When my brother was 15, I remember finding my parents whispering anxiously with each other outside the door of our bathroom. As I spied from my own room, I realized that they were convinced by the long length of time he spent locked in the bathroom refusing to come out, combined with the fact that there was an odd clicking sound coming from inside, that he was doing drugs. This was the “Just Say No!” era of the 90’s and the “War on Drugs” was going strong for parents of 90s teens. Just before I thought they were literally going to knock the door down, he walked out, Walkman loudly blasting in his ears. Turns out he had just spent the past 2 hours giving himself a new razor-sharp haircut. The clicking was the razor, and his hair, well that looked pretty good!
Now as a parent myself, I completely understand the fear and paranoia my parents faced so many years ago. It seems almost anytime I read the news, scroll Facebook, or talk to parents at soccer practice, there are stories after stories of bullying, loneliness, depression, school shootings, and suicide. Mental health awareness seems to be the modern day version of the “War on Drugs”. With my kids, I’m constantly checking in: “are you doing OK?” “is anyone picking on you?” “are you feeling sad?”
How do we as parents navigate that fear without hovering anxiously outside the bathroom door?
What we have learned in the medical field from studying stress and adversity in groups facing the highest level of stress imaginable, for example, youth diagnosed with cancer and their parents, is that learning resilience-building skills is an important and effective way to combat feelings of anxiety, powerlessness and lost control. Overcoming stress requires us first to acknowledge what we cannot control, and then to recognize what we can.
Although different cultures vary in how they define and measure it, resilience almost always involves deliberate action. This action involves identifying and harnessing resources.
These “resilience resources” fall into three categories:
Think about each of these categories. In times of stress, are you reaching out to find the resources you need? If not, can you think about ways you can reach out to help you do so?
One of the primary goals of our research group at Seattle Children’s Hospital is to provide tools and resources for parents and youth alike to navigate stress and build resilience. We have developed a program called Promoting Resilience in Stress Management (PRISM) and it targets the internal resources of managing stress, mindfulness and setting goals, as well as the existential resources of catching negative self-talk, positively reframing difficult experiences and creating meaning from them.
Findings from a randomized trial suggest teens and young adults who followed the PRISM program believed themselves to be more resilient than peers who did not. They also reported higher quality of life and lower depression. Similar studies in parents have also shown that PRISM improved parent’s resilience and benefit-finding skills.
People often ask, “How can I develop my own resilience?” The answer is simple and revolves around the same resources mentioned above.
For internal resources, ask yourself: How do I usually overcome tough times? What has helped me in the past? What might help me more now? Champion resources you already have, and make an effort to develop the ones you don’t.
For external resources, ask yourself: Who is there for me when I need help? Who is my community? Reach out to those who are there and don’t resist unsolicited offers for support, even if it is from folks you don’t yet know. You may be surprised at the community you develop.
Lastly, for existential resources, acknowledge and normalize the hardness of stress, but also be curious. Make efforts to identify good things. These may very well be some of the internal or external resources you just identified. Try to explore how this will impact your life and what will be your story. Remember, this part is under your control.
None of these are easy tasks and not all resources matter the same to all people. Try to know which ones are most important for you, and be willing to try the ones less familiar.
Also remember that some of these resources require lots of time and perspective. Be patient.
Learn more about resilience and gratitude:
From NPR: "Feel like you're living under a rain cloud? Life not going your way? Lots of us have a bit of Eeyore's angst and gloom. But here's the good news (sorry to be so cheery): You can be taught to have a more positive attitude. And — if you work at it — a positive outlook can lead to less anxiety and depression." Read more...
From The New York Times: "As parents, we want our children to be emotionally resilient — able to handle life’s ups and downs. But parents’ ability to foster resilience in our children hinges a great deal on our own emotional resilience." Read more...