We Are Failing Our Kids: A Few Remedies

Tabita Green
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I work at a college in the Upper Midwest—in the Driftless Area, more specifically—“where river, woodland, and prairie meet.” It is a beautiful campus, surrounded by tree-covered bluffs, with lots of opportunity for hiking and biking—and snowshoeing and skiing in winter.

Despite the pastoral surroundings and active lifestyle, some of our students—like many students across the country—are not mentally and emotionally healthy.

I was reminded of this recently when I read an article on mental health in our student newspaper, Luther College Chips. It discussed, among other things, the continually increasing need for counseling services on college campuses—including ours.

The article concluded with some grim statistics:

“Mental health is a serious concern on college campuses nationwide. A report released by the American College Health Association in spring of 2015 stated that 49.5 percent of college students surveyed reported feelings of hopelessness in the past 12 months. In the same time period, 35.3 percent reported debilitating depression and 57.7 percent indicated that they had experienced overwhelming anxiety.”

What!? A third of college students have debilitating depression and over half have experienced overwhelming anxiety? Sure, college should be rigorous, but it should be manageable. I know at our college we provide lots of academic support for any student who needs or wants it—it’s definitely not a swim or sink culture.

It made me wonder: Are colleges unrealistic in their demands academically, or are we failing to equip our children with the tools they need to live mentally and emotionally healthy lives? I’m leaning toward the latter.

This became even clearer to me when I came across research about first-year college student emotional preparedness by the JED Foundation, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Jordan Porco Foundation. They found that “60% of students wish they had gotten more help with emotional preparedness for college.” Further, “50% of students felt stressed ‘most’ or ‘all of the time.’” And a whopping “87% of students said college preparation during high school focused more on academics than emotional readiness.”

Something is wrong with this picture. We are failing to prepare our children for life.

In my book, Her Lost Year, I imagine what a society designed to optimize kids’ (and all people’s) mental health might look like. Such a society is full of worker cooperatives, social businesses, and family-friendly policies. It values cooperation over competition. It promotes child-centered learning and vocation. It puts people first and does not include anything resembling profit-over-people capitalism. It’s pretty amazing!

I know, I know. It will take a while to get there.

In the meantime, there are things we can do right now to build resilience—that innate and teachable trait that allows even traumatized children to grow into physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy adults—in our children.

1. Teach Kids Social and Emotional Skills

When my daughter attended a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills group in ninth grade, I had an epiphany. As I perused the materials and witnessed the skills at work in my daughter’s life, I thought, why isn’t this a class you take in school? I certainly would have benefited from some of these skills throughout my school years and adulthood!

I started looking around the internet and realized that others had had the same epiphany. It even had a name: Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I further learned that there is an entire organization, Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), promoting SEL in school districts across the nation.

So what exactly is SEL? According to CASEL’s website, “SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

I.e., it’s preparing kids for life! (And in the process, it boosts academic achievement, because calm, focused brains are better prepared to learn than anxious, distracted brains. Win, win!)

SEL can be implemented in a number of ways. CASEL has created comprehensive guides for selecting a SEL curriculum. Based on research and experience, I am particularly interested in mindfulness-based curricula such as MindUP and Mindful Schools. My new favorite program is Yoga Calm, because it integrates mindfulness, movement, and social and emotional skills. I’m so impressed by this curriculum that I’m participating in their youth instructor certification program.

Several states including Tennessee, Illinois, and Pennsylvania have made great strides toward CASEL’s goal “for all students in preschool through high school to receive high-quality social and emotional learning.” If these states can do it, all states can do it.

2. Practice Brave Parenting

Krissy Pozatek, wilderness therapist, parent coach, and author, writes in her most recent book, Brave Parenting, about how to raise emotionally resilient children. Drawing from her extensive experience in wilderness therapy and inspired by Buddhism, Pozatek provides a step-by-step guide to teaching children how to “make and mend their own moccasins.” She uses the moccasin metaphor to describe internal resources such as delayed gratification, problem solving, adaptability, emotional regulation, distress tolerance, internal motivation, self-discipline, and acceptance of impermanence.

A key aspect of practicing brave parenting is allowing your children to feel uncomfortable—and letting them know that it’s okay not to be happy all the time. Pozatek writes, “We need to step away from the notion of constant happiness and move toward a concept of emotional health. Instead of focusing all of our attention and research on happiness, we need to learn how to just be with sadness, disappointment, worry, anger, embarrassment, struggle, failure, until these feelings subside.”

As a parent, I know this is easier said than done. My instinct is to fix the problem—make the pain stop—as soon as possible. However, when we jump immediately to fixing mode, we actually invalidate our child’s feelings and rob her of an opportunity to make her moccasins.

As Pozatek says, our message to our children should be “‘You’ve got this,’ rather than ‘I’ll fix it.’”

3. Value Kids for Who They Are—Not What They Do

“Great job!” “Way to go!” How many times have we said this to a child, whether or own or others’? It’s part of our culture. We cheer on our football players and applaud loudly after the school musical. And why not? We want to show our appreciation for our kids’ talents and fearless performances.

I never thought of this as an issue until I did the research for my book on how to raise resilient kids. Turns out praising your child for what he does rather than who he is, is not helpful to building your child’s self-esteem. And good, consistent self-esteem is one of the best predictors of future mental and emotional well-being.

Psychologist Shefali Tsabary writes in The Conscious Parent, “Whether you have an infant or a teen, your children need to feel that just because they exist, they delight you. They need to know they don’t have to do anything to earn your undivided attention. They deserve to feel as if just by being born, they have earned the right to be adored.”

This strategy applies to teaching as well. Progressive parenting and education guru Alfie Kohn calls this “unconditional teaching.” He wrote an article on the topic, in which he outlines a number of ways teachers can provide unconditional acceptance, including acting like real human beings around their students, not playing favorites, and remembering details about children’s lives.

Imagine if every child received this message from at least one adult in their lives: “I am irrationally crazy about you, because you exist.” It would be a different world.

* * *

Yes, we need to provide more support for today’s college students and raise awareness that mental and emotional distress is not something one should suffer alone. However, we can’t let the imminent need for intervention (at all levels of the educational system) distract us from also working to optimize kids’ mental health—at home, at school, and through social change.

It is our responsibility as a society to prepare our kids for life. It will require a new way of parenting and teaching and being with our children, but the benefits far outweigh the inconvenience of changing our ways. Lives are at stake here. Let’s make this a priority.

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Tabita Green
Tabita Green is an author, speaker, blogger, and community organizer. In 2011, she left her six-digit corporate job to focus on family, health, and community building. After three years of research into mental health and resilience for her book, 'Her Lost Year,' she believes humanity’s future health and happiness depends on the creation of resilient, sustainable communities. Her blog at tabitagreen.com inspires readers to take action for personal wellness, social justice, and a sustainable future. Tabita lives in Decorah, Iowa, with husband Todd, daughter Rebecka, and (spoiled) dog Sophie. In her spare time, she likes to run around in the woods and teach Swedish (but not at the same time).

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15 COMMENTS

  1. I do agree, our society has seemingly lost the ability to properly raise children, which is a problem for our entire society, and it’s future. And it’s a shame, IMO, that the psychiatric industry believes being a stay at home parent and active volunteer equates to being “unemployed.”

    But, I also agree, “A key aspect of practicing brave parenting is allowing your children to feel uncomfortable—and letting them know that it’s okay not to be happy all the time.” As all siblings do, my children would argue at times. My son would always get angry with me for not intervening. I explained to him that learning to work out difficulties he had with his sister was an important life lesson, it was a way of teaching him to get along with others in a diplomatic manner, by doing. My son eventually won gold awards at his Model UN competitions.

    I also agree, “praising your child for what he does rather than who he is, is not helpful to building your child’s self-esteem. And good, consistent self-esteem is one of the best predictors of future mental and emotional well-being.” I remember getting to the point of annoyance that my children were getting soccer trophies at the end of every season, even though they had a losing team. I thought this ridiculous. I will admit, however, when my daughter’s team did end up being number one, I was the one who took charge of purchasing the trophies.

    But I totally agree, unconditional love is the answer, not rewarding successes. Giving unconditional love is not an easy way to teach self-esteem, however. Because it does result in a lot of “I hate mom” testing, due to especially a teenager’s desire to test this theory that mom will love me no matter what. But it does work as a way to teach self esteem and personal responsibility. My son graduated as valedictorian of his high school class, and I’m hoping my daughter may graduate as at least salutatorian next year.

    Who knows, but properly raising children is not best done by the state, and it’s psychiatrists’ theories. It’s best done by loving parents. Big brother is seemingly currently in control, but big sister (the hard working and loving stay at home moms) are not impressed.

  2. “Imagine if every child received this message from at least one adult in their lives: ‘I am irrationally crazy about you, because you exist.’ It would be a different world.”

    Yes, it would. The world would be filled with full and loving hearts, which would be a world of peace, joy, harmony, and unlimited creativity. I think if people were to turn inward and take the time and self-responsibility to examine their hearts, we could at least begin that journey, at any time.

    • I say this because NAMI fraudulently reduces everything to a broken brain problem with drugs as the solution for their pharmacuitical paymasters.

      Well if it was a solution then why after all these years of massively drugging kids do we have this problem at all ??

    • My thought exactly! The number of kids on antidepressants in college is something like 25%, and even more are taking stimulants, licitly or illicitly. I wonder two things: first, are we seeing the long-term impacts of messing with serotonin emerging, as a whole generation becomes more anxious due to counterproductive medical intervention in their brains? And second, as we increasingly substitute pseudo-medical interventions for genuine human-to-human problem solving, is this generation arriving at college with diminished skills because they’ve never been taught to cope with adversity?

      I suppose my third question would be: what is the impact of gr0wing up in a world where even going to college does not give you a reliable key to economic success in a world that seems increasingly unforgiving of any deviation from a narrowing “norm” of behavior?

      —- steve

  3. I find this information to be lacking as it overlooks some of the very key issues that lead up to this.

    We have a society that evades discussion of critical social issues of the time.Each child is expected to be college bound whether there abilities (trades -vs- college, financial ablities, desires, etc) make it a possibility or not. Public education places the same value and the same mark of accomplishment on all students and that is grossly unfair.

    Then there is the medication of everything from acne to depression to “Autism” and back again. Medicating and calling something and “illness” (medical model) can do nothing but injure self-esteem and give individuals the idea that they are broken (shame) not the system they function in. It also puts the responsibility for self elsewhere (medication, DSM label, shrink, special ed, etc) for success. This is a disservice and many kids are exploited by the school system for the extra funding that “special education” brings in. Kids are demoted to revenue generators and not human beings. I also find, through personal experience, that one trapped here kids seldom if ever are able to escape the circus that comes with the special ed “program”. Be very careful about “diagnosing” children.
    Then, there are high stakes testing, the constant threats of violence, cops in schools, “lock down”, zero tolerance policies, bullying by students and staff (though staff is usually more subtle), parents who are too tired to be involved, all forms of financial insecurity for families and schools, parents who are unwilling/unable to raise children, (drugs, homelessness, hunger, inability to afford clothing, etc)… and a system that is unable to acknowledge the struggles much less do anything to have a positive impact. Then there is the small issue of the debt that college creates…
    Seems to me a ton of kids are responding in a very logical way to a very ill society. The fact that were sending poorly prepared kids to an adult world with no way to respond says a lot about how the current adults are handling things. Though parents have a large impact on their kids, so so many other things.

  4. Thank you, Tabita, for great article. This new generation has a lot of challenges as each generation does. Let’s help them by listening and teaching them what we can but giving them wings to learn for themselves as well. As a child and family therapist I see an array of issues from the overindulged child to the neglected, abuse child. I am tough on parents being the “CEOs” of their families, being strong moral examples. I hold them accountable just as I would the head of a company. I sometimes see parents shirking their responsibilities and wanting schools, therapists, and society to do their job for them. This is not acceptable. I take a lot of heat from parents who do not like what I have to say, often it is get yourself help, stop blaming your children and take responsibility for creating a family that is healthy. Divorce, marital discord, financial pressures, addiction, declining adherence to traditional values and religion, and having had unhealthy childhoods I see as the main culprits. Being a parent is a privilege, a gift, a vocation and requires training and education and investment of time and resources. It should not be entered into lightly.