This piece originally appeared in the April 2018 ‘Green’ issue of Fernie Fix Magazine.

It’s important to think about sustainability and resilience for both the world outside and the world within us. Resilience is a key area of exploration when it comes to teenagers too.

Young people seem to bounce back from hardship quickly. When they get on their bikes five minutes after they crashed and came howling we tell ourselves, “Look how resilient kids are!” Absolutely tragic things happen to some children and two days day later they are scootering down the street with their friends again. Often we see this and assume all is well because that’s what it looks like.

But how resilient are we actually? There’s addiction and divorce and #metoo all over the place. If children were naturally resilient we would be able to recover from hard things no worse for wear, and wouldn’t have to face these kinds of issues as adults.

But that’s not how the human mind works. This is the myth of resiliency. The truth is that adverse experiences in childhood can have lasting negative impacts, especially in the absence of support from caring adults.

Young ones get thrown off their mental and emotional balance by all kinds of things. Everyday activities like bedtimes, meals, and getting dressed can induce what appear to be random meltdowns. These emotional storms are difficult, but we know this stuff is developmentally normal for preschoolers so we try not to sweat it.

When our children become teens things get bumpy in a different way. Generally we need to watch out for risky behaviours like sexting and drinking in the woods, but we might think this too is developmentally normal – although disturbing – and we do our best to manage it. I think we could do better.

In working with hundreds of teenagers over the last 20 years I’ve seen many of them fall through the cracks. It’s not right for us to encourage children to brush off the tough things that happen to them, or to shrug our shoulders with bewilderment when they become disoriented teens. An attitude of ‘teenagers are difficult and there’s nothing to be done about it’ is fatalistic nonsense.

It can be challenging to discern typically troublesome teenage behaviours from the ones that are red flags. How is a parent supposed to know when to step in or get additional support? Our children can seem like they’re fine until one day they’re not.

Ask a professional

If you’re a parent of a teen who has only hung out with half a dozen teenagers since the days when you were a teenager, you may not have a perspective that would help you know what to do. I am grateful that I spent years counselling at-risk teenagers

because it deeply informed my parenting when my own child was a teen. Perhaps your angry son who spends most of his time playing video games is hard to connect with because he’s a teenager. Perhaps it’s because he’s depressed or even suicidal. Don’t be afraid to consult with someone who can help you sort out the confusion.

Consider past traumas

Was your teenager hospitalized earlier in their life? Were you dealing with serious issues at some point? Separation, unemployment, and moving can be a crisis when we’re small. Remember – just because a young person is busy playing and growing and we can’t see the distress in their mind, doesn’t mean it’s not there. When traumas add up, we need to be even more watchful and present with our kids.

Build real resilience

Learning to recover from misfortune or change doesn’t happen if we never experience them. What really helps us build resilience is living through hard things and being able to process the embarrassment, disappointment, or grief that comes with them. It’s painful to watch our teenagers struggle but our role is crucial.

First of all, comment on reality rather than trying to reassure. When teens hear things like, “you probably feel like everything is terrible,” or “your heart must be really broken,” it validates their experience. Secondly, stay close, emotionally available, and ready to listen. Your teen might need to talk, cry, or notice they aren’t alone.

Earth can thrive if we treat her right. Same with our kids.

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