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Empathy May be Key in Bolstering Hope, Resiliency Among Youth

Leadership expert and author Tim Elmore, Ph.D. conducted interviews and focus groups with people from five different generations. He says he believes Gen Z can find hope and resilience during these trying times as long as adults lead with empathy.

Scroll through social media, and you’ll see images of the war in Ukraine or posts on possible nuclear threats from Russia. Other national news stories spotlight political strife in the United States—a discord so bitter it sometimes divides families. Meanwhile, global warming silently looms as scientists warn of rising sea levels and temperatures. And people continue heated debate over race and gender equality, as the shadow of gun violence veils the nation.

All of it against the backdrop of COVID-19, which has killed almost 1 million Americans in the past two years, affecting families who have lost loved ones and upending the lives of everyone, especially children, who’ve changed the way they socially interact, attend school, or even celebrate milestones.

As the youth of today might say—they’ve had a lot to unpack since 2020.

Many parents, educators and mental health experts have expressed concerns about whether young people can unpack it all. And some wonder if this generation (born between 1997-2012 and known as Gen Z) can withstand the weight of historic events happening in real-time.

No one knows for sure. But leadership expert and author Tim Elmore, Ph.D., who conducted interviews and focus groups with people from five different generations, including those who endured World War II and the Great Depression, says he believes Gen Z can find hope and resilience during these trying times as long as adults lead with empathy.

“This pandemic has affected students in ways we adults could not have predicted,” says Elmore, author of The Pandemic Population: Eight Strategies to Help Rediscover Hope after Coronavirus. CEO and founder of Georgia-based Growing Leaders, Elmore also speaks to parent and educator groups across the country. “As a parent, I need to listen and validate, even if I don’t agree with their emotions.”

“What they need is an adult who cares and says, ‘I get it.’ That’s critical. As a parent, I tend to want to explain and have an answer—but it’s not always that easy,” he says.

Candles or Brushfires?

It’s clear the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on the mental health of today’s youth.

In March 2021, Cook Children’s Medical Center reported record numbers of suicides and attempted suicides with patients as young as 7, and it marked the first time suicide became the leading cause of trauma death, surpassing child abuse and car wrecks. In response, the hospital system initiated the JOY campaign in April 2021—an ongoing series that addresses and educates readers on children’s rising mental health care needs and issues they may face.

As part of the JOY series, Cook Children’s launched its podcast “Raising JOY” this month in an effort to reach more audiences about mental health issues facing youth across the nation.

In its 2021 Children’s Mental Health Report, the non-profit organization Child Mind Institute (CMI) revealed: “about 70% of both children and adults reported some degree of mental discomfort, resulting in loneliness, irritability or fidgetiness.” In its study, which surveyed more than 5,600 people in areas hardest hit by COVID in the United States and the United Kingdom in April 2020, researchers found 55% of the children felt “more sad or unhappy” compared with 25% of the adults. (The child’s mental health three months before the pandemic seemed to play a factor.) “In other words, a child struggling with depression prior to the pandemic was more likely to be struggling during the pandemic than one who was not,” the report stated.

But, based on a growing body of research, it appeared the moods of many children and adults may be improving and possibly “the distress experienced early in the pandemic has evened out over time,” according to the CMI report.

“Most kids are naturally resilient,” the study concluded, “but others may require extra support from their parents, social networks, health care providers, and others in their orbit.”

Researching for his book, Elmore found the same to be true while interviewing members of past generations who lived through challenging times. He discovered that Post-Trauma Growth (PTG), a psychological term coined in the 1990s, often applied to those he interviewed instead of the more well-known Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“(PTG) wasn’t a term on my radar,” he says. “I was under the assumption that if you go through trauma, you’re probably going to have some level of PTSD, but it was quite the opposite. Most of the people, like over 80%, move to PTG, meaning they go through the trauma—it’s hard, it hurts—but through processing what happened, they’re able to make sense of it, and they end up feeling like they grew from that hard time.”

“PTG requires making sense of things. It requires a listener, often an adult for a child, who listens empathically and validates what they’re feeling…but then gets to the place wherein the discussion, they can say, ‘Who knows? You might be better for this,’” he says. “I know it sounds cliché, be we all know the real growth in our lives often comes from the hard times, not the easy times.”

But listening is more than saying, “Yeah, sweetheart, fine, fine, fine and then move on,” Elmore says. When adults listen, the goal is to make children “feel heard and valued” and empathizing helps them “feel understood and validated,” he says.

“And then (as an adult) when I try to guide them, I’ve earned the right with those first two steps to say, ‘Well, you know, maybe something good can happen from this,’” Elmore says.

Most of the strategies he suggests for parents and educators to encourage hope and build resilience among young people are intuitive, he says.

One of Elmore’s favorite approaches is using a metaphor to change the narrative of the situation. For example, when the pandemic first began, he was counseling a high school senior who was having a challenging time applying to colleges. Together they came up with the metaphor of a candle versus a brushfire.

“That became a picture in our heads that gave us a choice we had to make” when things were getting hard, he says. “Every time we started getting down on ourselves or down on life, we were either going to be a candle, which is a flame put out rather easily, or a brushfire that isn’t put out easily at all. In fact, it gets bigger with the harsh wind. As simple as this sounds, we would just say to each other, ‘You can be a candle or you can be a brushfire.’”

“When he went to college, he texted me and said, ‘Tim, I’m going into my school as a brush fire,’” Elmore says. “It helped him. It didn’t change his IQ or anything, but it changed his narrative.”

Elmore also suggests other strategies to boost hope and resilience among youth:

  • Make a habit of discussing the silver linings. Listen. Empathize. Guide. Find some positives that might come from the problem. An example would be the development of vaccines during the pandemic. (Being cheesy about it defeats the approach, though, he says.)
  • Break down hardships into digestible bites in their minds. Kids may get overwhelmed during this time. Cut up issues into small bites so they can process them.
  • Identify cognitive distortions and confirmation bias in their narratives. An example would be if they say, “Nobody loves me!” Don’t correct them right away, but maybe later, at bedtime, discuss with them why that statement wasn’t true.
  • Remind them of past personal successes.
  • Help them practice psychological distancing. If parents see kids getting down about something, let some time pass, then ask them, “If your best friend was having this issue, what advice would you give him?” Help them take their own advice.
  • Tell stories about those who turned a disadvantage into an advantage. Elmore uses Sir Isaac Newton as an example. Newton continued his studies in mathematics, figuring out calculus, laws of gravity and optics theories, among others while quarantining at home from Cambridge during the Great Plague of London, which killed as many as 100,000 people between 1665 and 1666.
  • Express high beliefs coupled with high expectations. An example would be for parents to say to children, “I’m giving you this feedback because I have high expectations of you and I know you can reach these goals.”

Silver Linings Ahead?

According to the key conclusion in CMI’s 2021 Children’s Mental Health Report, there may be cause for optimism in this generation. The available data indicates “children and young adults are more resilient than we sometimes assume” but adds that “it’s crucial to devote resources to meeting their mental health needs.”

In the report, 42% of teens overall say the pandemic increased the number of conversations they’ve had about mental health. (This trend is particularly significant among Hispanic and Black teens.) And, researchers reported 53% of teens say they’re comfortable discussing their mental health with family members. The next most trusted individuals were friends (49%), then doctors (26%), according to the report.

CMI researchers concluded “we should take heart from the fact that even teens who said they were struggling right now felt positive about the future. This speaks volumes about innate human resilience, particularly that of young people, and it’s a hopeful sign that many children and teenagers will emerge from the pandemic without lasting harm.”

Texas Wesleyan University senior Angela Castillo, 22, an English/ Mass Communications major, doesn’t necessarily connect with the Gen Z label, but she does believe her peers will overcome the pandemic era and work to bring about a more positive future.

“I think we have what it takes to get through it. Look at us. We’ve already gotten through two years of it, and I think we’ll get through much more if needed,” she says. “Everybody just wants to go out there and do something. And even if they don’t, it’s interesting to see that openness in this generation—there’s value in that. Maybe it’s not resilience, maybe it’s just more of a mutual understanding of everyone’s situation and where they’re at today. I really appreciate that about my generation.”

In the earlier days of the pandemic, Castillo did struggle. She became anxious but wasn’t overly concerned. But in October 2020, after being diagnosed with COVID-19, her anxiety skyrocketed. She sought help from a therapist.

“I got COVID, and I was like, ‘It’s time for me to be completely OCD about it,’” she says, adding even after she recovered from it, “I remember feeling anxious, depressed. I was scared to leave my dorm.”

With therapy and medication (which she’s now tapering off), Castillo has worked through many of her anxieties. She can now leave her apartment, shop for groceries or socialize with friends “without coming out of my skin.”

She’s also excited about her upcoming graduation and is seeking an internship or job. One of the good outcomes of the pandemic has been employers’ willingness to become more flexible with schedules and work with remote employees, Castillo says.

Her generation’s “advocacy of self” is another powerful thing to come from the past two years, she says. Through the pandemic, her peers learned to cope by setting personal goals for themselves, even small ones, to keep from getting overwhelmed by it all, she says.

“That’s the thing that’s going to make this generation resilient—it’s that ‘This is my best today.’ I read a book. I read a chapter of a book. I read one word, and that’s enough for me today,” Castillo says. “And those varying levels, I think are important. To still applaud yourself and say, ‘You know what? I did that. It might not be much, but I did that.’”