How to Be a Comeback Kid

The kids may not be as all right as we thought. Michele Borba ’72, M.A. ’75 details the teachable traits they need to get back to baseline.

About a decade ago, Michele Borba ’72, M.A. ’75 noticed something was off with young people in America. Through her work as an educational psychologist and author of several parenting and childhood development books, Borba saw that more and more children were in need of mental health help. In her interviews with college counselors, she’d hear a similar refrain: Kids are so smart today; they’re better educated than ever before, they’re well-rounded and willing to try new things, but they’re depleted, drained, and empty. And this was pre-pandemic.

“I did focus groups with teens and counselors from schools across the country, from different demographic areas, and every single group said they were the most stressed-out generation,” Borba says.

Thrivers.cover

“And [the counselors] were very concerned the students weren’t mentally prepared to face college.” What’s more, she says, it doesn’t stop with teens—the stress is filtering down to younger students in middle and elementary schools.

In her latest book, Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine, Borba enumerates seven strengths that set apart happy, healthy children. Santa Clara Magazine spoke with Borba about these strengths and how parents and teachers can help kids build muscle.

Santa Clara Magazine: What trends or cultural moments were you witnessing that inspired you to write this book?

Michele Borba: Through copious research, I noticed that in addition to more children being diagnosed with mental health disorders. The seven strengths that I write about in this book [confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism]—the strengths highly correlated with resilience, peak performance and positive well-being—were also plummeting. And we didn’t know why. I thought, if this isn’t a DNA issue and not genetic, what are we doing as parents and teachers and adults to contribute to the problem?

For instance, we helicopter too much; we rescue too much. One of the highest correlations of resilience is an “I got this” attitude and self-control. Many of the factors we as adults now know to protect ourselves from burnout—like play or exercise—aren’t being translated for kids. The proverbial sandbox is being removed. We started to see our kids’ futures based on rank, scores, and grades. So, we didn’t have time for the sandbox, for hobbies, for figuring out what their actual talents are. We were told, and we told them, to pour it all into GPA. But science shows that without those character strengths our children are less likely to thrive.

SCM: Of the seven character strengths of thrivers, which do you think are most lacking among kids today?

MB: I would say, at least for the last two-plus years because of the pandemic, it’s self-regulation or self-control. The CDC warns us there is a youth mental health crisis. Kids must able to figure out what to do to handle stress, so it doesn’t mount and overwhelm. Now, I’d say it’s optimism. There’s a lot of pessimism, a lack of hope which is understandable.

 SCM: I’m sure many adults would say they feel the same way. In the book’s section on “cultivating will,” you talk about the importance of fostering optimism in kids just after describing their constant media diet of images of war, school shootings, racism, and the list goes on. It is really hard not to feel pessimistic about the state of the world. So how can we model a positive, less-stressed, hopeful outlook for our kids when we adults don’t feel that way?

Michele Borba
Michele Borba ’72, M.A. ’75 received her doctorate in educational psychology and counseling from the University of San Francisco. She is a former classroom and special education teacher, and has written more than 24 books. Photo courtesy micheleborba.com.

MB: One of the best things I learned about managing stress was from Navy Seals while training counselors on military bases. The most elite forces in the world told me they spent a lot of time identifying their stress signs as the first step to coping with adversity, and that we can teach kids the same strategy. How that translates to students: “What’s your sign that you’re starting to get too stressed?” It could be teeth grinding, trouble sleeping, whatever. Then at the first sign of stress, Seals say a pre-determined phrase inside their head over and over, like “breathe” or “relax” to help them de-stress.

Finally, Seals practice a 1-2 breath technique that is proven to be one of the fastest ways to relax. They take a deep inhale while using the self-talk phrase (like “chill”), then they slowly exhale so the breath is twice as long as their inhale. Seals practice 1-2 breathing so often that it literally rewired their brains. Students can use the technique anyplace and anytime to de-stress, and it doesn’t cost a dime.

SCM: Many of the students at Santa Clara and those applying today seem so well-rounded. They have stellar resumes before they even start college. I got to say, these Gen Z’ers actually do seem like they can do anything! Of course, as a millennial, I know firsthand the kind of anxiety and mental toll that can occur when one finds out that they cannot, in fact, do anything they want. Why haven’t we learned our lesson?

MB: In all fairness, parents always want the best for their kids. After all, we love them dearly and want them to succeed. It’s no wonder we jumped on the self-esteem bandwagon—we were told that all our praise would raise happier kids. But then science found a result: Giving out trophies for breathing actually lowered kids’ empathy and heightened self-absorption. The problem is that we’ve been using antiquated parenting techniques that don’t match the latest science on how to raise stronger, healthier kids. In our new normal, kids will need to learn skills that boost their resilience. That means we need an updated toolkit to raise our kids.

Today’s kids are far more accepting. They’re more diverse. They’re more open. But they’re also more lonely and more self-absorbed than any previous generation. And after two years of the pandemic and distance learning, they now say they can’t read each other as well. Their emotional literacy skills are also diminishing because they’ve been facing screens–not people. Many tell me that they’re having trouble connecting to others. Relationships are highly correlated to positive mental health. Social distancing and the lack of face to face connection is one reason for the youth mental health crisis. The ubiquity of the internet and how much kids live their lives online these days doesn’t help.

The world is changing, and the future is uncertain, and if we don’t help our kids learn to reboot, they won’t be able to face whatever comes next with resilience. Keep in mind that the skills of thriving are teachable. The trick is to find what strategy works for each person. For one kid, it’s deep breathing. For another, it’s praying. Once kids find their coping strategy we must help them practice and practice until it becomes a habit they can use when they face challenges.

SCM: You provide data in the book about how a record high number of young adults are failing to launch and tie that to a lack of purpose. What is contributing to this shortage of self-confidence?

MB: Bill Damon [a professor of psychology] at Stanford has done a lot of work on this. He was concerned that students were coming into college purposeless. They had been primed to achieve a high GPA or test score; they’d been pushed to fit the mold of what colleges appear to want. But they didn’t have a purpose—that thing that gives life meaning and provides hope—so they were running on empty. The time a student is most likely to drop out of school is end of first semester of their freshman year in college. Lack of purpose and inability to handle stress are two reasons.

The first chapter in Thrivers is on confidence. Building confidence starts with awareness of “who am I?” Knowing that answer is the base of resilience. Studies show that parents spend more time focusing on their children’s deficits, not their strengths, because we feel like we need to fix them. But using your strengths boosts productivity, purpose, and authentic happiness as well as providing an avenue to reduce stress. Strength awareness is what can give our children meaning and purpose, helping them thrive.

SCM: Let’s talk about your section on integrity, specifically ethical thinking and ethical decision-making. Santa Clara, as you know, is big on ethics—producing men and women for others. I was struck by your mention of the Notre Dame study that found that most high school graduates lack sufficient moral reasoning. How, then, can we at SCU help young people build that moral code?

MB: Thrivers have strong moral codes and are open to others’ thoughts. The good thing is it’s never too late to nurture ethical development. The model to copy is SCU’s the Markkula Center [of Applied Ethics]. Their approach to teaching ethics is stellar—from ethical discussions they hold, to their meaningful service projects, and to the range of speakers they invite. The experiences give students the opportunity to think about serious ethical issues and contemplate their own views. The Markkula Center teaches ethics not as a noun, but as averb. Active engagement about ethical issues is one of the best ways to nurture integrity.

Research shows that the parenting and education do matter when it comes to nurturing goodness. Altruistic individuals generally have three things in common: 1. Goodness was expected. They were raised in homes or attended schools with strong moral values. 2. They witnessed empathy or social responsibility in action. Growing up, they saw adults in their lives exemplifying strong character. 3. They had experiences to give back. Giving back, helping a person in need, can be a transformative experience because it helps children see themselves as people of goodness. And that helps them actually be good people.

SCM: So, ultimately, can we be hopeful about today’s kids?

MB: Over the last decade American children’s mental health has spiraled downward. One in four college students is now diagnosed for a mental health disorder; suicide rates in 10 to 14-year-olds has more than doubled in two decades. Data shows that prior to the pandemic kids were the loneliest, saddest, most anxious, least creative and least self-sufficient generation on record. I’ve never been more concerned about kids.

While we’ve raised a generation of smart children who have more of everything, we’ve forgotten to give them the things they need most to succeed: the mental and moral qualities that make them human. Character is what builds mental strength, genuineness, and wholeness and helps turn kids into young adults who thrive in a fast-paced, ever-changing world.

But character is teachable. Character is what helps children thrive. And character is the staple of Santa Clara University. Instilling the seven character strengths of thrivers may well be the greatest gift we leave our kids.

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