by MaryBeth Ventura, Middle School Division Head

Last week TBS hosted a community screening of the new film “Screenagers Next Chapter: Uncovering Skills for Stress Resilience,” a follow-up to the award-winning documentary “Screenagers” about helping young people thrive in our screen and stress-filled world. 

As a school, we care deeply about the mental health and well-being of young people and believe our primary role is to support the critical relationships between young people, their parenting adults, and their school. 

TBS Social-Emotional Learning Coordinator and health teacher, Jared Briggs, screened the film with all middle school students during health class. Afterward he asked them to answer this question: “What is one thing you want adults, or your parenting adults, to know about your mental health and well-being that would be helpful to you?” 

Their responses, paired with the science and research from the movie, were compelling messages and critical for all parenting adults to hear as we focus on helping them discover and build their own skills for resilience in an increasingly-complex world. 

TBS students want their parenting adults to understand that the problem isn’t always as simple as “the phone.” Their emotional lives are complicated and the phone can certainly exacerbate challenges; but it isn’t always the singular or root cause of a problem —  a point supported by research in the film. They wanted their parenting adults to know that mental health is a real thing and that there are many ways, beyond limiting their phone use, that parents can support them in managing stressful feelings. 

A large portion of the film is dedicated to research on the negative impacts of suppressing feelings and emotions on the teen brain. Suppressing emotions day after day can slow down thinking processes and create different academic trajectories for students. How can parents support their adolescents to share their feelings and emotions and not keep them bottled up? Our middle schoolers have some ideas:

  • I wish my parents would share how they are feeling and share when they are stressed.
  • I wish my parents knew that having time set aside to talk about YOUR emotions and MY emotions is really helpful.
  • I wish my parents would listen when I ask for alone time, and also be there when I need and ask for them to be around.
  • I wish my parents knew when to hug me, when to leave me alone, when to say “are you OK,” or “I love you,” and when to be silly.

We know it can be challenging to do this successfully, but it’s important to not give up, even if you don’t get it right the first time. Despite their sometimes being outwardly critical of us, our children are deeply forgiving and want us to keep trying.

Another message our middle schoolers wanted parenting adults to hear was that they need to be given space and permission to ask and answer the question, “What can I do to help myself?”  The most compelling piece of research in the film was one that measured cortisol levels of children and their parenting adults while the child was engaging in a complex task in their parents’ presence. Cortisol is a stress hormone present in the brain, and too much of it negatively impacts learning and processing. When parenting adults stepped in to help solve the task, their own cortisol levels went down, while their child’s cortisol levels went up. Simply put: stepping in to solve a problem for your child makes you feel better, but makes your child feel worse! In our students’ own words:

  • I need to be given more responsibility so I can learn. 
  • It’s not always helpful to tell me what to do. Let me make mistakes. 
  • When I am trying to do something independently, taking control only raises my stress.
  • I wish my parents would listen to my problems and support me rather than try to fix or change how I am feeling.

If it isn’t enough to listen to the words of our middle schoolers, remembering the brain science behind their words can help us resist our desire (and biological need!) to step in. I’m excited to return to this idea in a few weeks as we start to prepare for student-led conferences in March!

If you are interested in learning more, ask your child about the movie, find another screening of “Screenagers Next Chapter: Uncovering Skills for Stress Resilience” to attend, or explore the exhaustive list of resources on their website.