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.

5 Ways to Prepare Your Teen for Adulting

High school graduation, check. College decisions, check. Job applications, check. You’ve guided and supported your teen toward the next phase of their life. Or perhaps your teen has a few more years before graduation. But before you know it they’ll be fully grown, and there’s more to adulthood than the academic knowledge they receive in high school. 

This summer is the perfect opportunity to catch your teen up on any life management skills they’re missing. Here are five ways to help your teen get ready for the big day when they head out on their own – whether they are off to college, or simply onto their own apartment.

Ask your teen to cook a family meal.

Soon-to-be-freshmen might be eating most of their meals next year in a college cafeteria, but they should still know how to cook a real meal before they leave home. Being able to cook something more than ramen will give your young adult a boost on healthy diet habits. Cooking dinner for the whole family will give them some practice at putting together an entire meal instead of just one dish. Bonus? You’ll get a night off. (Added bonus tip: If you’ve got a teen that needs to earn some spending money, hiring them to regularly cook dinner for the family is a win/win for you both.)

Let them do laundry. 

If your teen isn’t already washing their own laundry, it’s definitely time. With a brief lesson on how to sort and what temperature to use, they’ll be able to avoid being that freshman whose white t-shirts are all pink from being washed with colors. Your child may not want to fold their socks as neatly as you do (or at all), but giving them responsibility for their own clothes early in their teen-hood prepares them for a lifetime of caring for their own clothes. 

Give them bills to pay.

Chances are you’ll be helping your teen – even your new graduate – with their living expenses for a few more years, but that doesn’t mean they can’t start paying some of their bills and managing their budget before they leave home. If your teen isn’t already paying for some of their own expenses like cell phone, gas, or clothes, this summer is a great time to start. Obviously, in order to pay their own bills, they’ll need some income, so if they won’t have a job this summer, consider giving them an allowance or pay for help with chores so they have a budget to work with. 

Let them clean the bathroom.  

The stereotype of the dirty college dorm room bathroom may have more to do with students not making time to clean than not knowing how, but if you’re not confident that your teen can clean their bathroom, this summer is a good time to make sure. This goes for other household cleaning as well. It’s never too early to include teens in helping keep the house tidy.

Help your teen plan for emergencies

As a parent, this one could be hard to think about. But if your teen will be living away from home next year, they might need to handle an emergency on their own. Do they know what to do if they’re in a car accident? What about if their apartment pipes freeze? Talk through emergency scenarios with them and make sure they have a plan for the major situations life might throw their way. 

If some of these tasks are new for your graduate, they’ll probably give you some pushback – after all, it’s summer and time to kick back after the rush to wrap up the school year. But knowing how to take care of household tasks before they leave your house will be worth it for them in the long run.

Giving Teens Responsibility

In our last post we looked at the benefits of including our young children in the household chores and talked about how children are happier and develop greater self-esteem when they make a meaningful contribution to the family. This week, we look at what happens when kids enter their teen years. It’s an opportunity to meet their need for independence with expanded responsibilities beyond their contributions to household chores.

As our children become teenagers a big part of their attention shifts to their relationships with their friends and figuring out their place in the wider world. 

But they are still a big part of the family and continue to need parental guidance and support. Their bodies have changed and they may have reached their full adult size, but their brains aren’t finished developing.  They still need us, even while insisting they don’t.

This combination of an adult-sized body, the importance of relationships outside the family, and all of the time and attention needed to figure out what their adult life will look like can make for challenging times.

One way to ease the strain is to support their growing need for independence by expanding their responsibilities. They can still be expected to contribute to household chores, but we can help them grow toward adulthood by giving them some added adult responsibilities and more opportunities to make their own decisions. 

Growing toward Adulthood

Expanded responsibilities can mean that young teens take on more of the meal planning and grocery shopping. A few summers back, when we had three tweens/teens at home, we implemented a dinner rotation for meal prep. Each person in the family was assigned one night a week where they were responsible for preparing dinner for the family. Each Saturday we would get together to plan the meals for the week. Each teen decided what they wanted to cook. The ingredients they needed for their meal got added to the grocery list. I did the shopping since none of them were driving yet, but if you have a teen who is driving, they can take on this responsibility too.

Post A Chore List

Another way to support this time of transition in your teen’s life is to take a step back from reminding them about their chore responsibilities. When you’ve reached agreement about what they will be responsible for, post the list of who is doing what where it will be seen often. The front of the refrigerator is always a great location for capturing a teen’s attention. 

You can also offer a monetary incentive for taking care of their assigned chores in a timely fashion or offer to pay for help that is above and beyond their assigned contributions. For example, making their bed and keeping their room clean might be a part of contributing as a family member, while doing yard work or watching younger siblings are responsibilities that you will pay them for.

Amy Morin, at verywellfamily.com, suggests you let your expectations be known, clear, and reasonable. Assign chores ahead of time, be flexible about when they get done and establish clear consequences so they know what will happen if they don’t do their chores. Now is the time to step back a little and let them take responsibility for time management and meeting expectations without reminders.

Help Them Set Up A Budget

If you reward them with money or they have an allowance, help them set up a budget. Have them write down what they want and need regularly so they can keep up with it. Older teens who have part-time jobs after school can assume more responsibility for paying for their own things, such as their phone bill or social activities. 

Show them how to track their money and keep a ledger. Some banks even offer budgeting tools in their online apps. 

If you haven’t helped them open a bank account yet, now is the time to do it. Helping them establish good money management skills while they are still at home will set them on the path to success as independent adults. 

Expanding Responsibilities for Older Kids

Here are just a few ways you can support your tweens and teens growing desire for independence:

10-13 Years: Pre-teens can help with everything smaller kids can help with in addition to sweeping and mopping the floors, helping out with yard work, cleaning out the car, and helping to make meals.

13-16 Years:  Young teenagers can take responsibility for all their personal hygiene and laundry, can help with or make meals, and create meal plans and grocery lists. They can be responsible for yard work on their own and can watch younger siblings.

16-18 Years: Our older teenagers who have a job can be responsible for their own money and budget. While their chores at home might not change much, they are now in a position to begin paying for some of their own things – the cell phone, clothes, and the costs associated with activities they do with their friends. 

With love and guidance, helping our teens take on more responsibilities as they reach high school graduation prepares them for a lifetime as independent and responsible adults. 

 

Lynne Brown is a freelance writer, former Montessori teacher, and mom to seven amazing kids, some of whom now have kids of their own. She loves writing on parenting and early childhood education. You can learn more about her at www.lynnebrownwriting.com.

Summer is a Great Time to Delegate

Do you have a teenager or two who find themselves at loose ends without the routine of the school day? Last summer, I found myself in just such a situation. The change in routine is a welcomed one, but for some children, the lack of structure can cause anxiety. 

I had two problems as summer break started last year. First, I really wanted to see my kids help more around the house. And secondly (and maybe more importantly), I wanted them to get away from the screens.

But then I had an idea that turned out to be the perfect solution for our family.  

I’ve never been good a sustaining the expectation that kids will do chores. They help, but in random and infrequent ways. But early last summer, I hit upon a sustainable and simplified version of a ‘chore chart’ which focused only on dinner. It invited the entire family to take responsibility for getting dinner onto — and off — the table each evening.

This simple chart gave everyone specific responsibilities every day.  And a routine for the lazy, unscheduled days of summer.

To create our family “dinner delegation” chart, I began by making a list of the four main elements of dinner prep and cleanup. I intentionally selected just four jobs since there are five of us in our household. This let me rotate everyone through the tasks every week and also gave one person ‘the night off’ each day.

Our four jobs were: Set the Table, Cook Dinner, Clear the Table, and Do the Dishes.  The number of jobs can be expanded or contracted to fit the number of people in the family.  For example, “Put Away Leftovers” could be added after “Clear the Table” if an additional job is needed. For us, one person did all the dishes, but “Load the Dishwasher” could be separate from the hand washed dishes in “Do the Dishes.” And there’s nothing saying people can’t be assigned more than one job each day. The chart can easily be modified to fit your particular family configuration. With our family of five, these four worked for us.

On our chart, the first column contains the jobs that need to be done. Then come the days of the week. I listed just Monday through Saturday, giving everyone Sunday ‘off’.  Some Sundays we ate out, on others dinner was ‘Do it Yourself’, but mostly I just did it all on Sunday, with help from whoever was inclined to assist.

After rows and columns were done, I added names, starting with job one on Monday and ending with job four on Saturday.  

I posted the chart on a kitchen cabinet, where everyone could see what their assignment was each day. Assigned responsibility was a radical departure from the way we’ve always done it at our house – where I cooked dinner and hollered for someone to set the table when it was time to eat.  The change was awesome.

Because it was written down and posted, everyone knew what to expect. So there was no grumbling about doing the assigned job. The kids thoroughly enjoyed choosing the meal they would prepare and then fixing it for the family. (Full transparency: I helped with the cooking most nights in the beginning, as this was our youngest’s first real experience with using an oven and stove.)

One of my children is an overachiever. When it was her turn to set the table, it was often done mid-afternoon!

But things didn’t always go smoothly.  There were days when someone was not home for dinner. These days, there would be much negotiating, with deals made to swap jobs or find coverage. This gave the kids an opportunity to practice their negotiation and compromise skills. Another benefit!

Does delegation sound like something that might work at your house? Here are some tips if you decide to embark on this adventure:

  1. You’ve got to be ok with giving up control of the menu planning. Choosing what to fix gives the kids practice at planning and follow-through, and builds confidence and enthusiasm. Cooking what someone else has chosen does not create the same excitement and is likely to be met with grumbling.
  2. You know your children best – give them support where they need it, help them learn and gain skills in the kitchen through effort and practice, then back off when they are able to do it independently. Delegating doesn’t completely eliminate the need to be in the kitchen during dinner preparation. I found I was able to work my way out of the kitchen as the summer progressed, but at the beginning, I needed to be available to support and coach.
  3. Grocery shopping is another opportunity to engage children in the mechanics of preparing meals. We would assemble the week’s menus together on Saturday morning, so I could grocery shop for the week. Bringing them to the grocery store to participate in the gathering of ingredients is another job that could be partially delegated.

What do you think? Is there space for such a system in your family’s routine this summer? Last year, our new summer dinner strategy worked so well that we are excited to implement it again this summer. In fact, I’m thinking it may become standard operating procedure throughout the year!

 

Summer Free Lunch

This week I want to tell you about something that I love.

It is Oregon’s Summer Meals program, and in this time of uncertainty and crisis, I believe it’s one of the few things around that’s just purely good.

It might seem like I’m hyperbolizing (or, more likely, just inventing an excuse to use that word in a sentence), but I tell you it’s true. Why, take a gander if you will at the organization’s handsome and generous website, which provides an overview of the service and a tidy history as well as a sweet site locator to find meals around the state.

What do they do? Well, since it was created thanks to an act of Congress (remember those?) exactly 50 years ago, the USDA-funded program simply gives out free meals to children aged 1-18. Some sites also sell meals to adults, and some offer activities and educational opportunities before or after. That’s it.

Why is that magic? The awesomeness is in the details: how many public programs can you think of that don’t ask you to register your kids, meet eligibility requirements, sign up for further something-or-other, or commit to anything? Really! You just show up and they feed your kids. The end. No follow-up, no stigma around needing the assistance. I think that’s mighty special.

My kids, who eat a lot and are sometimes in need of assistance, have enjoyed free meals in parks and libraries around Linn and Benton Counties. They’re not picky or anything, but they have pronounced the offerings both varied and pleasing. I believe them.

If you have kids, a finite amount of financial resources, and/or it’s just too cockadoodle hot to make lunch, I suggest you check out the Summer Meals sitch.

So, what are you waiting for?

Except for maybe morning?

 

Disparate Youth

An interesting issue came up in our Nurturing Fathers class recently: is there a right time to introduce a concept to your child when they might not otherwise know about it? Some examples: terrorism, drugs, political protest, gender ambiguity, racism.

Granted, this is a disparate list of topics, and the answer is going to be different for each situation (and for each family). But in each case, the parent did not know what, or how much, the child knew or from whom they might have learned it.

I described the scenario a few weeks ago in which I took my daughter, 12, to the doctor and she got tangled up in a list of questions about substance use. She didn’t know what they were about but knew enough about how drugs could be harmful that she was upset by the questions. I felt like I should have prepared the ground for her, given her more of a context for what she was being asked to think about (she doesn’t go to public school, by the by). But what should I have told her? And how much? And when?

So many questions! What’s the best way to approach a difficult topic with your kids?

The first step, because it can determine what course to follow, is to turn it around:

Ask your kids what they know about it. What do they think? How does it make them feel? What’s important here is not to identify the source or cast blame, but to find out what your child has to work with. Listen non-judgmentally, for content and for emotion. You might be surprised at what you learn!

Now, remember not to render value judgments on what they have told you, even if it is inaccurate or offensive. You don’t what them to shut down and quit sharing. Instead, offer to help them to find out the truth behind the subject: look it up together on the internet or at the library. While you do this you can teach them how to discern good sources of information from bad (we know how to do that, right?).

What if your conversation is not pure research, but touches you or your family directly? How do you give difficult information? I came across a helpful post on this very thing.

By approaching the problem in this way, you get to teach your child that it’s possible to learn and process challenging or even scary topics. And you get to spend some time together, to boot.

Thanks to Santigold for the title of this post.

Parent as Accessory

As parents, we want to be able to talk to our children: to give advice, impart discipline, encourage and challenge, and teach them. As they become teenagers we may find that this is no longer as easy as it once was. We may even find that they don’t seem to want it. Our teenagers may become surly, evasive, and strangely quiet (at least around us). They may even seem to avoid conversation altogether. But recent research supports the notion that they still need us as much as ever.

There are a lot of resources for how to continue to talk to kids as they get older. One I can recommend highly is the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. But as valuable as it is to continue to make the effort–sometimes meeting them more than halfway–it is especially helpful to just be…hanging around.

A recent article in the New York Times is entitled, charmingly, “What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents.”  It suggests that there is value in being present for our teenage children no matter what signals we may be getting from them. In the article, Lisa Damour writes:

“Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.”

It has long been known that it is important to an adolescent’s well-being for parents to be home when they return from school, and to share meals together if at all possible (as long as you don’t ask, apparently, “How was school?“). But as Damour explains, when you are home together it can be enough to be a physical presence in the room.

“In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.” Teenagers find comfort and safety in this presence, and if we are consistently around it is that much more likely that they will come to us when they need to.

In this, as in many other aspects, the emotional makeup of a teen is much like a toddler. Writes Damour, “Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.”

So, it’s great to be a counselor or a wise elder or even a shoulder to lean on. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to just be an accessory. Who knows? Maybe eventually they’ll get curious and start pushing buttons.

Kitchen Think

I had one of those moments the other day. I had asked my eleven-year-old to help prepare lunch, something involving the stove and the broiler, and was giving her instructions when I realized that I didn’t need to be telling her what to do.

Not only was she perfectly capable of measuring the ingredients, watching the time, and reasonably avoiding burning herself. She was also already carrying out the instructions. My continuing to “help,” in fact, was only getting in the way.

I stopped short. I felt pride, and a little bit of shock, and found myself pulling back from the moment–to what a journalist would call a higher elevation–and saw that the little girl I had been raising and guiding was now at least as competent a cook as I am. And I didn’t learn any of this until I was in my thirties.

While I was up there, above the kitchen at around 10,000 feet, I started thinking about how my role as a parent had been shifting and reconfiguring itself all along. Those tasks, those bits of information, and those thought processes which used to require close supervision and physical proximity were now hers to explore, to push against, and expand to the limits of her new older self. My gosh, I thought, she’s approaching adulthood before my eyes.

As I have come through my own journey as a parent raising four daughters, I have been through a similar process. With each new stage and new situation, I come up against my limits and have to start again, as a beginner on a new level. Some parents I know talk about having favorite ages, or conversely, struggling in particular ways with the developmental challenges of three, or seven, or twelve. I can’t say that I have a favorite age (or one that throws me for a loop). I like babies. I like toddlers. And so far, so good in the interim between that and teenagerdom.

I do look forward to being able to share more of my life and myself with my children as they become old enough to process it. To someday have adult conversations about how we got there, and what we took with us or left behind.

Standing in the kitchen with my large-hearted, sensitive, stolid, quietly competent eldest daughter, I realized that teaching her to make a tuna melt was no longer enough. So what’s next? Will she tell me? Or do I need to spend some time here, at the edge of myself?

The Food Post

If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five-year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor, and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient, or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

Tending the Childhood Garden

Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works, and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers.

What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School-age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, and offer ways to improve their skills.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do it, in a safe and nurturing environment.

Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.