emotional regulation strategies turns out, is not just a matter of developing strong and long lasting self-esteem but, as latest research shows, is more dependent upon self-compassion. It seems that the current generation of college students is less able to deal with setbacks, low grades, failing papers, competition with peers and the normal and healthy fluctuation of human experiences than the former generation.
Dan Jones, past president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, said in an interview for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Students haven’t developed skills in how to soothe themselves (read: are not equipped with self-compassion) because their parents have solved all their problems and removed the obstacles. They don’t seem to have as much grit as previous generations.” (An Epidemic of Anguish: Overwhelmed by Demand for Mental-Health Care, Colleges Face Conflicts in Choosing How to Respond, Aug. 31, 2015 by Robin Wilson). In other words, they lack resilience which interferes with their studies and quality of life.
According to Peter Gray Ph. D. in his article Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges, “Emergency calls to Counseling have more than doubled over the past five years. Students are increasingly seeking help for problems of every day life. Rates of anxiety and depression among American college students have soared in the last decade, and many more students than in the past come to campus already on medication for such illnesses.” Gray believes there has been a dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to play, explore, and pursue their own interests away from adult oversight over the past few decades. This, he believes, is the reason for the increase of anxiety and depression rates and for a decrease in the sense of control young people feel they have in their lives. “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to learn how to solve their own problems. They have not been given the chance to get into trouble
and find their own way out, to experience failure and realize they can survive it, to be called bad names by others and learn how to respond without adult intervention.” Dr. P. Gray, Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges, Psychology Today, (September 22, 2015).
The NAMI (National Association of Mental Illnesses) did a survey in 2011 on mental health of college students. The outcome is pretty shocking: 64% reported that they dropped out of college for mental health related reasons! In an article in the New York Times, Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection a survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems; an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State. Nationally, the suicide rate rate among 15-24 year-olds has increased steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Julie Scelfo, Suicide on Campus and the Pressure of Perfection, The New York Times (July 27, 2015); https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/education/edlife/stress-social-media-and-suicide-on-campus.html?smid=fb-share&_r=1 (accessed December 30th, 2015)
The question is, how can we avoid our children to follow the path of the current generation of college students?
There are several theoretical reasons to believe that feelings of compassion towards the self (or the lack thereof) may impact the learning process— specifically, the link between self-compassion, academic achievement goals, and coping with academic failure.
Michael Grose from Parenting Ideas believes that, “if we just praise intelligence, talent and ability in our kids, it leads to fixed mindset development. Kids believe that their success is reliant on their ability or talent, rather than their effort or attitude. Therefore, they become risk-adverse. Far better is to praise effort, strategy and action and not results. Focus more on the processes of what kids do rather than results to develop a growth mindset. Kids need to hear comments such as “You worked hard to get that right!” (effort), “That was a smart idea to tackle the hardest task while you were fresh!” (strategy) and “You recognized the first few steps were the most important but then after that you were right. (action). This type of praise, also known as encouragement, helps kids develop the belief that success
has more to do with what they do than innate smarts and talents.” (Parenting Ideas, “Develop a Growth Mindset in Your Child” by Michael Grose).
As the Founder and Director of Performance EmPowering (PEP) I teach an elective course at AMDA, NY and help college students to understand that besides of building academic-, social- and performance skills, it is as important to build mental skills, especially when you commit yourself to a performing career. Resilience, perspective, flexibility and stamina will help maintain a balance in a stressful career. I’ve also worked with children attending professional performance schools and have had great success with strengthening these skills and with the Restructuring tools as well. As adults we have the tendency to think catastrophically and so do kids. Becoming aware of negative self-talk is a key element in building confidence and self-compassion. Finding replacements for debilitating thoughts will help students to be less anxious, perform better and increase their ability to recover from rejection and/or a less successful performance. As we all know, it is not how far we fall but how high we bounce back that counts. Walking through the possible outcome of any performance beforehand will help diminish fear and create a more positive view of any upcoming event. Focusing on ‘process’ rather than ‘product’ will teach kids that life fluctuates between a variety of experiences and that no one learns without making mistakes. Help your child to use supportive language and not by stating the opposite, like, replacing “I suck” with, “I’m great.” Much more effective is to describe efforts such as, I have practiced a lot, my breathing has improved in the past weeks, or I have become much better with rhythm (or fill in anything applicable).
We live in a highly demanding and competitive world. Helping our kids to build strong and flexible minds will better equip them to live happily and successfully now and into the future. Let us leave the obstacles for our children to meet and learn from. Let them fall freely, but let us remember to teach them ways to bounce back.
Wilma Wever, Performance EmPowering, February 2016 www.performanceempowering.com