By Deborah Raider Notis
We live in a community in which everyone is hyper-focused on raising successful children. But do we spend nearly enough time teaching these successful children how to recover from disappointment, failure, and stress? How do we raise resilient children?
This was the focus of the Mental Health Association (MHA) of Westchester’s community conversation held in November at the Rosenthal JCC.
Moderator Sean Mayer, an MHA board member who lost his brother to suicide, asked a panel of experts, “In today’s high stakes, technology driven world, how do we help our youth develop strength and buoyancy?” The event, sponsored by The Inside Press, concerned reducing and identifying factors that cause anxiety, stress, depression, and the potential for suicide in children and young adults.
According to the MHA’s Dr. Barbara Bernstein, counselors are seeing more children with more mental health issues nowadays. Over one-third of college students polled said that they cannot function because they feel sad and hopeless, one half of these students suffer from anxiety, nine percent considered suicide, and 17% of high school students polled thought about suicide. She urged, “Early identification of these issues is critically important. We have to figure out why kids are not developing coping skills.”
“Teacup Children” Phenomenon
Panelist Shari Applebaum noted that resilience begins in childhood. “To build resilience with our kids we have to take a step back. Kids must find self soothing skills and must learn to handle disappointment on their own while still knowing that there is a support system.” She and Mayer believe that today’s parents are creating “teacup children,” children who are exceptionally fragile and break easily when faced with challenges. Applebaum feels that our community as a whole must reduce the emphasis on academic and athletic achievement as these pressures are overwhelming to many children–and don’t guarantee fulfillment.
Byram Hill’s Chris Borsari agreed that academic and athletic achievement are priorities in our community. When he started at Byram Hills High School, he wanted to understand why so many students were struggling. “We started out discussing stress,” as he was initially afraid to broach the subjects of mental health and suicide with his faculty and community. He developed Learn to Inspire workshops for his faculty and held coffees for parents to pinpoint what causes stress and anxiety for students. “Over time, people started to discuss suicide. There was a slow acceptance and realization that suicide is a health issue, just like broken bones and concussions but with potentially greater consequences.”
Reverend Francis Wise Grenley suggested that we prioritize kindness and compassion. She thinks local teens need to look beyond themselves and place themselves in a different context to give them some perspective on their problems. “In the modern era, we are the centers of our own attention, everything we do is so important to us.” To help give teens perspective, the Scarsdale Congregational Church takes teens on a Midnight Run to bring clothing and homeless into New York City and also takes them to a community in South Dakota living in trailers–with no windows, no indoor plumbing, and no heat. Grenley points out, “This give our teens a chance to see an entirely different reality.”
The hope is that experiencing this alternate reality will give them a stronger sense of priorities. Borsari notes that we live in “pinnacle communities” where people have found a unique level of success and prosperity. “The American Dream has always meant that you are going to do better than your parents,” notes Borsari. “If that only means money, then kids from these pinnacle communities are going to have a particularly tough time. We need to redefine success to make it more attainable for this generation.”
Technology: Too Much of a Good Thing?
Stress and anxiety are pervasive among children, teens, and young adults–some of whom are plugged in seemingly 24/7. So Mayer asked the panel whether they feel that technology is making growing up harder for our children. The whole panel agreed that it is extremely challenging to deal with texts, Instagrams, Snapchats, and all of the other apps that compel people to constantly compare themselves to everyone else.
Mayer also points out that many of these children have “duck syndrome,” they look perfect on the surface but are paddling furiously beneath the surface to keep up. He says, “It is hard to see all of these posts and think that everyone is having so much more fun than you are.”
Grenley acknowledges, “None of us are strangers to our smartphones. But kids are getting lost in their phones and missing out on face-to-face conversations. How many times have you seen kids sitting next to each other in the car texting each other?” Grenley and Mayer agreed that people are missing out on the beauty of the world around us and losing the ability to be present in the moment.
Teens and young adults need emotional downtime, away from social media outlets. Borsari believes,“ One of the hallmarks of adolescence is to be connected to the group. But you used to be able to go home and escape. Now there is no escape.” He is particularly concerned about kids’ inability to shut down and escape technology.
Grenley implores parents to stick to their standards because kids do better with boundaries. “Hearing the word ‘no’ is not a bad thing.” These rules and boundaries against which kids fight can ultimately give them a sense of belonging and a foundation for success. Most importantly, people need to know about the many available resources throughout our community that can help those struggling with depression, anxiety, stress, and thoughts of suicide. Michael Orth of the Westchester Department of Mental Health said that the county offers peer-to-peer support groups for college-aged young adults, for example. The Scarsdale Congregational Church has a support council and works with neighborhood associations to foster a sense of community.
Byram Hills High School has an open door policy, Transformation Workshops, and is working to reduce the stigma associated with suicide. And, of course there is the Mental Health Association of Westchester. Just ask Mayer. Six months after his brother committed suicide he turned to the Mental Health Association for support, and today he works with them to create a network of support systems and conversations for others.
Deborah Notis is a writer and co-owner of gamechanger, LLC, a free referral service connecting Westchester families to highly qualified, competitively priced academic, athletic, music, and
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