Is the United States facing an epidemic of lost and distressed youth who struggle to handle the daily challenges of life?
Statistics say yes. The suicide rate for young people is on the rise, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Despite such troubling statistics, there are ways to better prepare young people so they can bounce back from the trials that life throws at them, says Dr. Kim Metcalfe, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology, and author of Let’s Build ExtraOrdinary Youth Together.
“Children need much more than love, food, clothing, shelter and electronic devices,” Metcalfe says. “They need to be armed with the ability to be resilient so they can navigate through childhood and into adulthood, dealing with adversity, trauma, tragedy and other significant sources of stress. We know the traits of emotionally resilient people and we know the types of experiences and opportunities that youth need to develop these traits.”
Resilient individuals don’t see themselves as victims, even though sometimes they are, she says. They refuse to play the blame game, and they know how to intercede on their own best behalf. Resilient individuals view setbacks as challenges that they are capable of addressing successfully. They feel hopeful rather than helpless.
For Metcalfe, helping distressed young people is a mission. Her daughter committed suicide in 2012, so Metcalfe speaks both as a professional and as a mother who has suffered a loss.
Metcalfe offers suggestions for parents and others on ways they can help build resilience in young people so they know they can handle the situation when life becomes difficult:
Give them opportunities to self-regulate. Self-regulation is when you are able to take control of your thinking, your decisions and your behavior. If you want your children to develop the skill of self-regulation, Metcalfe says, you must provide them opportunities where they are required to stop and think about the consequences of those decisions and behaviors. That means you can’t make all their decisions for them.
Use missteps, mistakes and disappointments as learning opportunities. The next time your adolescent does something you aren’t thrilled about, Metcalfe says, try asking them questions such as, “What other choice could you have made?” Use follow-up questions, such as: “If you made that choice what do you think might have happened?” “Is there another choice or option you could have considered?”
Model the resilience you want to see in them. One way to build more resilience in a teenager is to make certain you are modeling the behavior you want to see. They notice how you handle challenging situations. “If you have a difficult time bouncing back from setbacks, then it makes sense that your teens will have difficulty, too,” Metcalfe says. “Modeling for our youth what we want to develop in them is very powerful. Resilient people are able to cope with challenges, weather the storms in life, and work successfully through setbacks to reach their goals and make their dreams come true.”
“People like to say that kids are resilient,” Metcalfe says. “That’s not always true. In fact, it’s often not true. But they can develop the thinking habits and skills to live through adversity and recover in ways that allow them to live the lives they were born to live and do in life what they were born to do.”
About Kim Metcalfe
Dr. Kim Metcalfe, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology, is the author of Let’s Build ExtraOrdinary Youth Together (www.xtraordinaryyouth.com). She is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the California Association for the Education of Young Children, and the American Psychological Association. Dr. Metcalfe has a doctorate degree in Educational Developmental Psychology. To honor her late daughter, Abigail Elise Metcalfe, Dr. Metcalfe founded Abbey’s Purple Winged Angels Foundation – a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.