Think of your college kid right now.
Now think of them in one of the following situations, and what personality characteristic they’ll need to get through them.
Can you guess what that characteristic is? Here are some clues;
What’s it called when you study your tail off for weeks only to fail the exam, but you don’t let the failure keep you discouraged for weeks?
What’s it called when your long term boyfriend dumps you, but you don’t hole up in your dorm alone for weeks swearing off all boys forever and binge eating chocolate?
What’s it called when everything in your life on campus seems to be going wrong, you’re having roommate issues, job issues, professor issues, family issues, but you still keep an attitude of positivity, perseverance, and confidence?
Finally, what’s is called when everyday life problems and small crises berate you on a daily basis, but you bounce right back up with little hesitation?
It’s called RESILIENCE, and it’s something college professors, administrators, and advisors all say today’s college students do not have.
How and why our students have gotten this way is one part consequence of a generational shift in parenting (think helicopter parents), one part delayed maturation on today’s teens, and one part mystery. But whatever the reasons are, the effects of an entire generation of young adults and college kids who are easily defeated in all aspects of their lives is detrimental to their development as confident and highly functioning adults.
Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Oddly enough, it’s not something we think of needing to be taught, rather, it’s just the natural, normal result of having to consistently overcome obstacles during childhood. And therein lies the problem.
Thinking we’re doing a wonderful thing when we keep saving our children from failure and disappointment is actually doing them a huge disservice. By swopping in to keep them from feeling “not good enough,” or “less than,” or “defeated,” we’re preventing them from ever experiencing an even greater feeling- the one that comes with being the “come back kid.” And by no fault of their own (I blame the college admission circus we find ourselves in), students have been led to believe that “perfect” is the only way things are to be done. And how can we blame them? They just came from four years of high school where receiving a B minus was seen as a failure, so when they arrive on campus and flunk their first pop quiz, they have nothing in their previous schooling to compare that experience to.
We know that college mental health centers are seeing a record number of students now, and that most are seeking help with anxiety and depression, but we’re also learning that some of the “obstacles” they’re facing in college are bringing on these symptoms, yet those “obstacles” aren’t typically ones that require mental health therapy. While bombing a mid-term can of course be a stressful event, students who are resilient will process it differently than students who aren’t.
Same goes for disagreements with roommates that often end in name calling and yelling. The resilient ones will know that both are short term events and will see them as such, and immediately begin to formulate a “bounce back” plan to prevent them from happening again. The test bombers will join a study group and not miss class, and the disgruntled roommate may compromise more and be more understanding. But for some students, the ones who lack resilience, scenarios like those are so traumatic, they’re seeking counseling for them. They’re unable to differentiate a small, everyday problem from a larger and much more serious problem, and that mindset leads them to think they are all large problems.
Several universities, upon having their mental health centers overwhelmed, have discovered that in most cases a student’s issues are not mental health issues all, but can be boiled down to a resilience issue. Many have developed new student programs, trainings, and interventions based solely on learning about and gaining resilience.
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln has recently rolled out a program called “Big Red Resilience,” which will train student mentors to help new students deal with and solve small daily problems that otherwise would have sent them to the counseling center.
Florida State University has just launched a “Student Resilience Project,” an online, evidence-informed trauma resilience training tool developed by the Institute for Family Violence Studies at the FSU College of Social Work. Administrators state that the training will help students build on their existing strengths, and provides them with new strategies that promote health and teach crucial new resilience and coping skills. The training will eventually be required for all of FSU’s incoming freshmen and transfer students.
Kudos to University of Nebraska and FSU for noticing the difference between serious mental health issues or just a student who needs a bit more life skills training, and for developing programs to intervene and teach resilience before the small problems become big ones.
For more information on how to build resilience in teenagers, check out the American Psychological Association’s Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers.