Nancy Colier
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What’s Happened to Emotional Resilience?

My friend Jane was lamenting the fact that her 10-year-old daughter would be coming home from camp early. Jane had finally given in; she couldn’t take the sobbing phone calls about how awful camp was and how the girls in the cabin were irritating, impossible, and essentially, mistreating her daughter. 

My friend was confused and frustrated that her child’s experience of camp, with all its remarkable activities, gorgeous setting, and kind people, could indeed be so negative. But, alas, such was the report coming from Vermont. 

This past summer, I heard many similar reports from parents. Their kids also came home from camp early or seriously considered it, and struggled with anxiety, relational difficulties, and other emotional issues. I checked in with the director of a popular summer camp, and she confirmed that at her camp, and many other camps, more kids this summer left or talked about leaving than she’d seen in her decades as a camp director.  

Exodus of the Uncomfortable

From my unscientific research, it seemed that children wanted to leave because they felt too anxious, annoyed, excluded, emotionally bullied, and sad (formerly called homesick). Children described an overall difficulty getting along with cabin mates, navigating social situations, adjusting to other people’s wants and needs, and figuring things out without their parents’ help.  

One 10-year-old girl, in explaining why she wanted to come home, described her bunk mate who twice told her that she shouldn’t wear “that” shirt with “those” shorts.  Another described the  rejection she felt when she was excluded from swinging on a hammock with other girls. For one tween, it was the overwhelming annoyance of a girl continually sitting on her bed, without asking. At the end of the day, the experience of summer camp was just too difficult to manage, and maybe more to the point, not something that should have to be managed.  

The experiences these children described can most certainly be challenging and painful, and it’s hard to live (often for the first time) in close quarters with other kids who aren’t family, and who are also navigating the turbulent social landscape of building identity and independence. Learning how to speak up for yourself, draw boundaries, and ask for what you want and need are no small tasks (at any age). Still, it behooves us to think more deeply about why these situations that used to be considered just regular life—the basic aggravations of living in a world that includes other people—have become so impossible and overwhelming for our children. Why do our kids seem less and less able to handle—for lack of a better term—life?  And indeed, according to a recent study published in Jama Pediatrics, children and teen depression and anxiety has increased over the last five years.  Furthermore, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported a startling statistic on teen suicide: Emergency room visits for attempted suicide among teenage girls were up 51.6 percent in the first months of 2021, as compared to 2019.  This is a real issue.article continues after advertisement

COVID and Modern Problems

Is there something about our parenting that contributes to our children’s lack of resilience and difficulty with accepting, compromising, and, most importantly, finding solutions in challenging and uncomfortable situations? And why does it sometimes seem that our children, who often are given so much more than we were given, appreciate and enjoy so much less? 

The reasons our children lack resilience and feel so overwhelmed by life are, of course, multiple and complex. So, too, the aspects of modern parenting that contribute to this troubling quandary are intricate and difficult to discern. The reality, however, is that our kids are growing up in a world filled with profound and scary problems—frightening realities that children of previous generations didn’t have to consider. Will there be a planet at all for them to live on? Will they get shot when they go to school? Will an unseeable virus from a monkey or pangolin, or created in a lab, somehow kill their family, or them?

When it comes to things to worry about, our world is overwhelming, and not just for kids, but for all of us. So, when we think about why the small situations of everyday life might feel overwhelming and unmanageable, we have to remember that our children are already filled to the brim (and overflowing) with scary stuff.  It may be that there’s just no more room for worry and anxiety, about anything.

In addition, for more than two years, we’ve been isolated because of COVID-19, living in our own private bubbles, separated from everyone but those closest to us, which means separated from other people’s differing ideas, preferences, and needs. During this time, when we’ve lost control over so much, we’ve also, in some ways, ended up with more control over our immediate environments. Our kids haven’t had to work things out with their peers, compromise, be resourceful, or navigate challenging situations. As a result, they’ve missed out on two important years of emotional and social development, and the opportunity to build critical skills for living in their community.article continues after advertisement

Screened In

In addition to the pandemic, there’s the profound and inescapable issue of what screens and social media are doing to our children’s emotional resilience and ability to cope with real life (or, what they now call “RL”). While our screens have the capacity to connect us, they also isolate us, leaving each of us in our own individualized universe. Our screen is a place where we can hide, surround ourselves with our personal preferences and opinions, and minimize contact with any kind of other with whom we might disagree Our screen is a world in which we are the master, and we rarely, if ever, have to put up with anything we don’t approve of or want.

Other people—their behavior and choices—don’t need to bother us inside our self-designed universe. If they do, we can usually just delete them (which we can’t do as easily in RL). Our screens present an image of reality that isn’t real, a shiny, airbrushed image that’s absent two of the most reliable aspects of reality: difficulty and discomfort. Sadly, we’ve come to expect the real world to be like our screen world, and yet it isn’t.

Problems in Parenting?

This seeming diminishment in emotional resilience may also be tied to the increasing phenomenon of helicopter parenting—namely, overly involved and controlling parents who swoop in to take care of every problem their children might have, but without allowing their children to solve issues for themselves. In what’s usually an effort to be helpful and to protect their children from pain, such parents do their kids a disservice, depriving them of the opportunity to be resourceful and to learn how to manage life for themselves. Such kids can end up helpless, without the emotional and mental skills to work with other people and to manage the challenges of regular life.article continues after advertisement

Yet another contributing factor in camp exodus is our culture’s prevailing attitude that everything should be easy and comfortable—always. Our culture conditions us to believe that life should be how we want it to be, that we shouldn’t have to struggle, and that our children shouldn’t have to, either; we can’t bear our children’s discomfort and we’re teaching them that they can’t and shouldn’t have to bear it, either. 

Comfortable Expectations

We no longer view difficulty and discomfort as normal parts of life that offer opportunities for growth. If life is uncomfortable, something—or someone—must be changed to correct the situation, immediately.

I’ve written a lot about the importance of empathy and compassion in parenting, for both our children and ourselves. The essence of well-being is the ability to care about and be kind to our own experience—there’s nothing I believe more firmly. And yet, for the first time ever, I’m questioning whether our generation may have swung too far from previous generations, when “suck it up” was the only advice for kids who found themselves in a hard situation.  While a dismissive admonishment to “suck it up” doesn’t help children to develop an emotionally healthy internal life, treating every irritation and struggle as something that’s monumental, shouldn’t exist, and must immediately be fixed–might not be the right solution either. Perhaps the work, for now, is in parents learning to tolerate our children’s discomfort—and our own as well.

Difficulty and discomfort build resilience and character; we don’t do our kids any favors when we treat these normal parts of life as the enemy and something that must be  eliminated. In fact, when we do, we create people who are dissatisfied and unhappy, and ultimately, are unable to deal with real life.  While it might not be easy (which might be a good thing), we can do better for our kids, and ourselves.

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