High-Performing Kids and Mental Wellness: The Tightrope Walk

We humans are good at finding patterns. This evolutionary benefit has kept us alive longer than the dinosaurs, but it’s not foolproof. Sometimes, these patterns can steer us wrong.  As parents, what we perceive to be good and healthy for our kids, might not be the reality. The team captain with straight-As could have an eating disorder. The class president with multiple scholarship offers might be questioning their sexuality. When it comes to identifying how well our kids are managing stress and dealing with substance use, sometimes we miss what is right in front of us.

Teens face an ever-creeping, constant pressure that the decisions they make in high school actively determine their path in life. Their problems might look small to adults, but from where they stand, the difference between low and high performance feels as if it could set them on an entirely different trajectory. The stress and anxiety teens feel about their future takes a toll on their minds and bodies.

How do we take some of the weight off the shoulders of high-performing teens?

Teens learn resilience when faced with difficult situations. In order to build this skill, teens need positive stress in their lives. For most youth, the stress of good grades and high performance as an athlete or musician is exactly the sort of positive stress that teaches effort, focus, determination, and teamwork. Stress becomes toxic when it is ongoing and without buffering. Adults act as buffers by being supportive, responsive, and caring to teens experiencing stressful circumstances. Ask yourself, why is your child’s high performance so important? Is it so they win or are the very best? Or is the priority that they develop esteem, work ethic, and resilience?

When walking the tightrope of encouraging high performance and supporting youth and their mental wellness, remember that most lessons are learned in the losses. We can hold teens to high standards all while demonstrating we care for them when they fall short of their goals.

5 Things You Can Do:

  • Talk to your teen about what is causing them stress. Let them know they can always come to you if things are feeling unmanageable to work through problems together.

  • Demonstrate your support and care when they fall short of their goals. Acknowledge both their hard work and their ability to do better next time.

  • Let teens foster an identity outside of performance. Praise them when they make an insightful comment, do something kind for another person, or creatively solve a problem on their own. Celebrate their effort, not just the outcome.

Examples of Buffering

A high performing teen is feeling daily pressure from a parent to excel in school and sports, from a coach to lead the team every game, from a teacher to score the highest on the test, and from social media to look a certain way.

Parent: “I’ve noticed you haven’t been yourself lately. This has been a really challenging month. What are some ways I can support you?”

Coach: “That was a tough loss. You showed some real grit in that game. You never gave up.”

Teacher: “I noticed you’ve been tired in class this week. Are you doing ok? I’m here to talk if you need some help.”

  • Set boundaries. Work with your teen to mutually prioritize habits that feed their physical and mental health. How much sleep is right for them? How is social media impacting their mental wellness?

  • Check out the Developmental Assets® Framework. Learn about the ways you can support, empower, set boundaries and expectations, encourage constructive use of time, while fostering your teens’ commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies, and positive identity.

Kat Barrow is a Community Prevention Specialist at Tri-County Mental Health Services in Kansas City, MO. She earned her Masters of Public Health from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Kat is passionate about creative, inclusive approaches to improving community health and wellness.

7 Things to Consider As You Send Your Child Back to School

What a difficult time this is to be thinking about back to school!  Not only do you need to prepare your child for going to school, you also need to think about how to keep them safe and productive when they’re schooling from home (if they’re secondary students).  And then there’s helping them deal with the disappointment of school and extracurricular activities not being what they expect and want.

As you think through these issues, here are some things to consider: 

  1. Show you care. Listen to your child’s concerns and complaints and then help your child see the positives.  Remind them that everyone is doing their best in a time when there aren’t many good options.  Try to demonstrate a positive attitude toward their learning option in front of your children.  When kids hear you be negative, it gives them permission to be critical as well and tends to lessen their ability to succeed.  Support the school’s guidelines to keep kids safe and encourage your child to follow them, even when they don’t want to.  If you have concerns about how things are being handled, speak with your child’s teacher, counselor or administrator in private.

  2. Set expectations and clear guidelines for your child when they are learning from home.  Have a well-developed routine for them.  What time will they get up, have breakfast and be ready for online studies?  Set scheduled breaks, lunch and quitting times.  We all accomplish more when we work within a schedule.

  3. Make sure to build in some type of exercise and/or outdoor activity into their day.  Not only does it help their physical health, it’s crucial to mental health as well.  Encourage your child to take a walk or do some other physical activity at some point during the day.  You can also join them and use the time to connect.

  4. Pay careful attention to your home environment. Make sure that any alcohol and/or prescription medications are locked up.  Your child may be dealing with a lot of disappointment and may experiment with things they wouldn’t normally consider.

  5. Set aside time in the evening to connect. Family meals are a great venue for this!  Now more than ever it’s important to check in with them about what they’re doing, thinking and feeling.  Watch for significant changes in sleep, eating habits, and exercise patterns.  Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you are concerned about their well-being.  Your child’s school counselor is a great place to start!  He or she can guide you to other resources if you need them.

  6. If a parent is unable to be home with your child during their at-home learning, communicate with them throughout the day when possible. Think about other people who may be able to help break up their day.  Is there a grandparent or other family member who could pop in, bring lunch, or call them?  How about a neighbor or trusted friend?  When kids know the adults in their life care about them and are empathetic to this particular time, it helps them keep a positive attitude.  Maybe some strengthened relationships will come out of this!

  7. Help coach your child’s perspective. Last week I came across a great article about coaching our kids through disappointment during this time.  “We can give our kids one of two perspectives. That of victimhood: that they’ve lost things they’re entitled to, that they should remain outraged, and that they will be forever scarred by their current losses. Or that of empowerment: narratives of delayed gratification, of resiliency, of grieving and moving on, and of finding new meaning and new coping skills.”  We can’t control so many of the things going on around us, but we can control how we respond!  This can be a time of growth for all of us!  (You can find the full article here.)

Kendra Callaway is currently the Program Director for Liberty Alliance for Youth and is a retired school counselor from Liberty Public Schools. She enjoys watching and helping her 4 grandchildren learn to navigate the world.

We Are Supposed to Feel: Parenting During COVID-19

This month, Sonya Richardson-Thomas, a Licensed Professional Counselor, gives practical tips and tools for parents as they work to extend grace and acceptance during the current COVID-19 Pandemic.

“Life is like a box of chocolates… You never know what you’re gonna get” -Forrest Gump

If nothing else, coronavirus has brought this idea home! We think we know what is coming next and then WHAM! Pandemic…not a word I’ve used before now. How about you?

When things are unpredictable and chaotic-feeling, we tend to have more anxious feelings than normal. That’s okay AND expected! We are not machines, we are SUPPOSED to feel. Our brains process FEELINGS before thinking. Always. So be gracious and accepting of yourself and your feelings. The good news about feelings: they come and they go.

Also, let’s extend that grace and acceptance to our kiddos’ feelings. We are most able to show we are accepting of their feelings by looking BENEATH the behaviors and asking ourselves where this behavior found its origin: worry, frustration, loss, anger, etc. All are valid feelings in this unique and open-ended historical moment.

Here are some PRACTICAL suggestions for parenting during this stressful season:

  • Connection before Correction: Hear the WHY and REGULATE the feeling, THEN correct the behavior. Your child will be able to listen to you, think, and correct their behavior better AFTER their strong emotions have subsided and they are calm again.
  • Soothing Touch and Soothing Words: Calming touch and calming words help kids become Regulated and ready to move towards finding solutions. Remember: THINKING comes after feelings. They won’t be able to process what you are saying about their behavior until they are able to calm themselves.
  • When parent/child conflict inevitably arises, here are some good questions to help your child problem solve:
    • What are your ideas/solutions?
    • How could this be different next time?
    • What is the NEXT best thing to do?

  • Breathe: The ONLY stress symptom we can control is breathing! Simply drop your breathing from your chest to your belly.  Belly breathing tells your brain that the threat is lessening and this will help you relax.
  • Move Your Feet: BEFORE the big feelings come, head outside and move OR carry books and boxes from one floor to the next …movement is a researched stress reliever!
  • Engage Your Senses: Take a minute to find 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Very effective in relieving anxiety!
  • Be Real because this is Real! Resist the urge to minimize or “fix” feelings.
  • LOVE first, Always. Remember when it is so SO hard, this is not forever… Lead with Love!

Here is a printable and shareable cheat sheet to remind you of these Practical Parenting Tips That Lead With Love During Stressful Times:

 

Sonya Richardson-Thomas is a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Liberty, Missouri. She is an experienced therapist in many areas including child and family issues such as attachment, divorce, trauma, and developmental issues. She is also an experienced public speaker. For more tips on parenting through stressful times, follow her on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/srtfamilytherapy/.

The Secret Sauce of De-stressing

This month, accomplished author and co-founder of The Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, Barbara C. Unell, writes about how parents can help their children cope with stress to be more resilient.

Sources of Stress In Children’s Lives

Children get stressed when they experience simple frustrations, such as getting a bad grade on a test or not wanting to clean their rooms. They also get stressed when big things happen, like when someone they love dies or when they are put down consistently. As parents, we know we can’t prevent our children from experiencing stress, but we can be a buffer from stress rather than a creator or cause of stress.

How Children Learn To Respond To Stress

“Whew! I’m glad THEY’RE gone. They yelled at me and stress me out!” shouts 10-year-old Makela as friends of her family leave her house.

“Where did she get THAT?” her mom asks me, telling the story in disbelief. “How could our friends be stressful? They just didn’t like it when Makela spilled her milk, so they yelled at her. What’s the big deal?”

Where DO children get “that” and many other stress responses? From everyday life, of course. And sometimes that everyday life stress is created by adults in the way they respond to children.

In fact, the way adults respond to a child’s behavior (from infant crying onward) is as important as how they respond to a temperature. When children are frustrated, angry, sad or disappointed, they need adult caregivers to be empathic and teach them how and why to self-calm; follow rules, boundaries and limits; and problem-solve, all with unconditional love. That’s how caring, supportive and protective adults help prevent stress from becoming dangerous to children’s brains and bodies.

How can parents learn to teach children helpful coping skills to manage anxiety and anger and become friends with change? The positive teaching tools in our book, Discipline with Love and Limits, do just that. It gives readers specific “what to do’s” for building positive relationships with children and teaching them how to deal with the stress of life in over 100 common situations.

The One Factor That Can Help Prevent Stress From Becoming Toxic

Why is teaching coping skills so important to a child’s health and well-being? The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University has shared groundbreaking research demonstrating that the one factor that can help prevent stress from becoming toxic—and therefore damaging to a child’s brain and body for life—is consistent caring, supportive and protective adults in a child’s life, as many as possible.

When our children are exposed to positive parenting by those adults, they learn: 

  • healthy coping skills
  • good problem-solving strategies
  • the ability to delay gratification
  • how to handle mistakes
  • the ability to self-regulate and to tolerate frustration

These all lead to positive outcomes in health, learning and behavior.

Putting A Plan Into Action

When we teach coping behaviors to our children, we reduce stress so it becomes a teachable moment leading to resilience. In short, we want to help all parents and everyone who cares for and about a child to be a buffer from stress, not a creator or cause of stress. This doesn’t mean that we can prevent our children from experiencing stress—that is impossible. Children get stressed when they experience simple frustrations, such as when they aren’t picked for the team or don’t want to go to bed. And they also get stressed when big things happen—when their parents get divorced, they are spanked, abused or ignored. This kind of stress can become toxic to our children (see Additional Information below).

We know that our good mental, physical and emotional health—both children’s and adults’—depends on not letting the adversity of all or just some of these experiences become toxic by building coping skills, resilience, and tolerance.  When our children get upset, they need to be taught how to get back a sense of hope, gratitude, possibility. Caring, supportive and protective parenting does just that.

When we use caring, supportive, protective parenting, we allow our children to fail and then help them develop tools to avoid that same failure in the future. Above all, we: 

  • Care about our children’s learning to cope with life’s difficulties with optimism.
  • Support our children’s efforts to succeed, even if that effort may lead to failure.
  • Protect them from dangers of life, while allowing them the freedom to explore their world, make mistakes and learn from them.

Every child deserves nothing less. In this way, every parent has the opportunity to discipline with love and limits…and that is the secret sauce of de-stressing that’s healthy for all.

© 2019 Barbara C. Unell

Barbara C. UnellBarbara C. Unell is a grateful mother, grandmother, parent-educator, journalist and social entrepreneur, whose latest book, Discipline with Love and Limits, has sold over 1 million copies. The co-author of over 15 books on parenting, Barbara is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization, The Raised with Love and Limits Foundation, dedicated to preventing toxic stress and adverse childhood experiences. Together with teachers, healthcare practitioners and all who champion kindness, compassion and empathy, she is passionate about translating science into practical, proven, positive, and sustainable solutions of change that lead to optimum health, learning and behavior for us all.

Additional Information

The American Academy of Pediatrics

The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study was conducted with over 17,000 middle and upper-middle class adults from 1995 to 1997 by researchers from Kaiser Permanente and The Centers for Disease Control. The stunning results of the study, and other groundbreaking neurological and follow-up biological, as well as behavioral research, has led leaders of The American Academy of Pediatrics to release a new Policy Statement in December 2018 recommending that primary care pediatrics meet its fundamental responsibility to help parents teach their child acceptable behavior and protect them from harm.

Three Kinds of Responses to Stress 

According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child“It’s important to distinguish among three kinds of responses to stress: positive, tolerable, and toxic. As described below, these three terms refer to the stress response systems’ effects on the body, not to the stressful event or experience itself:

  • Positive stress response is a normal and essential part of healthy development, characterized by brief increases in heart rate and mild elevations in hormone levels. Some situations that might trigger a positive stress response are the first day with a new caregiver or receiving an injected immunization.
  • Tolerable stress response activates the body’s alert systems to a greater degree as a result of more severe, longer-lasting difficulties, such as the loss of a loved one, a natural disaster, or a frightening injury. If the activation is time-limited and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.
  • Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”
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