My 11-year-old daughter walks through the door and crumbles in front of me.
Through waves of tears, she explains she misread the directions on a test and completed an entire section wrong. She received the common-core equivalent of an “F”, and she is devastated.
“Honey, calm down,” I state matter-of-factly, trying to console her. “You have done so well on all your other tests, and your teacher wrote right here that you can fix the problems to jump up to the next grade. It’s not that big of a deal.”
She slows her crying, but her mood doesn’t improve for several hours. This is not the first time I am a bystander in her emotional breakdown. It happens regularly. She loses it when her dad tries to give her advice on soccer or when I tell her to remake her bed. She breaks down when she loses at a board game or when frustrated with a project.
On one hand, it is hard to criticize her. She is a model student and a gifted athlete. She is kind-hearted and helpful, at least when her competitive streak and desire to be perfect doesn’t get the best of her.
But when I watch her in the moments she emotionally disintegrates, when I watch her transition from a strong, confident girl to a blubbering, uncontrollable mess, I worry.
It’s not that I think she will always be this way. I know she will grow out of some of it. And it’s not that I fret that she is immature or overly dramatic. She is a tween right now in the throes of hormones, so I understand the dynamic.
But I do worry about her mental toughness, her ability to make rational decisions in times of trial and tribulation, and in today’s world, you need to be more than just strong. You need to be a survivor.
The chances my daughter will be a victim (or attempted victim) of sexual assault before the age of 22 is 25 percent. (RAINN)
The odds that she will be at her school — or another “safe” venue such as a mall, movie theater, or public event, when another person brings a weapon, or at the minimum, experiences a lockdown because of a threat, are increasing exponentially. Mass shootings, while still rare, have tripled in recent years.
The potential for her to experience cyber-bullying, stalking or other crime in her teenage years is more than fifty percent (nobullying.com).
These things happen, whether or not we want to admit it, regardless of how prepared we try to make our kids. And we can’t always prepare for the unfathomable.
What scares me even more is teen suicide is a growing problem. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently issued a report detailing that suicide is now the second cause of death among teens, with nearly 550,000 teens attempting suicide every year. Factors impacting attempted suicides include physical or sexual abuse, mood disorders, substance abuse, academic/social pressures, bullying and sexual preference issues.
I look at my petite, adolescent daughter filled with unlimited potential, and I do not want her destroyed by something out of her control, out of my control. She needs to survive it.
This fact is changing the way I parent. It means that in addition to raising kind, compassionate kids that contribute to society, I am also focusing more on mental toughness and resiliency.
It is a natural response for us as parents to shield our kids from the uncomfortable situations going on in the world. Mass shootings, young children nearly losing or dying at the hands of animals as their parents are nearby, high-profile rape cases and mud-slinging political campaigns currently control the airwaves. Even if you have not discussed these events with your kids, chances are one of their friends is talking about with them.
While it’s fine to avoid these awkward conversations on social media or at the water cooler, it’s important to acknowledge these events to your kids. We can’t sugar coat risks — we have to confront them head on so our kids can deal with them — because when we can’t face the bad things that happen to us, they haunt us forever.
If your older child refuses to discuss things that are scary, she’ll never have an opportunity to gain confidence in her ability to deal with stress. Just like preparing your younger child to face fears of the dark or going to a new school, kids need to confront the state of the world today so you can prepare them to take care of themselves in it. The more confident they feel, the stronger they become.
Confidence also includes understanding their feelings. It’s not about belittling or suppressing their emotions, but instead finding coping mechanisms. Teaching kids how to manage their fear, anger and sadness now, can help if something traumatic ever happens to them in the future.
And let them feel uncomfortable. It is easier to help our kids when they are feeling helpless, but that does not teach them how to work through their emotions and overcome obstacles. Instead of always giving suggestions about how to solve every problem, let your child present the solutions, and guide them in potential scenarios. Have “what would you do if” discussions and have them often. Problem-solving is one of the greatest tools in growing mental strength.
A few days after the “test breakdown,” my daughter walked through the door in near tears. A misunderstanding with her teacher about an assignment had her rattled.
Before she started telling me about it, I asked her to go up to her room and write the highlights down for me, like she would for a presentation for class.
She huffed up the stairs and stopped just short of slamming her door. A few minutes later, she came down with a list on a post it note and calmly discussed what happened, which included some confusion from another student. She wanted to let it go, but I suggested she write an email explaining the situation before class the next day. She carefully drafted the communication and sent it without running it by me.
The next day, she bounded into the house with a smile on her face. The teacher brought her and the other student together to discuss their project and cleared up the confusion, even taking accountability for the misdirection on her part.
She survived this small event without a meltdown, which gave me hope for her surviving something bigger in her future. Small steps lead to great achievements.
My hope is her greatest obstacles in life are always trivial, but I can’t take any chances.
Because as Lena Horne once said, “It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
Whitney Fleming is a marketing consultant and freelance writer living just outside Chicago. As the mother to three tween girls, she tries to dispel the myth that she is a typical suburban mom despite that she is often seen driving her minivan to PTA meetings and soccer practices. She blogs about parenting, relationships, and w(h)ine on Playdates on Fridays. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter @playdatesfriday.