“They (college students) see every difficulty as a disaster, not a challenge. They’ve been made fragile by being overprotected, and this fragility is really harming them. It makes everything seem overwhelming.” Hara Estroff Marano, Psychology Today.
Intriguing quote, isn’t it?
I eagerly read the article in which this teaser is directing the reader. Found in the September/October 2015 Psychology Today issue, the article “Crisis U” , brought home interesting and somewhat disturbing observances regarding current college students and their general mental health status. In the article, Marano states that over half of “college students report feeling overwhelming anxiety.” Half. This is significant and demands our attention.
Because Marano addresses psychological issues current college students are facing, the parents that really need to understand and absorb this information are parents of students not in college – yet – to help break this trend of increasing anxiety.
The informative and well-researched article stressed me out. To alleviate my anxiety in a healthy manner, I thought I would share my thoughts.
As parents, we have every right to be in our child’s corner. In fact, we should! We can be terrific listeners, we can support their decisions, we can advise, we can encourage, we can suggest, and we can even offer to take them away for a fun weekend when they are feeling stressed. But what we should not do is coddle, baby, helicopter, and fill them with the idea that yes, they are the best and yes, they deserve the best. Okay, okay. We DO want the best for our children. It has been engrained in our brains to offer positive reinforcement to our children over every little accomplishment. (You ate all your green beans!? Awesome!) It seems, however, there is a balance when it comes to praising our spectacular kids.
What is best for our children is what they learn to give themselves:
How we teach our kids to react to life situations as they grow and learn helps direct their energy and skills to cope with everyday stressors. Now, I am not talking about horrific, violent situations – that is beyond my scope. I am talking about the day-to-day issues of relationships, difficult classes, competition, job-hunting, and rejection. Stuff we all deal with. As Marano explores in her article, individuals can take these formidable situations and view them as debilitating stressors that knock them off their feet, or they can view the bumps-in-the-road as challenges that will enable them to grow as humans.
How can we help our children have the intrinsic fortitude to tackle the inevitable life stressors?
There are small steps parents can take to assist in the evolution of a self-reliant adult.
- At a school health conference I recently attended, teachers were encouraged to refrain from the comment “You are so smart!” when students do well. Rather, we were taught to focus on student’s character and self-efficacy. For example, “I can tell you worked really hard on this” displaces the focus from being ‘smart’, which labels a child, to work ethic and time invested in studying, which positively acknowledges their efforts. Parents you can do this, too. It takes a lot of practice to change our automatic response of over-the-top praise toward our child. After all, they really are so smart – just like us!
- Do not do your child’s homework or other projects. Yes, they are dragging their feet. Yes, it would be soooo much easier if you shared the workload. But the child does not learn the consequence of turning work in late. They do not experience a sense of accomplishment that comes after each assignment. They learn to depend on others to do their work for them. They begin to feel they do not have the ability to succeed on their own. Besides, the teachers can often tell. You do not want to be that parent.
- Allow your child to fail. This is a really hard one, I know. We want to cover for our children because we know they can do better, or someone else is to blame, or they had a bad day, or insert any number of excuses. But failure may inspire success the next time around as they learn from their mistakes, just as we did.
- Model healthy stress-release activities such as running, reading, movies, socializing, and good old “talking it out” with a trusted person.
- Help your child maintain focus on the “big picture”. One failure, one break-up, one rejection does not mean their life is over, it merely means there is another class that needs to be taken, another person waiting to be loved, another job to be had – and often even better than before.
- It is okay to express disappointment, hurt, rejection. We are human. But after a little time, encourage your child get back to living. It is a great big beautiful world out there ready to entertain with new experiences and, well, more disappointment, too.
- Refrain from continually voicing lofty expectations of your child. Ivy League school, pro ball player, medical school, valedictorian, collegiate superstar…whatever your fantasy is for your child, tone it down. Can you imagine how it must feel to have that kind of pressure on a kid? Yes, it is important to support and encourage them in their chosen areas of talent – it is so much fun! However, your job is to help them realize that no matter where they go to school, how they place in an event, or if they get benched from a team, you embrace them for just being…them.
- When your child is faced with particular stressors, share with them your own experiences. If you survived, they will, too.
- Tell them you love them for who they are, warts and all, as we used to say.
- Take it easy on yourself. There is no such thing as being a perfect parent any more than being a perfect child. We do our best with what we know.
By now you are wondering why I am even bothering to discuss stress when it has nothing to do with sex. But alas, if you read Marano’s article, you will understand how increased stress can lead to an increased need for stress release. A need for increased stress release can lead to increased alcohol use/abuse. Excessive alcohol and drug use is a major factor in engaging in unsafe and unwanted sexual activity. The after effects of unwanted sexual activity is a huge issue on college campuses these days. And then of course, there is the STI issue. But I digress.
Had I been aware of the detriments of over-praising children, I could have adapted my parenting skills. However in sending my girls far away to college and encouraging them to study abroad, the opportunity to hover like a helicopter was severed. Not that I would have if they were closer – I was pretty much ready to launch them, if you know what I mean. But, it was a great experience for all to send them on their way with a wave and a tear in the eye, and the knowledge that I did the best I could with what I knew then. In fact, I believe my parting words for all three daughters were:
“You are now 18 and on your own. Your mistakes are your mistakes – I will not be there to fix them, however I will always be here to love and support you. Your successes are your successes to enjoy and be proud of. Not mine. You got this. Now go conquer your world.” Of course, I do take pride in their success. And I do give myself a little credit. After all, I did give them life.
It is the role of the parent, not the college, to teach their children how to bounce.
College is a time to stop holding their hand for everything little detail. It is wonderful when they call to share stories and ask for advice. I love giving advice (hence my blog), but college is time to increase self-reliance. The years you invest in building their capability to resolve life’s issues without feeling like every unfortunate event is a disaster will pay off. I get it – they are young adults who make decisions that cause you to roll your eyes, but they are getting there. We just need to get to get them to adulthood safely and with the appropriate life skills to allow them to be healthy and well-adjusted (well, semi-well-adjusted at least) adults. Just like your parents did for you.
Life is full of forks in the road. The adventure is exploring the paths ahead without fearing the unknown.