These days, it can be hard to escape the stories in the media about grit. People call it grit, gumption, self-sufficiency.

But how about calling it self-efficacy, believing you have the stuff to make happen what needs to get done, the ability to work your way through inevitable challenges. 

There is a common thread, though, that says young people with those skills succeed and those that don’t are going to get stuck. Another common thread? That much of the current generation of kids lacks these skills and that their parents are failing to prepare them for life outside the home.

From employers frustrated that their young employees have more cell phone skills than work skills, to parents annoyed that their kids don’t seem to take personal responsibility around the house, the manifestations of lack of self-efficacy are varied but not surprising according to Oak Park parenting coach Sheryl Stoller of Stoller Parent Coaching.

Stoller says that a common refrain from parents in her practice is that they feel they are supposed to be teaching their kids responsibility at home so they can go out in the world on their own and thrive, but their kids don’t seem to be taking the initiative at home the way earlier generations might have. What’s the difference between kids today and how their parents were raised?

She says that one key factor is the increasing amount of structure kids have in their lives these days. “With all of the activities they do, all of the coaches or guides in these activities act as if this is their entire world, but kids are participating in four or five or more activities. They’re expected to do too much and are expected to look good on paper for colleges or whatever comes after school. This leads to heightened anxiety.”

Parents can benefit from reframing the problem. A lack of helping out around the house may not be a lack of responsibility; it may be a mental health issue. She points out that parents need to consider that kids need downtime to function. Then, parents need to model appropriate behavior themselves. According to Stoller, “Parents need to show how to incorporate self-care into their lives. This means refueling, feeling all of our senses and creating balance. Kids need to see that there are always trade-offs and you can’t do everything all of the time.”

Another difference kids today face is the constant presence of social media. Stoller says, “Social media and being under a microscope is a whole lot of added pressure. The pressure is way worse than what parents experienced at this age.”

She recommends that parents recognize this and provide a safe, judgment-free harbor for their kids to counteract the impact of social media.

The brain’s hard-wiring and the pleasure response that comes from electronic usage can add to that sense of being too scared to fail. It can be far easier to focus on one’s phone than try something new and risk failure. Stoller says that the science shows “we are wired to know if something is dangerous or safe. We are wired for safety and pleasure.”

She notes that some children react to this by a lack of action due to their fear of failure, “I can’t fail if I never try.” On the other side of the spectrum, overachievers and perfectionists accept the pressures of society and don’t allow themselves to fail at great cost to their mental well-being.

Parents, teachers and employers of young people can make it possible for kids to open themselves up for challenge. “The goal is to make the challenge fun. We also need to model that and welcome trying and failing. Our desire to have fun being curious about what we’re capable of, what we can tweak, this produces gumption. If this is the environment at home, it goes a long way.”

A parenting tip that Stoller believes can help parents of all children is to act as mirror to their children.  When they’ve worked hard at something, she counsels: reflect that back at them by saying something like “You’re in a great mood,” or “You’re beaming right now.” This sort of statement gives the child a chance to “radar in” on how their actions are affecting their mood.

Conversely, if something is not going well, she recommends the same approach, using statements and observations rather than questions. “The goal is to let them know, your world is yours. You share with me when you want to share with me.”

She also recommends parents let kids see them fail. “You can say, ‘I just tried this, and it didn’t work.’ Model the struggle through the solution. They can see mom and dad juggle the plates and see mom and dad drop the plates.”

To top it all off, she says adults should recognize that society expects a lot of kids today and model self-compassion for them so that they can realize they are the source of their own well-being.

All of this plays into creating young adults who can be healthy and independent. She likens teenagers to being in the chrysalis stage in butterfly formation: they must disintegrate in order to become a butterfly, and once they break out of the chrysalis, they need to rest and replenish in order to fly. “We, as parents, should not be afraid of the chrysalis stage. You have to drop that egg in a place where you think the hatching caterpillar will be able to find food and let it go.”

SAY Connects is sponsored by the Good Heart Work Smart Foundation in partnership with Success for All Youth (SAY).

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