Fostering Resilience in teens

The social isolation we experienced during 2020 and 2021 was hard for everyone. We missed extended family gatherings when we stayed at home with our immediate family members. We did not host or attend parties with our friends. We took to Zoom to ‘visit’ with people who didn’t live with us.  It was isolating and often lonely.

Social isolation is the opposite of what typically happens in adolescence.

Social growth is a major component of the teen years. Teenagers naturally choose to spend more time with peers and adults outside their family as they start to figure out how they fit into the larger community beyond their family. 

Learning who they are and how they want to fit in is an important part of adolescence growth.

Covid protocols stymied this natural growth and development for many adolescents.

Newport Healthcare, a national network of programs for young adults and teens, observed, “Over the last year and a half, the pandemic has exponentially increased the time this age group spends online while limiting their in-person social interaction. The resulting loneliness is exacerbating or catalyzing depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts—which in turn leads to more loneliness. That’s because the symptoms of depression and anxiety, such as low self-esteem and low energy, often prevent young people from reaching out to others and engaging in social activities.”

How do we help socially isolated teens? 

But there are ways to help teens overcome the loneliness. 

Newport Healthcare offers these evidence-based ways to reduce loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood, and thus lower the risk of mental health issues. 

  1. Limit social media use. The Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reports that cutting down on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat use leads to significant reductions in loneliness and depression, in as few as three weeks.
  2. Spend time volunteering. Research shows that doing things for others offers mental and physical health benefits and helps people feel less isolated and alone.
  3. Cultivate authentic connections. Frequent, meaningful in-person interactions are proven to reduce loneliness. Real-life friendships may need a bit more tending to than virtual ones, but the emotional payoff is worth it. 
  4. Adopt a pet. Multiple studies, including one done during the pandemic, show that interaction with household pets reduces isolation and increases feelings of connection.
  5. Exercise. A review study found that physical activity in social settings—like sports or a hiking club—helps people feel more connected and enhances well-being.
  6. Get enough sleep. A 2018 study in the journal Nature found that sleep loss is significantly associated with social withdrawal and loneliness. People with lower sleep quality were less likely to engage with others and more likely to feel lonely.
  7. Visit a therapist. Working with a mental health professional can help teens and young adults pinpoint causes of loneliness, such as social anxiety or lack of self-esteem, and learn strategies for overcoming isolation.

Here in the Willamette Valley, the topic of social isolation and building resilience in youth will be the focus of this year’s Partners in Health Summit. The health summit is free and open to the public. 

Join us on August 19th from 9am – 3pm.  Keynote speaker Dr. Carolyn Aldwin will present “Building Resilience, Well Being and Mental Health”. Additional workshops will focus on youth wellness and resilience and the health impacts of loneliness and social isolation. Click here for details.

Gardening with Kids

The weather is finally (!) starting to warm up, which means it’s finally time to start your summer garden here in the Pacific Northwest. While cool weather vegetables, like snap peas, lettuce, kale, and chard can be started as early as mid-March, now we can start  warm weather vegetables like peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, corn, and squash.

The peas that we planted in early April have been languishing through all this cold wet weather, but they are still hanging on. Last week we spread some lettuce seeds, and they’ve sprouted this week. It’s made me excited about the summer garden.

Gardening is a delightful activity to share with kids, young and old alike. There are so many benefits to having a family backyard garden. It gets you out in the fresh air and sunshine and is an activity that can include all ages.

Here are a few tips to make it fun for everyone.

Begin with soil prep

Helping prepare the soil for planting means dirt and shovels and digging! What fun! If you work in raised beds, little ones will have an easier time knowing where their feet can go (outside the garden bed) and where their shovels go (inside!). It’s better not to walk  on the prepared soil, as that makes it harder for seeds to sprout. Seeds like the soil slightly tamped down, but not compacted. If you’re working in a garden with rows and paths, using straw to mark the paths for walking can be helpful for kids.

Start with quick to germinate crops

Choose seeds that are quick to sprout to maintain interest in the process. Green beans are one of the quickest to sprout and easy to care for. If you choose a bush variety there is no need to build a lattice to support vines.  But if a trellis is needed, you can easily make one with garden stakes and some twine. Tie the top ends of four stakes together using twine. Position the bottom ends about three feet apart, pushing them down into the prepared soil, then wrap the twine in a spiral on the outside of the stakes to form a trellis for the growing plants. Plant the seeds between the stakes, so plants grow up the twine to the top.

Create a garden log

Invite older kids to keep track of the garden’s progress with a daily log. They can record what was planted and when. You can also track daily temperatures, rainfall, and sunshine. Note when each crop sprouts. They can even measure growth rates and record flowering and harvest dates, for a full picture of how long it takes for a vegetable to go from seed to the table. Next year, your garden log will help you know when to start seeds and when to expect produce as the garden grows.

Don’t forget the flowers

I have one kiddo who loves to plant flower seeds and watch them grow and bloom. Marigolds are great at helping keep pests away from vegetable plants, so we often have marigolds at the end of each row, or around the edges of a raised bed.

Kids who participate in growing vegetables in a garden are often more willing to try new foods and eat what they have grown. 

Fresh vegetables, better eaters, and better nutrition – all brought to you by your backyard garden.

Cooking with kids

In the Montessori preschool classroom, an entire section of the curriculum is devoted to “Practical Life”. Practical Life activities embrace care of oneself and care for the environment. It includes things like learning to lace and tie shoes, close a door quietly, clean a table, sweep the floor, and sew a button. Preparing food for snack is also part of the practical life curriculum in the classroom. 

Even the youngest toddler enjoys activities involving food preparation. Toddlers can peel and slice bananas, stir together the ingredients for biscuits, and knead and shape them (think edible playdough!). They can help peel and separate oranges and hull strawberries.

Including children in meal prep is a wonderful way to combine time together with practical learning and skill development. Here’s how to make the experience fun for everyone.

Slow Down and Let Go

Remember that every child is still developing fine motor skills. Let go of any expectations that every step of the process will be executed quickly or neatly. Expect a little more mess and adjust the time needed for prep. Allow your child to go at their own pace, which may be much slower than doing it yourself. Give yourselves time to stop and clean up as you go along. 

Remind yourself that practice is the path to improvement. Let them try. Each time they will get better and faster, but in the beginning, we need to allow for the mishaps of early experience with a task. Not all the flour will end up in the bowl. Some of the eggshells will end up in the bowl. Carrots won’t be as neatly peeled as you might have done. Diced may look more like chopped. The imperfections won’t matter to the finished dish and there is value in providing the opportunity to learn a new skill or practice a familiar one

Prepare the workspace

Before you begin working together, get organized. If you are cooking with 2-4 year olds, you may choose to measure out the ingredients ahead of time. On the other hand, letting them help gather supplies and ingredients is good practice in following directions, provided items are stored on low shelves that are accessible to small people.

Lay out a large plastic cutting board to work on, so that it can be lifted and carried to the sink for cleaning. Have appropriate utensils at hand. Soft foods, like bananas and strawberries, can be safely cut by young children with specially designed knives that are not sharp. Smaller spoons and whisks can also help smaller children be more successful.

Don’t Show and Tell

Talking as you are demonstrating requires the child to simultaneously process both what they are seeing and what they are hearing. Instead, when helping your child do a new task, take a tip from the Montessori classroom and separate the telling from the showing. Begin by saying what you are going to show them, without any movement. 

Then show them slowly and carefully how to do it, without speaking. This allows them to focus on watching what you are doing and eliminates the need to also process what they are hearing. This video from Viola Montessori is a great example of what this looks like.

Cooking together provides children with practical skills they will use for a lifetime. By the time they are tweens, they will have the experience to prepare meals for themselves and their family. 

Enjoy your time together in the kitchen! Leave a comment and let us know how it goes.

How to answer when you don’t know

Our children look up to us as if we are experts in all things. We know so much that they are just learning. We are all grown up and they are still growing. Most of the time, we have the answers to their questions.

But there are times when we don’t. Hard things happen in the world and we struggle with our own feelings and understanding of the situation. We may feel like we are falling down on the job when our kids ask a question we can’t answer. But rest assured, you don’t have to have all the answers.

It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Or “Let’s see if we can find out together.”

Says Lindsay Braman, in a recent Instagram post, “Big questions from young kids are hard. The balance between dismissing or overwhelming with too-grown-up answers is hard to navigate. Here’s a north star to follow: most kids aren’t looking for facts and forecasting, they are looking for safety. We can soothe kids AND help build resilience to future adversity when our responses to these questions highlight strength, identity, and relationships [and help them] know that they are in a family that will keep them safe and support them even through really hard things.”

Here are a few tips for helping kids feel safe and supported when you don’t know how to answer their questions.

Give Yourself Time to Think

Sometimes, a child’s big questions catch us off guard. Maybe we are enjoying the flowers along the path during a walk, when suddenly the child feels safe enough to ask a big question. Give yourself time to attune to the subject by using an active listening technique. Rephrase the question and confirm your understanding of what was asked.

It’s possible that what you heard is not what they are really curious about. Taking the time to say, “It sounds like you…” and waiting for their answer buys you some time and lets them clarify exactly what they are curious about. 

Use the 4 Ws

Ask them one or more of the ‘who, what, where ,when and why’ questions. What made you think of that? Where did you hear about this? Who were you talking with about this? When did this come up? (Or How long have you been thinking about this?) Why are you wondering right now? Their answers to these questions will give you insight into what is prompting their concern, and help you respond in a way that addresses the underlying concerns even if you don’t have an answer to the question they asked.

Know that it’s OK to not know

If you don’t have an answer, be honest. It’s ok to say, “I don’t know.” Often, our body language and tone of voice are more important than the words we say. Even without an answer, we can be reassuring. 

Have they asked a factual question? If it’s something you can learn together, let them know you can find the answer together.  If it’s a question that involves family values or relationships and you don’t have an immediate answer, reassure them that the topic is something you will revisit when you’ve had some time to think about it.  (And be sure to revisit it, so they know their concerns have been heard and valued.)

Despite our kids’ impression that we know everything, we are all imperfect human beings doing the best we can from one day to the next. When we don’t have the answers to their questions, honesty and reassurance that we will keep them safe and supported will go a long way to addressing their concerns.

The Spectrum of Autism, It’s Wider than Meets the Eye

In the past decade or so we have heard more and more about Autism Spectrum Disorder. It seems that as soon as researchers discover answers, additional questions about the disorder arise (this is part of the story behind the symbol for autism society – a set of multi-colored puzzle pieces). Additionally, the public has become more aware of the characteristics of autism and finds that more people in our lives are diagnosed as autistic – both children and adults.

While I was working with autistic students in public schools several years ago, I had the honor of attending an autism inclusion conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The keynote speaker was Temple Grandin, an author and speaker that has become well-known for her inspirational and informative talks about autism from her own autistic perspective. Through her own experiences, she has allowed us to better understand autism from the point of view of someone who experiences life through the autistic lens on a daily basis.

The amazing Temple Grandin has just co-authored another book with Richard Panek that takes her understanding of autism to the next level. In the book “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum,” written with Richard Panek (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) the authors explain that, “we all share characteristics with those diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s: Grandin and Panek quote a 2011 article in “Nature,” which says, “Certain autistic traits–social difficulties, narrow interests, problems with communication–form a continuum across the general population with autism at one extreme.'” and Grandin concludes, “In other words, you don’t have to have an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis to be ‘on the spectrum.'”

Grandin and Panek’s conclusions about autism and its range is a new way of understanding autism and provides a new framework for understanding the disorder as a spectrum on which many more of us may find ourselves (or at least characteristics that we see in ourselves).

Through real-life examples and a bit of humor, Grandin and Panek go on to offer a variety of parenting techniques as well as practical examples of “the world through the eyes of someone on the autism spectrum” that will help all of us effectively interact with and understand the spectrum of humans that we interact with regardless of where we are on the spectrum.

If you are interested in reading more about their book, “The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum” check out the article “Understanding Special Needs Like Autism Spectrum” brought to you by Parentingpress.com.