Setbacks and failures are the inevitable part of the journey of growing up. But does it mean that we can turn away our head and assume teenagers living in this ever-changing and competitive world naturally overcome and simply get through all the difficult moments? I am afraid that is not the case.
It is fair to say that we have an inborn power of resilience. Think about how we learned to walk as a baby: the biggest challenge at that time. We stumbled countless times before we eventually succeeded to take our steps smoothly and firmly. Of course, there were pain, scratches, tears through the learning process. Still, we were able to pick ourselves up; perhaps we fell again, then crawled with our hands and knees, grasped chair legs or parents’ hands for support. At this stage, we didn’t stop trying to walk because of wobbling, stumbling and falling. A beautiful showcase of immense resilience, isn’t it?
Let’s fast forward ten, fifteen years ahead, adolescents have learned life skills, languages, social skills, academic knowledge and cultural understanding. Transition and transformation have happened day by day. Children have also developed their awareness of emotions and thinking ability. Starting to have preferences, knowing what they like and dislike; what they want and unwant.
Now the difficulties facing them are no longer walking or finding food, but, just to name a few, boring endless coursework and assignments, failures in exams, not getting admitted to a favourite college and university, not knowing their passion and future career, injury that stops them from playing sports, arguments with your friends or parents, a fear of getting judged and mocked by peers, a lack of material enjoyment and entertainments, rejection by the people they like, addiction to digital distraction and gaming etc. These are only the tip of the iceberg.
It is not uncommon that teens suffered a lot both mentally and physically in similar situations just mentioned. Emotions that come with these occasions include sadness, lonely, fear, groundless, frustration, irritation, anxiety, anger, shame and many more. Without being handled by timely awareness, inner balance and resilience, the emotions could lead to automatic, habitual reaction like avoidance, losing temper, pushing through their limits, binge eating, psychological break down, rumination of self-defeating thoughts or even resort to maladaptive and unhealthy behaviours like hurting themselves and using drugs or alcohol as an escape. These mental health issues have been a major concern for decades, sadly.
Sometimes we might consider resilience as finding strength when teenagers feel stuck and frustrated when things are tough. Yet, resilience does not mean ignoring self-care and self-kindness.
I taught mindfulness to a group of grade 8 students in school earlier this year. Among them, there was a young man called Tim. Tim was preparing for a school-wide drama performance before coming to our class. He could barely open his eyes and could not stop snoozing during our class. I asked how he felt and what happened to him. He replied that he felt very tired because of his drama practice and meeting with his teammates. With further inquiry, he reported that his fear of being labeled and mocked as “lazy” “weak” by his peers prevented him from even asking for a toilet break, let alone getting enough rest. After the class, he understood that those self-imposed thoughts were not always served him best. The tendency of going beyond his limit was harming his health and participation in the study and extracurricular activities.
So how can teens re-discover their inborn resilience?
Instead of pushing away strong, negative emotions associated with unpleasant situations, through mindfulness practice and understanding our mind and body is closely connected, we can invite our mind to make space allowing these emotions to arrive, linger, change, and fade.
Mindfulness is an ability we can cultivate to pay attention on purpose to the present moment non-judgmentally. Rather than unconsciously wanting things to be different, next time when you face an event of setback and challenge, try spending a few moments to pay attention, listen and feel the emotions from within, hold them and embrace them. This act can hurt, can be very uncomfortable. It is alright whether you are able to name them or not. Then, spending a few moments or a minute to notice what physical sensations that come with the emotions you just addressed. Perhaps, you might feel tightness in the chest area, shaky hands and legs, tears, butterfly feeling around your stomach. At first, you might have the tendency to avoid and turn away from these sensations, that is normal, if this is your case, then gently invite your awareness to come back to the areas you feel the strong sensations as best as you can. It can feel counterintuitive and overwhelming at first, but the moment when you start to allow space and pay attention without judgment, it would possibly soften. Now, it is where self-kindness and compassion come into play. You can practice offering to yourself some self-compassion gestures, for example, crossing your arms and hold the torso and shoulders with hands or placing hands around your heart and belly. And say silently to yourself, “I see you, (the negative strong emotion), thanks for visiting. You may leave anytime you wish to. May I be peaceful and at ease in difficult moments. (repeat a few times; you can try own phrase)” Every time you breathe in as you say this to yourself, imagining you are sending kindness and compassion in a gentle manner as if you are comforting and supporting your loved ones and best friends.
Yet, if, at any point, this exercise is too challenging and overwhelming for you, by all means, you may invite your awareness to move to your breaths. Finding your breaths until you feel stabilized again. Feel free to play around and experiment with turning towards and falling back from the emotions and physical sensations you notice.
With continuing practice, you can learn to tap into your inner resource of resilience and self-compassion to find more balance amidst winds and storms in your journey of growing up.