As you change classes every ten minutes, and remember you need to follow the schedule, you might find yourself feeling two different emotions at once: this is hard, keeping track of the schedule and staying on track and gathering all this information and processing all these new ideas and, at the very same time, you might feel, this is exhilarating and self-affirming; I am figuring out how to make this schedule work and how to manage this complexity.
For most of you, and for most of our students, this is an experience of stress that is more positive than negative. We worry about stress, of course we do, for our kids, and we should. We worry sometimes that they are overwhelmed, or too anxious or burdened, or that they are suffering deep disappointments.
We want to ensure students feel safe, and we know that when they feel deeply at risk of pain or humiliation, their reptile brains kick in and, often, their learning opportunity narrows accordingly: they simply can’t and don’t learn as much. That is why we want to work so hard through advisory and our kindness campaigns and our mission days, and many additional ways to ensure students feel safe.
But stress is not evil. There is a form of stress called “eustress”, that is described as
the type of ‘positive’ stress that keeps us vital and excited about life.
The excitement of a roller-coaster ride, a scary movie, or a fun challenge are all examples of eustress.
Eustress is actually important for us to have in our lives. Without it, we would become depressed and perhaps feel a lack of meaning in life. Not striving for goals, not overcoming challenges, not having a reason to wake up in the morning would be damaging to us, so eustress is considered ‘good’ stress. It keeps us healthy and happy.
But there’s more. Eustress is positive, but we need to also remember that even distress has its value—in the right amount. One of the best books on parenting in the past decade, is actually a pair of books by a Los Angeles psychologist named Wendy Mogel—have any of you read her books?-: The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, which is about raising younger children, and for raising teenagers, the Blessings of a B-. For both books, the goal is raising children to be resilient. The books are wise, funny, compassionate, informed, opinionated, and occasionally just plain wrong-headed. I love them, and I love seeing Wendy speak, but I don’t agree with every word and I am sure you wouldn’t either.
I am a big fan of problem-solving as a central organizing theme in education; we folded it into the revised St. Gregory mission last year:
As a diverse learning community, we challenge and support students to achieve excellence in character, scholarship, leadership, and innovation and prepare students to make a positive impact in the world through pursuing their passions, appreciating and creating beauty, and solving problems.
So it is no coincidence that my favorite chapter in this book is called “The Blessings of Problems to Solve: Letting your teen learn from bad judgment and stressful situations.”
If we want to raise young adults who know how to solve problems, we must let them have problems to solve while they are still adolescents… They need to experience good suffering. It’s good for adolescents to be bored, lonely, disappointed, frustrated and unhappy…
If teenagers don’t have an opportunity to recognize their bad feelings or problems and learn to manage them, they go off to college and seek out quick, reliable, [but counterproductive] methods to make the pain disappear.
Well, it is easy for her to say from her counseling office that teens should benefit from good suffering, but how do we as their parents actually support our kids during difficult times?
I think she has good advice, and let me share some of it:
- Distinguish Dramas from Emergencies: “If your child is yelling theatrically from his cell phone, consider the possibility his situation may not be as dire as it appears to him at the moment.”
- Be Empathetic, not Entangled: “Be curious and kind, but unalarmed. “Ouch, Ow, Oh, I can see how troubled you are by this.””
- Encourage Them to Enlist the Aid of other Adults. [I love this one.] “Teach your adolescent that adults actually enjoy helping those who ask respectfully and in a timely fashion.”
- Demonstrate confidence in your Teen’s problem-solving skills. “It’s easy for parents to jump in, because we are experienced. Before your swing into action, allow your teen to surprise you [and himself] with his resourcefulness.”
- When they create their own problems, let them experience their own consequences. “My friend’s father used to say to his five children: “Well, I see you’ve gotten yourself into a fine fix this time. It’s going to be interesting to see how you get yourself out of it.”
A few additional ideas I’d like to add:
1. Suggest they write the problem down, as thoroughly as they can. Just the very act of writing induces reflection and then brainstorming– and before you know it, they’ll have written their way to a remedy.
2. Invite them to talk it out with an older sibling off in the world, cousin, or far-away friend: Not someone too close to it, not someone in your same household, but someone who cares about your teen and has perspective too.
3. Never forget the power of exercise, sport, and sleep as vehicles for processing our emotions and allowing solutions to emerge from the backs of our brains.
Please enjoy Middle School Curriculum Night—I hope it is not too stressful for you, and let’s work together, teachers and parents, to support each other as parents by ensuring our students have the experience of problems to solve and to develop better problem solving skills and resiliency. Thank you.