Depression is ten times more prevalent today than it was in 1960, and the average onset age is now 14.5 years old vs. 29.6 years of age just 50 years ago. For any parent or teacher, this is a terrifying trend. As a culture, we’re vastly more depressed, and it’s starting much, much younger.
Over the past decade, I’ve learned quite a bit about youth depression in our youth, and the most notable factor behind it is disengagement. Our children, for one reason or another, are checking out, and their feelings of powerlessness are driving increased negativity and depression.
Because students lack confidence in their own abilities, as well as in the people and support structures around them, seemingly small challenges can lock them up and start the downward spiral. Many psychologists and educators believe that Resilience, the ability to deal with overcoming adversity, is the antidote to the depression epidemic that’s facing our nation today.
In our work, we often measure the impact of our programs through their ability to impact student Resilience. Using a tool called The Resiliency Scales for Children and Adolescents, we measure three areas:
- Sense of mastery, which tracks optimism, self-efficacy, and adaptability (essentially one’s confidence in their own abilities).
- Sense of relatedness, which measures trust, support, comfort and tolerance (one’s confidence in the people and support structures around them).
- Emotional reactivity, the measurement of sensitivity, recovery and impairment – this area looks at a person’s ability to make effective decisions under stress and to bounce back and recover from mistakes.
As we look to build our children’s confidence levels, it’s helpful to be prepared with strategies that are certain to increase their self-confidence, bolster their belief in those around them, and support their ability to make good decisions and recover from adversity.
Consider these three confidence-building exercises for teens:
1) Nurture their hearts
I can’t begin to count the number of stories we’ve heard about parents and educators who have had success implementing the “find them doing something right” approach. Stories about how school cultures have been transformed and the lives of young people have blossomed by moving from a critical to an optimistic approach to teaching or parenting. In fact, a psychological model called the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA) was developed by Howard Glasser utilizing this very strategy.
At the end of the day, we want our children to manage the world around them and gain confidence in their ability to impact the results in their lives. We want them to execute “authentic positive commerce,” which means positively manipulating the world to their benefit of their own volition, with no intervention or help of any kind from another person. By paying attention and recognizing the positive things they’re doing, we can reinforce this behavior and forge the right mindsets and habits in our children.
As parents and educators, it’s easy to focus on negative behavior and put most of our attention and energy towards discipline. By implementing the Nurtured Heart Approach, we actively recognize when our children take positive steps, or even when they simply don’t do something negative. In doing so, we’re using positive reinforcement to: 1) make them feel good about themselves, and 2) reinforce positive behavior to build positive habits.
2) Foster communities around your children
Feeling a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need. This will sound crazy, but one of the greatest pieces of advice I ever heard given to a depressed teenager was on the show Grey’s Anatomy. A young girl was struggling with feeling different and not being accepted by her peers, and the (fictional) doctor’s advice was “high school is really hard, but hang in there, and you’ll find the people you fit in with, who accept you and who’ll love you for who you are.”
The antidote to disengagement is connection with others. When we make a connection with another human being, we come alive, our spirits are lifted, we become engaged in the moment, and we look forward to the future. As parents and educators, we should actively build and seek out communities where our children can feel this sense of belonging. This has become more essential with the breakdown of traditional communities such as church and the extended family.
I love the quote by Baroness Thatcher, “Go where you are celebrated, not tolerated.” Work with your children to understand who they are and what makes them feel alive. Then help them seek out people and organizations that celebrate the very attributes and abilities they identify with. And, most importantly, don’t push them down the paths you think best; allow the process to be as self-directed as possible.
3) Give them perspective
Many years ago, we did some work based on a concept called time preference. Research in the 1980s had shown that the average teenager makes decisions with a 12 to 24 hour time preference, which means their actions in the moment are largely dictated by what they believe the consequences may be within one day. It’s the epitome of instant gratification, and a glimpse into the mentality of the average young person. The same work showed that if you could get teenagers to look further out into the future, they were much less likely to make life-changing catastrophic decisions like doing drugs, quitting school or committing crimes.
The more you can enable your children to expand their time horizons, the more confident they will be and the less apt to be tripped up by the small turbulences in life. You might help them do so through prayer, meditation, practicing gratitude, journaling, or visualizing their future through goal-setting or creating dream boards. The key to all these exercises is the building of perspective. It will allow them to see their future and the world around them as bigger than any single moment, and to give them confidence and optimism about themselves, their environment and the life they’re living.
The greatest gift we can give our children is the ability to thrive in our absence. That means the most important skills we model and teach are self-efficacy, self-advocacy and self-determination.
Perhaps the most important perspective we should maintain as educators and parents is that challenges and adversity are part of the process, and are actually essential to living rich and fulfilling lives. As the saying goes, “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
Anything we can do to give our children the confidence and strength to face difficulties head on will create the foundation to manage the hardships life will bring. Raising confident children is a critical piece of helping them build this resilience, and that’s what these confidence-building exercises are all about.