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How to Help Generation Z Redefine Resilience and Overcome Life’s Challenges

I’ve been white water rafting twice in my life, once in California and once in Colorado. It’s completely different from the lazy river rafting I’ve enjoyed on the Chattahoochee River near Atlanta. When rafting on the rapids, I don’t go out without an experienced guide who knows how to handle the rushing waters, rocks and bends in the river. I expect it to be far more of an adventure than a lazy river. In fact, I not only enlist a guide, but I pack extra life jackets and emergency supplies because I’m mentally ready for a wild ride. My expectations are different.

This is a picture of life for Generation Z.

Students must adjust their expectations. 2020 has been a year of “rapids.” Anyone who expected smooth sailing is in trouble. Gen Z needs extra tools to ensure they’re ready for the wild adventure. Those with unrealistic expectations and no tour guide will be miserable. I am suggesting we should be their tour guides. 

Tour Guides For Resilience 

The need of the hour is resilience. It’s our life jacket. It’s not hyperbole to say mental health hazards are becoming commonplace. Leading Generation Z well requires us to teach resilience, for reasons including:

  • Poverty– Some households have too few resources.
  • Parents– Some families are led by unhealthy moms or dads.
  • Pandemics– Now the coronavirus is doing a number on our teens.

Have you seen the numbers?

The CDC reports that one in four young adults have contemplated suicide in June of 2020 because of the pandemic. That’s a quarter of Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 (according to a survey of 5,412 respondents).

That number is stunning to me. 

Because Generation Z is future-focused, they’ve begun to feel helpless and hopeless. Many feel the coronavirus is stealing their futures. Yet, while resilience is a core skill set, Generation Z will need their own version of it.

Six Ideas to Help Generation Z Cultivate Their Version of Resilience

You won’t find many kids who simply need a motivational speech to become resilient. Students today are savvy, culturally informed, and often, a little jaded. They need their own brand of resilience. Let me suggest six ideas to help them build it.

1. Identify your student’s unique temperament.

“An individual’s resilience is dictated by a combination of genetics, personal history, environment, and situational context,” says Karestan Koenen of Harvard’s School of Public Health. “We need to recognize their psychological makeup and note what they respond to when you interact.” My daughter and son both needed resilience at different times in their lives, but I needed to foster it differently in them. Bethany needed me to listen and empathize with her situation, then ask questions. Jonathan was helped more through stories and statistics. They had different risk tolerances. Plus, one was an introvert and the other an extrovert. They each learned resilience in their own way.

2. Deepen your relationship with them — not to teach — but to connect.

The most significant determinant of resilience — noted in nearly every review or study of resilience in the last 50 years — is the quality of our close personal relationships, especially with parents and primary caregivers. “Early attachments to parents play a crucial, lifelong role in human adaptation,” says Professor Koenen. “How loved you feel as a child is a great predictor of how you’ll manage all kinds of difficult situations as a teen and young adult,” adds Bessel van der Kolk, a professor of psychiatry at Boston University School of Medicine. We must invest time to cultivate relationships.

3. Remind them of the value of stress in your past.

Recent research into PTSD and PTG is intriguing. We’ve all heard of PTSD, but it only lingers in roughly 20% of individuals who endure trauma. Four out of 5 trauma victims end up with PTG (Post Traumatic Growth) because they later process the good that came from the bad, writes author John Tierney. The key is to talk about the incident with someone — like you. “Stress isn’t all bad,” said Steven M. Southwick, professor emeritus of psychiatry, PTSD and Resilience at Yale University School of Medicine. What students need is someone to discuss tough times with (an experienced veteran) and to hear stories of resilient people so they end up with perspective.  

“Each of us has to figure out what our particular challenges are and then determine how to get through them, at the current moment in time,” advised George Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology and director of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab at Columbia University Teachers College. Professor Bonanno’s lab reviewed 67 studies of people who experienced all kinds of traumatic events. “I’m talking mass shootings, hurricanes, spinal cord injuries, things like that,” he said. “And two-thirds were found to be resilient. Two-thirds were able to function very well in a short period of time.”

4. Control the controllables and trust when you can’t control realities.

A growing body of research shows that resilient people place their life experiences in the right “bucket.” Wisdom, not worry, guides them. Handling the following three scenarios incorrectly can lead to all kinds of post-traumatic stress: 

  1. Bucket One – It is in your control. Be responsible.
  2. Bucket Two – It is out of your control. Trust the process.
  3. Bucket Three – It is within your influence. Interact wisely.

Two out of three of these buckets above require us to exercise some ownership. Resilient people have a positive, realistic outlook because they don’t dwell on realities they can’t control or on negative information. Instead, they look for opportunities in a bleak situation, striving to find the positive within the negative. “Many, many resilient people learn to carefully accept what they can’t change in a situation and then ask themselves what they can actually change,” said Steven M. Southwick. This is huge.

5. Choose the right tools to ensure stress doesn’t become distress

We all choose how we cope with tough times. We can utilize addictions, drugs, smoking, porn, video games, social media, and other coping mechanisms to get by. Or we can choose to build coping skills like choosing to find the silver lining in a dark cloud; turning disadvantages into advantages by creatively looking for an opportunity in them; getting involved in serving others; living by our moral compass instead of compromising our consciences, and believing in something or someone greater than ourselves. Each of these decisions is a choice of perspective. We must help students choose their outlooks on life. Each of these items is a tool to do so.

6. Determine the narrative and metaphor they want to embrace.

I always gain perspective on life when I think about the story I want to tell my kids and grandkids about my tough times decades from now. Or, the story I want to tell just two years from now to those I mentor. I have written about how we unwittingly choose our memories. Human memories are reconstructed each time we tell a story from our recollection. (It’s why the fish Uncle Joe caught in 1995 is so much bigger today than when he first caught it.) People can endure similar trauma and end up with different memories and reflections due to the way they hold it in their minds. What if we guided the collective memory of our students this year and found metaphors to summarize it constructively as they share it going forward?

Shanel’s Life is a Miracle Story  

Shanel Vazquez’s story is a miracle. She grew up in a dysfunctional home where her mom and dad were both victims of substance abuse and addicted to bad decisions. Shanel took care of her two younger siblings but stayed in survival mode as the family moved several times after getting evicted from rentals. No baths or showers. She used socks instead of bandaids when her siblings got injured. The kids would even share a Raman noodle packet for meals. Ultimately, her dad left the family, and her mom passed away. 

Shanel assumed this lifestyle was normal. 

It was an observant educator and a foster family who finally introduced her to healthy living. These “tour guides” launched a different narrative. Shanel said, “After three years of continuous grief and anger, I realized that I was doing the same thing my mom had done. I was in this cycle of grief and only living in the past.” 

She later summarized her new perspective offered by her teachers and new family:

“I started loving myself. I’ve grown closer to my dad and have made sure to set a great example for my brother and sister. I worked hard at school and became dedicated to becoming better at everything in life. Recently, I finished high school in the top ten of my graduating class…I’m the first person in my family to graduate high school. In addition, I was awarded a $50k scholarship to college where I want to study how to help people who suffer from alcoholism and addiction. I want my legacy and that of my brother and sister to be different.”

Shanel got the tour guides and life jacket she needed to thrive. Shouldn’t all of Generation Z have the same?

Resilience is a sub-competency in our Social and Emotional Learning curriculum. Would you like to see your school serve as “tour guides” of SEL for your students? CLICK HERE to check it out.

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How to Help Generation Z Redefine Resilience and Overcome Life's Challenges