If you’re a parent, you often feel that life today is complicated, overloaded, and moving at warp speed. Technological advances like AI are creating exponential change, the world is getting hotter, and the future is hard to imagine–both for ourselves and our kids. The world is brimming with uncertainty as life races forward. Scientists are calling our era “The Great Acceleration,” and it’s creating unprecedented challenges for us as we raise our children.
As mental health professionals working with families, we meet so many parents who are afraid that their kids aren't equipped for all this change and uncertainty—and to be honest, we’re worried, too. In our practices, we see wonderful, talented kids who are also brittle and anxious, struggling with motivation, acting out with anger and frustration, or disappearing into their devices. Teens who struggle to know themselves, faltering into adulthood. And the data confirms that kids’ mental health is truly suffering: According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2021, more than 40% of high school students showed signs of depression and even pre-pandemic nearly one in three adolescents had an anxiety disorder.
Parents want so much to help, but we’re stuck in an outdated model for how to do so. Parents of younger kids worry their child will be left behind—or if they aren’t ahead of the curve, an early reader, or in the advanced math group. Parents of teens worry they should focus on the “right” extracurriculars, the “right” college. But in a time of unprecedented change, being “right” or “ahead” shouldn’t—and simply, can’t—be the goal. The goal posts move before kids can ever reach them.
Instead of prioritizing pushing our kids ahead, we should be equipping them to stay grounded, able to bend in the wind without breaking: unafraid of uncertainty, able to cope with tough feelings, not dependent on others for motivation, evaluations, or solutions. Parents’ loving but fearful focus on achievement of all kinds–academic, athletic, extracurricular–in the hopes of fueling kids’ future success is misplaced. Kids today don’t need more achievement —they need more adaptability. Less focus on their IQ and more on their AQ.
AQ, or Adaptability Quotient, is a buzzy new business term, but we believe the “intelligence” of adaptability is the skill kids most need. Adaptability allows humans to survive and innovate. Uncertainty abounds, and parents struggle to try to have the answers to questions they’ve never even considered. But our kids don’t need answers all the time, or to believe that answers always exist. Our reassurance is hollow anyway. Perhaps, then, the word “maybe” should be our new parenting mantra. If we can admit when we don’t know and learn to be ok with it, it might help them thrive in the “maybe,” too.
Every time our child asks for certainty, we should take a cue from the emoji of the wondering, shrugging lady in the purple shirt. When we parent for adaptability, we are empathetic, supportive, but not overly involved or reactive. Think about offering curiosity and asking them what they think the solution should be. We need to provide kids with the confidence that while we, and they, don’t have all the answers, we will still be ok. We can adapt.
Sounds good, right? But how do you do it? It’s not easy and may require shifting your parenting mindset. It might look like focusing less on physical safety or comfort, and more on what helps kids develop psychological strength. Things like mindfulness and self-care, learning to tolerate difficult emotions, and practicing resilience in the face of failure; valuing our connections with one another and focusing on gratitude over grievances; redefining success as not what you achieve but how you adapt.
Once we decide to prioritize building adaptability in our kids, how to do it becomes a series of strategic choices across childhood. Here are some strategies for your playbook:
Less is often more with parenting, and much of the time doing nothing is the hardest – and best – parenting move. Allow your child to feel hurt or afraid or uncomfortable. Be present, be empathetic, just don’t immediately intervene. A kid will only become adaptable when given the opportunities to do so. And they will sense a parent’s confidence in them in that pause.
Manage uncertainty, instead of fixating on it
At best all we can provide our kids is the illusion of control rather than actual absolute safety, and this cycle of fearing danger and the unknown increases anxiety and makes kids fragile. For example, when we track our kids’ whereabouts via their phones, we’re assuaging our own anxiety at the expense of their freedom and independence. To build adaptability, parents need to equip their kids to manage uncertainty and risk and to express confidence rather than fear.
Set–and hold–some limits on our on-demand, instant gratification world.
Help your child develop self-control over the unlimited amount of dopamine (a feel-good brain chemical) available to them thanks to modern life. Don’t let kids become dependent on technology’s frequent hits of neurochemical reinforcement that keep us scrolling, playing, and posting. We can all become immune to real life’s more subtle but far more sustaining pleasures if we spend too much time in the digital world. Get your kids outside, let them be bored, encourage low-tech creativity and real-life interactions with others.
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Embrace difficult emotions like fear, sadness, and uncertainty.
Teach your child to be awake to themself, to know how they feel and to be unafraid of those feelings. Show them that feelings are simply clues, not facts, and that often if we wait long enough, they will change by themselves. Accept their emotional discomforts just like inevitable physical discomforts. Practice riding the wave.
Parenting is hard, and good intentions can have a boomerang effect. Too much help erodes independence. Too much praise saps motivation. Too much protection can grow anxiety. Finding the balance is always challenging. But we all need to make peace with our fundamental lack of control over what we so badly desire: providing our kids the smoothest possible path to a happy and successful future.
Instead, let’s equip our kids for whatever terrain they encounter. For an unknowable future with jobs we’ve never imagined and technological advances we have not yet dreamed. Let’s prepare them to be successful in the ways that count: In knowing themselves, and in being independent, creative thinkers who can adapt and overcome challenges—who can hit the curveball out of the park, and who can recover from striking out.
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