How to Help Our Kids Thrive

A conversation with 'Thrivers' author Michele Borba
April 14, 2021 Updated: April 19, 2021

The alarm bells around childhood anxiety and depression had already been sounding when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and struck a new blow upon the well-being of many of today’s kids. Michele Borba’s latest book, “Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine,” might be just the helping hand so many parents need in these times.

I asked Borba for her advice and encouragement for parents. Here’s what she said.

The Epoch Times: Your new book, “Thrivers,” begins: “Our kids are in trouble.” What do you believe is causing such high rates of stress, anxiety, and depression in today’s kids?

michele borba
Educational psychologist and bestselling author Michele Borba. (Courtesy of Michele Borba)

Michele Borba: Over the past decade, reports show teens and young adults to be more depressed and suffering higher levels of psychological distress than their predecessors. Teens tell me one of the biggest reasons is an uber-focus on GPA, rank, and scores. (Sixteen-year-old Jack explained: “School is non-stop studying, test-taking, filling out applications, and worrying. I never could come up for air.”) The college admissions process has become all-consuming and frantic. Parenting has become an all-consuming effort to fine-tune children’s intellectual growth.

Our kids are great at achieving, studying, and working hard. But they’re also full of anxiety and putting enormous pressure on themselves. No matter what they do and how hard they push they never feel “good enough.” And when challenges arise, they often quit because they lack the inner reserve and preparedness that provide inner strength to endure. We’ve failed to help our kids learn the other side of the report card: the human skills that help them thrive. And in today’s uncertain, anxious, tech-driven world, teaching those skills is an absolute must.

The Epoch Times: What mindset shift might parents make to steer their children away from relentless “striving,” as you describe in your book, and toward more thriving?

Ms. Borba: The first step to change is recognizing that there is a problem. Every study shares one commonality: We are raising a stressed, anxious generation of children.

Helping our children become successful, healthier, and happier just requires a simple mindset shift. We must realize our first step is recognizing that resilience is not locked into kids’ DNA but comprised of seven teachable character strengths. Once we update our child-rearing with strategies that are based on science, we will be able to pivot our parenting so our kids can thrive in school and in life. It all starts with awareness that resilience is teachable and crucial to learn for our pandemic generation.

The Epoch Times: You outline seven character strengths that help kids thrive. What can parents do to foster these character strengths in their kids?

Ms. Borba: Resilience is comprised of seven teachable character strengths. And the good news is there are dozens of simple ways to boost our children’s thriving potential in our everyday family moments. Here are the seven strengths and practical ways to increase them.

Strength 1: Self-confidence. Thrivers know who they are. Self-confidence, that quiet understanding of “who I am,” nurtures an appreciation of one’s unique qualities and helps kids navigate life, rebound from setbacks, and provides inner resources to manage adversity.

Identify a few legitimate strengths that you want your child to recognize about himself then acknowledge them so your child knows exactly what he did to deserve recognition. Carve time for your child to develop those strengths. They become a refuge when things fall apart.

Stress their strengths, not their weaknesses. You can help your child recognize what they do well by asking: “What subject/activity did you like most?” “What did you look forward to doing?” “What was your proudest (easiest, hardest) moment?” “What did you learn about yourself?” “What did you improve?” “What activity do you hope to do again?”

Watch your footwork. Kids are more likely to thrive when they are in control. Start slowly stepping back so your child pulls you in the direction he wants to go.

Strength 2: Empathy: Thrivers think “we,” not “me.” Thrivers require social competence and healthy relationships to overcome setbacks and forge ahead.

Help them label emotions. Kids need a feeling vocabulary to feel with others so name emotions in context: “You’re happy … frustrated … upset.” Ask: “How does she/he/they feel?”

Provide caring opportunities to inspire your child to practice caring (like helping a sibling or raking leaves for a homebound neighbor). Praise caring acts with the same gusto that you have for academics and sports so your kids know you value prosocial behaviors.

Widen their circles of concern. It’s easier to empathize with those “like us”: our gender, race, culture, education, age, and income, so widen your child’s social networks.

Strength 3: Self-control: Thrivers have coping skills to put the brakes on impulses. The ability to control your attention, emotions, thoughts, and actions is one of the most highly correlated strengths to success, and an untapped secret to helping kids bounce back and thrive.

Check your behavior. How do you act in front of your kids when your self-control is lacking? We are living textbooks to our kids. Model what you hope your child catches.

Help kids recognize stress warnings. “Your hands are in a fist.” “You’re grinding your teeth.” “Your feet are bouncing.”

Teach 1-2 breathing: “The second you feel stress, take a slow, deep breath and then exhale twice as long as the inhale. This gets oxygen to the brain and helps you stay in control.”

Teach phrases like “I’ve got this!” “Breathe!” and “Stay calm” to override fear signals in our brains and reduce stress. Encourage your child to choose one and practice until automatic.

Strength 4: Integrity: Thrivers have strong moral codes and know what they stand for. Integrity sets boundaries, provides inner power to resist temptations, and offers kids guidance on how to act the right way even when we’re not there.

Praise integrity when your child displays it. Describe the action so your child knows what he did that deserves recognition, so he will be more likely to repeat the behavior.

Use virtue mantras. Find one that fits your family’s values like “Honesty is the best policy.” “Always be kind.” “Tell the truth.” Keep repeating and explaining the one phrase in context until your kids can use it without you.

Find a “kid-concern” cause. Contribution can develop integrity if the experience is developmentally appropriate and meaningful. Find a project that matches your child’s passion like volunteering at a soup kitchen or playing games with kids at a shelter.

“Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine” by Michele Borba.

Strength 5: Curiosity. Thrivers think outside the box. When kids face obstacles, curiosity helps them think of ways to resolve their problems and find new ways to “pick themselves up and start all over again” and helps prepare them for an uncertain new world.

Use open-ended toys, gadgets, and games. Creative kids thrive on experiences where they can let their imaginations go wild and don’t have to worry about “right” answers.

Stretch inquisitiveness. Instead of “That won’t work,” try: “Let’s see what happens!” Instead of giving answers, ask: “How do you know?” or “How can you find out?”

Allow solitude. Watch your child’s schedule, and carve in downtime without digital devices to stretch imagination. You may need to help your child learn to enjoy his own company.

Strength 6: Perseverance. Thrivers persist without gold stars and trophies. This strength keeps kids on track, gets them closer to their dreams, and helps them thrive—and can be stretched and often makes the critical difference between success or failure.

Erase: “Mistakes are bad.” When your child errs, say: “A success secret is learning from mistakes so you don’t repeat them. Let’s look at your test and find how to correct it.”

Redefine success as a “GAIN.” “Monday, you got two words correct; today you got five! That’s a GAIN!” Or: “Last week you hit one run; today you got two. That’s a GAIN!”

Cultivate a growth mindset. Praising your child’s effort, not the end product, helps kids recognize that success isn’t locked into DNA but increases with hard work and practice.

Strength 7: Optimism: Thrivers find the silver lining. Optimistic kids view challenges as temporary and able to be overcome, and so they are more likely to keep going and succeed.

Keep your pessimism in check. Our negativity and fears spill over to our kids and can erode their positive outlook on life. Be the model you want your kids to copy.

Share good news. Look for uplifting stories of everyday good guys in newspapers, websites, or the community, and review them with your kids to help them focus on the positives.

Develop a positive motto. Help your child create a mantra like “I got this,” “I can do it,” or “I can handle it” to counter negative thoughts. Make it sticky and easy to remember.

The Epoch Times: For the mom or dad reading this, concerned for their anxious or depressed child, what are the first steps you’d recommend they take to help him or her?

Ms. Borba: No one knows their child better than their parents. While most parents may not be trained in mental health, they can use their instincts to apply what I call the “TOO Index.” Watch closely and notice if the behavior you’re observing is too different from the child’s natural nature, is too concerning, occurs too frequently, spills over into too many others, and lasts longer than two weeks. Also, ask others who know and care about your child for their input.

If you see a disturbing new trend in your child’s behavior, find out what is causing the change by seeking help from a trained mental health professional, counselor, pediatrician, psychiatrist, or psychologist. And remember that safety is always your top concern, so take immediate action if your child discusses plans of self-harm or your instincts tell you that something is wrong. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor.

The Epoch Times: As a society, what do you think we need to do to reduce these high rates of anxiety and depression in kids?

Ms. Borba: The simple answer is to prioritize children’s mental health. Rates of anxiety and depression have been steadily increasing over the last years but we’ve failed to take those warnings seriously. And then came a pandemic, which only amplifies a pre-existing crisis. Now may be the time when we finally recognize that our children need more than grades and test scores to succeed. In these uncertain times, they must learn skills to handle whatever comes their way.

The Epoch Times: What makes you optimistic about the future?

Ms. Borba: The vast majority of people are caring and concerned—they realize that we are living in a new normal and are finding creative ways to help children become their best.

Follow Barbara on Twitter: @barbaradanza