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COVID-19, convocation and courage

Personal · Jun 15, 2020

by Dr. Diane McIntosh, Member of the TELUS team

I have two Class of 2020 graduates in my family. My son is graduating from UBC and couldn’t care less about having a ceremony to mark the occasion; however, my daughter imagined her high school graduation would include a prom, parties and pomp, which is what I had hoped for her too.

In this post, I’m writing to parents, or anyone who has influence on a young person’s life, and sharing reflections on my journey as a mother and teachable moments around missed milestones during COVID-19.

Like most parents, my husband and I are devoted to our children and we wanted to instill in them a sense of gratitude, responsibility, confidence and respect for others. What I didn’t realize was the importance of teaching them to be courageous.

My kids had everything they needed, most of what they wanted and they’ve grown up during a time of unprecedented technological advancement and connectivity. Yet, I feel so grateful I didn’t grow up with nearly as much and I’m especially glad that I didn’t have to deal with the Internet and social media.

Despite all the good that has come from technology and connectedness, children are vulnerable to some of the disturbing content they’re exposed to online, especially before their brains are mature. Too often, they’re exposed to hurtful, harmful messages, directly and indirectly, about how they look, how they dress and just about everything else, from their classmates, trolls or people who are only famous for being famous.

Children are vulnerable to stress because human brains weren’t designed to be constantly inundated with highly stressful content and unrealistic expectations. This is particularly harmful to developing brains that are not yet prepared to manage these messages functionally or emotionally, which can result in inflammation, anxiety and depression.

Most brains aren’t fully mature until about age 25. That’s especially true for the area of the brain responsible for the ability to think ahead, critically consider all possible outcomes, organize and plan. This area develops through learning from our mistakes, failing, getting into trouble and facing consequences.

Kids have always had FOMO (fear of missing out) and feared failure or being considered uncool, but the difference today is that they’re not prepared for these experiences because we’ve shielded them from feeling hurt. Coupled with their unrealistic expectations of themselves and the world, the inevitable disappointments of life hurt more. Kids also know that when they do something stupid, which is part of growing up, it will live online forever.

Fear is life’s greatest barrier to finding joy, peace and a sense of accomplishment. Some of us are more wary or shy or more prone to anxiety, but what I’ve witnessed over the last decade is a massive increase in anxiety in the young patients I see as well as in my own children and their friends. Why are young people afraid to use the phone for what it was made to do: call people? Why does applying for a job or for university require a counsellor or a special course to prepare?

As my children graduate and move to their next great challenge, I know we’ve helped them to become grateful, fairly responsible, mostly respectful young adults (they’re normal, after all), but their confidence and courage continue to need nurturing and support. These are the tools I used, and continue to turn to, to help my children build resilience and courage.

1. Give them less “stuff” and more time with you as you model how adults should behave.

2. Teach them to be brave.

Teach them to speak up when someone is being hurt, by saying no when being pressured to do something they don’t want to do and by saying yes to a new or unexpected opportunity, even if they’re anxious. Teach them that the fear will pass, but don’t let the opportunity.

3. Talk with your children regularly about their digital lives and get involved in what they’re doing online.

Parental controls are available, but do not replace ongoing dialogue with your children about their online activities. The Canadian Pediatric Society has a great digital guide for screen time recommendations and the impact on brain development, for kids aged five to 19. TELUS Wise, our free digital literacy education program, also offers incredible resources to help parents raise good digital citizens. Two resources that are particularly useful during this time include a tip sheet on managing screen time in your home and a Parent’s Guide, Helping our kids navigate our digital world.

4. Challenge them, every chance you get, to think critically.

5. Be prepared to tell them exactly the same thing, over and over and over again.

Try your best not to lose your patience (this sounds impossible, but it’s much easier when you understand that their brain isn’t fully mature).

6. Instead of asking how their day was, ask them to tell you about their day.

Then, really listen. Before long, they’ll seek out this time with you and you will learn more about their life.

7. Let them fall, fail, lose or do something foolish.

When they do, hold them, love them and then encourage them to go at it again. When they’re ready, tell them (and yourself) that those experiences will teach them to be a great adult. Of course, so long as failing, falling, losing or being foolish isn’t life-threatening.

8. Understand that your child is not you and you are not them.

Your sense of worth should not come from your child’s successes or failures. That’s too much pressure to place on their shoulders. It’s freeing to see your child as an independent being, for you and for them.

9. Sometimes parents should intervene, but think carefully before you do.

Preventing your child from being encouraged to work harder, facing their fears or upping their game because they’re uncomfortable may rob them of an opportunity to build confidence, heighten resilience and achieve.

10. Be kind to yourself.

There’s no perfect way to parent and no one gets everything right. Every child has different needs and requires a different set of parenting skills. Unfortunately, they don’t arrive with a set of instructions so we have to discover what they need through trial and error!

One final note: It’s truly disappointing that graduation events won’t happen this year, but those feelings will pass. I hope parents will help their children to learn that out of difficult, painful and challenging experiences, good things can come.

The courage we have witnessed from first-responders, frontline healthcare providers and our communities in the wake of COVID-19 is inspirational and aspirational. I believe we will be stronger and braver on the other side of this pandemic and we will all better understand how interconnected we are, irrespective of nationality, race or ethnicity.