When to Rescue and When to Risk with Students

I know a young adult male—we’ll call him Sam—who manages depression and has anxiety attacks from time to time. As a young professional he’s attempting to cope with his reality, but over the last two years, he’s resorted to smoking pot, consuming too much alcohol and vaping. He’s gotten high and he’s gotten drunk and yet he knows that these are not the ultimate answers to his mental health issues.

We talked recently about a realistic game plan to manage his life. We discussed the difference between “coping mechanisms” and “coping skills.” There is a difference.

  • Coping mechanisms are escapes people use to help them cope with their day, but do not make them stronger nor do they solve a long-term problem.
  • Coping skills are abilities that enable a person to manage emotional or mental difficulties and actually make them stronger in the process.

Sometimes students can become overwhelmed and need to be rescued from their mess. At other times you need to risk and prepare them by not removing the load. Lots of parents I meet each year wonder how to tell the difference? They say things like:

“I want to help my child grow resilient, but I see them stopping any attempts to succeed on a project and withdrawing from their work.”

Rescue and Prevent – In these contexts, your student is overwhelmed and maxed out. You can tell they are on the brink of a panic attack or becoming emotionally paralyzed. They are at the “end of their rope” and will be genuinely helped by a caring leader (or parent) relieving some of their stress by removing it or by helping them accomplish their goal. If you don’t, they can shut down, quit or withdraw.

Risk and Prepare – In these contexts, your student may look overwhelmed and maxed out, but in reality, they’re experiencing the normal stresses of life which they’ll need to navigate the rest of their lives as an adult. You don’t ultimately help them by removing the hardship. Here, a caring leader must offer belief and encouragement but challenge them to continue toward the goal.

I meet moms and dads all the time who rescue too quickly and regret it later. They don’t want to see their child feeling “stressed out” but they also want their child to develop grit. The fact is, psychologists have discovered kids and young adults need just the right amount of difficulty (or stressors) in order to grow strong, yet not give up; stretched but not overwhelmed by the stressors. Let’s look at the research.

How Much is Too Much?

Psychologist Donna Jackson Nakazawa reminds us, “In 1995, physicians Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda launched a large-scale epidemiological study that probed the child and adolescent histories of 17,000 subjects, comparing their childhood experiences to their later adult health records. 1 The results were shocking: Nearly two-thirds of individuals had encountered one or more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—a term Felitti and Anda coined to encompass the chronic, unpredictable, and stress-inducing events some children face.” Chronic stressors include divorce, neglect or abuse; and parents with addictions or mental illness.

This research, plus a study done at Yale University more recently, reveal conclusions that should inform how we lead and mentor students today:

1. For the most part, youth exposed to adversity while growing up actually become stronger for having experienced it. Their “emotional muscles” develop. Without these stressors, or when adults rescue kids from such stressors, they begin to give up more quickly, believing they need adults around to save them from hardship. Youth are naturally anti-fragile, and it is adults who make them fragile over time.

2. It is only when the stressors become toxic and chronic (they continue for years) that children begin to surrender their will and stop trying. “When we’re thrust over and over again into stress-inducing situations during childhood or adolescence, our physiological stress response shifts into overdrive, and we lose the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to future stressors—10, 20, even 30 years later.”

The difference between the two outcomes is clear. Kids who give up have endured chronic stressors with no adult who offers them hope; they often feel they’re alone and that there’s no help available. Kids who grow stronger, however, experience periodical stressors yet have adults who encourage them to continue. They learn they can change their reality, experiencing just the right amount of difficulty in their life.

Criteria as a Rule (with Some Exceptions):

Do Not Remove Stressors and Rescue Them within the Following Criteria:

  1. When their stressor is part of a normal routine they need to manage.
  2. When their stressor is typical for a person their age.
  3. When the stressor is something that is short-term (not chronic) and they elected to do it on their own volition.
  4. When the stressor involves them forgetting a responsibility that they must learn to remember and face.

Do Remove Stressors within the Following Criteria:

  1. When their stressor is chronic and unhealthy, such as abuse or neglect on the part of a guardian.
  2. When their stressor has caused unhealthy and destructive habits in their life.
  3. When the stressor isn’t typical for a person their age is beyond their capacity.
  4. When the stressor is overwhelming because it’s accidental; imposed on them by someone else or unknowingly assumed by them.

Let’s enable students to build “coping skills,” and not resort to “coping mechanisms” to make it through their week. Our leadership can make all the difference.

When to Rescue and When to Risk with Students