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The Secret to Raising Emotionally Healthy Kids

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Yesterday, I shared with the Huffington Post community the following thoughts that I wanted to share with you as well…

We live in complex times. As I work with thousands of parents and faculty each year, I’m increasingly convinced we have a more engaged set of adults who care about kids today than at any time since I began my career in 1979. Simultaneously, however, I am observing a more troubled population of kids, especially by the time they reach their teen years. It appears at first like an oxymoron. How can such a cared-for generation experience such emotional difficulties?

Today, more kids struggle with depression and anxiety than at any time in modern times. In The Price of Privilege, Dr. Madeline Levine argues America’s newly-defined at-risk group is preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families. In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders and unhappiness of any group of children in this country. Adolescent suicide has quadrupled since 1950.

Diagnosing the Emotional Health Problem in Many Kids Today

As I speak to psychologists and career counselors, I’ve begun to hear a term over and over, as they describe the emotional state of young people. This term appears to be a paradox, but it aptly defines perhaps millions of adolescents in America:

“High Arrogance, Low Self-esteem”

How can someone be cocky, yet not have a healthy sense of identity? Consider the reality they face. In a recent undergraduate survey, Dr. Art Levine reports that grade inflation has skyrocketed. In 1969, only 7 percent of students said their grade point average was an A- or higher. In 2009, it was 41 percent. In that same time period, students having a C average dropped from 25% to 5%. But with grade inflation at an all-time high, it’s surprising to note that 60 percent of students believe their grades understate the true quality of their work. They believe they deserve a higher mark. One has to wonder — are kids that much smarter than forty years ago, or do we just give them higher grades to keep the customer? The fact is, while student scores continue to decline when compared to other nations, the one statistic that remains constant is that our kids continue to assume they’re awesome.

Sheltered by parents, teachers and coaches who fear that unhappy kids are a poor reflection on them, we have rewarded them quickly, easily and repeatedly. Kids naturally begin believing they are amazing. Case in point: My son recently took part in a theatre arts competition. Parents paid dearly to enable their kid to get on stage, and now I know why. Every single student got a medal, just for showing up. When they performed, they received extra medals. The medal levels were: gold, high gold and platinum. (Did you notice that gold was the lowest award possible?) Here’s the clincher. If your kid didn’t get the award he wanted, trophies were on sale after the competition. This is not uncommon. Kids today have received trophies for ninth place in Little League baseball. They get fourth-runner up medals at competitions. Ribbons and stars are given out routinely. Of course they are arrogant. With little effort, they’ve been awarded a prize.

The problem is, as they age, they begin to suspect this affirmation is skewed. In fact, mom may be the only one telling them they’re “special” or amazing. By college, kids meet all kinds of other “special” students, who are as smart or athletic as they are. Between the ages of 17-24, kids now experience their first real “failure.” They bump up against hardship and difficulty and often aren’t resilient enough to bounce back. Truth be told, when a kid has been told they are “excellent” without working hard or truly adding value to a team, it rings hollow to them. We must realize that our affirmation must match their performance. Low self-esteem hits them at this point (often their freshmen or sophomore year in college) because they suddenly recognize their esteem may be built on a foundation of sand.

Solving the Emotional Health Problem in Many Kids Today

My point is not to suggest your child isn’t special in his own right. My point is that this is only part of the story. In preparing our young people for adulthood, we must give them a sense of the big picture. We must drip doses of reality with all the praise. When I see troubled kids from upper-middle class homes, it makes me wonder:

• Question: Are they fragile because they’ve been sheltered?

• Question: Are they unmotivated because they’ve been praised too quickly?

• Question: Do they get anxious or fearful because they’ve never taken risks?

• Question: Are they self-absorbed because they’ve been rewarded so often?

• Question: Do they move back home after college because they’re ill-prepared?

I believe two sets of messages must be communicated to students during the first two decades of their life. Sadly, very often only one set of messages gets through. The first ten years, we must communicate childhood messages. If we have done this well, they are prepared for necessary adolescent messages that prepare them for a challenging adult world:

Childhood Messages 

1.You are loved.

2. You are unique.

3. You have gifts

4. You are safe.

5. You are valuable.

Adolescent Messages

1. Life is difficult.

2. You are not in control.

3. You are not that important.

4. You are going to die.

5. Your life is not about you.

I recognize this may sound harsh, but I find myself having to communicate the second set of messages far too often to a college student. If we love these students, we will relay both messages. They deserve the truth from us and they deserve a childhood that prepares them for the life that awaits them as adults. Whether they are emotionally ready as they enter adult life… will be up to us.

Artificial-Maturity-blog

Want to learn more about how to raise emotionally healthy kids?  Bring home a copy of Artificial Maturity to drill deeper.

 



  • UtWildcat

    I wonder what role social media plays in all of this. My observation is youth post comments and hope for immediate “likes” from “friends.” Even the number of friends–so called–becomes a status symbol in an effort to bolster self-esteem and confirm how wonderful they are to the world.

    Further, they post a growing collection of self-taken photos that can only be described as narcissistic and “look-at-me”; see how incredible I am?

    I believe technology and social media exacerbate the problem.

    • You raise a great question. Self-taken photos, or “selfies” seem to be indicators of lacking authentic self-esteem. More and more, I want us to use what is cultural to teach what is timeless. In this case, technology is cultural. Self-esteem is timeless and necessary.

  • charlene.fonseca

    I vacillate from sad to “just get over it” about the condition of our kids and world. It seems to help to discuss it, yet to “discuss it only” is like going shopping without the money. Thankfully, leadership is making itself apparent, and those of us who follow, when we find good examples should follow quickly.

    • Thanks for the post, Charlene. Understanding this generation is the first step to leading them well.

  • Kelsey

    Love, love, love this post. I agree fully with you.
    I am a big fan of failure. In fact, failing has been the only reason for success in my life and I am Canada’s #1 Female Entrepreneur this year.
    If I had been told that I was great and had received inflated grades all the way through I would never have had the grit to make it through from about age 13 to 36.
    Thank you for saying what needs to be said more often into the parenting space.

  • Have you stood in the aisle and read the Mother’s Day cards lately?
    I’m sickened by how many have the message of, “I’m awesome, look how great I am, and oh, yeah, mom – you’re part of what made me this way.”

  • gapaul

    This is fine as far as it goes, but we should never, ever, leave people with the impression that mental health is “only this.” Or “only that.” Four of my son’s friends attempted suicide before age 12. I can promise you, it wasn’t because they were spoiled. They had real mental health issues that needed to be attended to.
    So please parents, don’t jump on any bandwagon. If your child is depressed, see a mental health professional. Don’t make it your fault, or your kid’s fault, until you know more. The last thing we need is to dismiss real problems.

  • “We must realize that our affirmation must match their performance” — so important, and as a youth pastor and dad, a real good challenge to consider the art of doing this well. Thanks Tim – look forward to joining you at the NLF2013

  • Fail fast and fail forward. I never could comprehend the importance of this until recently, we’ll into adulthood, as I’ve (sort of) surrendered the try-hard (to be perfect) life. The meals I cooked as a teenager WEREN’T always good. I wish my parents were bold enough to have told me. Good stuff here, as always.

  • Lana Croucamp

    Great post, thank you. I really enjoy and appreciate your articles. The above made me think – how does it reflect on us as adults/what does it show of our own emotional state, that we would ‘baby’ our children in such a way, that they cannot stand on their own…?

  • Cristen R.

    I heartily agree with the two sets of messages that need to be shared with our children. However, I would caution parents against reserving all the adolescent messages for adolescence. Even with my 4-year-old, we are beginning to allow some of those messages to surface as she works through the challenges in her little life (especially that life is difficult, she is not in control, and her life is not about her). We believe that she needs to experience those messages from the beginning as they arise in normal life. For example, our family does not revolve around her. We have a bigger mission in the world and she plays a part in that. We also refrain from overly praising mediocre work. As she learns to write her letters, we encourage her to keep practicing until she can form them well, and then we praise her (a tip I got from something else on this blog). Another book I like, Raising Great Kids by Cloud & Townsend, calls it “letting children experience natural consequences.”
    Thanks for sharing this, Dr. Elmore. I pass many of these things on to the other teachers at my school, and they find them very valuable.

  • mommyjoyy

    As a high school principal of a private school I want to thank you for your clear and concise message, which while difficult to hear, I believe is insightful and very accurate. Thank you for providing guidance and direction as we travel alongside our students and families. I am confident speaking truth with love is one of the greatest gifts we can give.

  • Caroline Hutchinson

    I agree wholeheartedly… until it comes to your second set of messages. Life is difficult, but you are not helping young people by telling them that they have no control or that they are not important. What is needed is to manage expectations, not crush them. Teach young people that they have limited control, but that they are responsible for getting themselves as close to where they want to be as possible. Teach young people that they are important as individuals but not more important than other individuals, and that the world will not always leap to recognise that importance. Teach realism, teach recognition, not resignation.

  • doggypaws

    “””I’m increasingly convinced we have a more engaged set of adults who care about kids today than at any time since I began my career in 1979. “””

    I am not sure if I agree with this statement depending on what you mean by “engaged.” Some people would clain that engaged parents today are actually much more suffocating and enabling. And they certainy don’t care for their kids any better than previous generation of parents. They might live more vicariously through their kids, they might be better “friends” with their kids, they might have a more informal relationship with their kids but previous generations were probably overall better parents because they did not teach their kids that self-importance was a virtue.

    • I agree. I am not saying the “engagement” of today’s adults is 100% healthy.

  • walking dread

    Has the study been adjusted for the population explosion? Has the study taken into account the far superior methods for diagnosis of these mental illnesses now vs. then? Has the study also taken into account the increased availability and access to trained mental health personnel who can recognize these disorders?

    Have you balanced or at least considered the economy then vs. the economy now? The price of college then vs now? How students used to be able to pay for a year of college by working for one summer at a minimum wage, vs graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt?

    You make a lot of generalizations of now vs then, but in what ways do your studies compensate for the change in the economic climate, the change in required testing and the changes in culture that are creating unique stressors no other generation has had to face before?

    Correlation =/= causation.

    I’m really tired of hearing everyone from Gen X and on is an entitled brat with unrealistic expectations. The Baby Boomers took everything, trashed the economy and are now making fun of us for not “working” for anything we have. The dollar purchases less now than at any time before. Minimum wage used to be enough to provide a comfortable, if frugal, living for a 3 person family. Now you can’t even take care of one adult on it.

    Perhaps you should look at the economic climate these kids are growing up to inheret vs the economic climate of previous generations. That, right there, is why there is a mass “outbreak” of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders.

    We’re inheriting the global financial disaster the Baby Boomers made – while they jeer us and degrade us for simply asking for the same benefits they got when they were our age.

    As in, affordable post high school education, affordable housing, jobs with opportunities you could earn when you worked hard enough, a balanced work/family life and a minimum wage you can support yourself on.

    We’re not the entitled generation. The entitled generation is the one that took everything and then blames the younger generation for not trying hard enough – which is easy to say since they’re not in our shoes.

    When my mother went to college, a full time summer job at minimum wage (35 hour week) paid for her entire collegiate year, books and fees included, at a state school. She was allowed a max of 18 credit hours per semester.

    Now, I have to work 65 hours at a minimum wage job to pay for ONE semester credit hour.

    And everyone in academia and in these studies wonders why every generation from Gen X forward is depressed.

    • Walking Dead, thank you for your comment. I do understand and realize that times have changed from generation to generation when it comes to the economy. Things cost more than it did back then, and society is in fact a lot different. However, the point that I was trying to make in this particular blog is the fact that so many parents these days are raising their children in a way where kids are growing up feeling entitled. They are often praised for everything they do, and as a result, kids in more affluent families aren’t taught the value of hard work, etc. My goal and hope from this post is to challenge parents and leaders to communicate and raise these students in a way that gets them emotionally ready for the real world.

  • Ahuyser

    From the time I was about 17 to about 24 I suffered from anxiety and depression, I also had an eating disorder that contributed to this, part of the reason I woukd get anxiety was because of that second list, I would feel as if I lost control, like I was going to die, and as if no one cared, my self esteem was low, and I didn’t value my self worth, my mother always made sure to keep me humble, by telling me exactly what was on that second list, I actually felt ugly most of the time, and needed some type of positive reinforcement, it really wasn’t until I met my husband, who was a psychology major that I got better, I went through a program where I heard other testimonies from people that suffered from anxiety and depression that helped, hearing that I wasn’t the only one going through panic attacks, and constantly checking my pulse, brought comfort to me, not being told what was on that second list, knowing that I wasn’t going to die from a panic attack brought comfort to me, being reassured that I was fine was most helpful to me, learning exercises to use when depression and anxiety would kick in helped, especially having my husband reassure me I wasn’t going to die, so I’m not sure your second list would have been helpful for someone like me, I do recognize however in this day in age teens are different, times are different, so maybe this method works for certain personality types? Very interesting.

    • Thank you for joining the conversation, Ahuyser. I am sorry you had to go through anxiety and depression as a young adult, but am glad you found a supportive and loving husband and a program to help you through it. From my experience today’s kids need both these lists of messages. Life without one of these lists can lead a child to become an adult with an unhealthy self image.

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