The best way to teach your teen good coping skills is by literally backing off and giving them some room. Let your children think through solutions when they are dealing with a challenge or problem. I see coping skills as falling into the “street smarts” category. They aren’t something that one will learn at school. Coping skills are something that one needs to practice and exercise often in order to acquire and master. Parents can practice (and guide) good coping skills with teens to see how they handle certain situations. Some ideas your teen has will be effective and other will not. But that’s ok… this is how they learn. They need to problem solve, become more resourceful and at the very core…. learn self-reliance. Otherwise, they will look to you every time they deal with a challenge. What will they do when you aren’t around? How will they handle peer pressure, an emergency or a difficult conflict?
I was working with a teen client the other week, who became unraveled over a particular conflict she was dealing with that day. Now, her reaction to the situation seemed a bit over the top, but that’s ok…..she’s a teen and her feelings are valid. I was sympathetic and there to listen. However, I found myself falling into the trap of “problem solving” for this teen because she seemed so distraught. I thought I needed to “fix it” for her. As expected, she kept telling me why every solution I had wouldn’t work and so I kept coming up with more ideas, only to have each new one rejected by her again and again. Finally I stopped, looked at her and said: “You are very upset about this and I understand. I’m happy to help, but it’s up to you to figure out what that best solution should be. I’m here as a resource and a sounding board.” She actually stopped playing the “victim” and started to think through some solutions herself when I gave her the “green light” to take the lead.
Remember, teens need encouragement and space to think through the pros and cons associated with different outcomes. It’s not up to you (as a parent) to provide them with all the solutions. We need more quick thinkers; people who can resolve their own issues without chaos and drama. Parents who allow their children to take the lead on their own issues (within reason) tend to have less anxious children And the opposite is true as well. Kids that are over parented tend to have poor coping skills.
I love to ask teen girls to define self-esteem. Some of them give very poignant definitions of self-esteem. They mention how they feels about themselves and how others view them as well. They use words such as self-image, self-love, respect, confidence and dignity. Others talk about self-esteem in relation to what it is not. As in, it’s not putting yourself down, telling yourself that you are fat, doing what others tell you, and it’s not letting people walk all over you. Some of the girls are more comfortable giving examples of how they see self-esteem in their life instead of giving me a definition. Some tell me stories related to positive self-esteem. I hear stories of doing well on a test, having a boy like them, or scoring a goal during a sporting event. While others relay stories about negative self-esteem. These stories usually start with the phrase “let me tell you about the worst day of my life” and usually end with somebody fighting, crying, lying to a parent, throwing up/passing out at a party and/or all of the above. A few have told me how their self-esteem depends upon the situation they are in and therefore couldn’t give me one concrete definition. A chameleon approach. As in, with their academics they feel more confident, but when it comes to fitting in with their peers they feel less comfortable and have lower self-esteem. And lastly, some girls simply used free association to define self-esteem and say words like: body image, maturity, respect, confidence, and liking yourself. What I find so surprising is that they can articulate that the core concept of self-esteem comes from within, yet when trying to build that self-esteem, they look externally. To friends, to trends and most likely to boys. Obviously, some of these answers vary depending upon the girl’s age, life experiences and ability to articulate self-esteem. However, by and large they seek outside themselves for validation of self-esteem. We need to challenge their thinking and offer them ways of approaching self-esteem internally. To focus inward and give useful feedback, tools and techniques that can help build their self-esteem today, tomorrow and the next no matter what life throws their way.
Megan is a 17 years old teen girl who sees her self-esteem as moderate to low. She was an obese child in grammar school and lost 40 pounds by eating healthy and swimming regularly. She was bullied and teased relentlessly because of the weight. That had a very damaging effect on her. She then swung the pendulum in the complete opposite direction and between eighth-grade and freshman year of high school she became anorexic. As an anorexic, she counted calories and every chew. To this day she needs someone to distract her when she’s eating or she will count the calories and not eat enough. She also suffers from depression, which was obvious to me from the start of the interview. I’d say Megan was the saddest girl I interviewed for this book. She smiled once during the whole interview, and that was when I asked her what made her happy. Her response to me was “food” with a dreamy smile on her face.She has an unhealthy love affair with food. Her family situation is far from ideal, like many girls her deal with eating disorders. She has no relationship with her father, literally. Her parents are still married, although it seems they shouldn’t be based on her story. They all live in the same house, which seems to act like a prison for her mother. It seems to be a very depressing environment. She said that she learned a long time ago that it’s not worth trying to please her dad because it’s impossible. For years she tried and only failed over and over again in her father’s eyes. She clearly identifies the eating disorder and depression as directly related to her father. Or rather, the lack of relationship with her father. She talked about how cruel kids can be and how she would never bully anyone because she knows what it feels like firsthand. She identifies and hangs out with a group of girls who “could be” considered bullies at her school. I’m assuming this is a strategy or defense so that she herself would never be bullied by them. She still struggles with her relationship with food and has very poor body image. When she looks in the mirror she still sees that obese child. She sees a therapist weekly and takes antidepressants. She still laments for the time when she was anorexic.