December 15, 2016 —

Every month, we keep you informed on the latest research in our “Not My Teen” blog series. Today, we’re looking at a study of Carol Dweck’s growth mindset and how teens can use it to manage social stress.

High school is full of academic, athletic, social and personal challenges. For many teenagers, these obstacles are sources of stress rather than experiences from which to learn and grow. According to psychologist Carol Dweck, people with a fixed mindset believe that basic qualities – like intelligence, social skills or talent – are inherent and unchangeable. With this mentality, the failure to meet expectations can be crushing, and the social stress of high school can feel as if it will last forever. 

But what if teens could change their mindset? In a recent article, the The Huffington Post looked to psychologists for answers.

A University of Texas at Austin and University of Richmond study set out to test if a slight shift in mindset could reduce stress in teenagers. The psychologists behind the study enlisted 60 high school students, 30 of which attended an interactive session on growth mindsets. People with growth mindsets, as opposed to fixed mindsets, understand that people can change, and that social situations do not define their worth. The students discussed what this meant within their high school; for example, teens in an exclusive clique are not inherently better or worse than others, and difficult things like exclusion, harsh words or embarrassing moments will not last forever. The students read scientific evidence and testimonials which supported a growth mindset and wrote a letter to another student to help them internalize the lesson. 

Later, both the experimental and control group performed “social stress tasks” – a difficult math test and a public speech. Researchers measured their cortisol levels and cardiovascular activity before, during and after the tasks. Students also completed a survey of how threatened they felt by the tasks.

Unsurprisingly, researchers found that students who attended the growth mindset session perceived the tests to be less threatening, both in their self-evaluation and physiological responses. Not only did they feel better, they performed better. Their shift in mindset helped them achieve higher levels of public speaking and math. 

While it is unfortunate that most teens view the world with a fixed mindset, it is remarkably easy to integrate flexible thinking into teens’ lives. In just 30 minutes, students altered their perception of difficult social situations. Imagine what difference this mentality could make if students practiced it every day. 

Teens don’t need an interactive session and university psychologists – there are many ways parents can foster a growth mindset at home. Here’s how you can make a difference:

  1. Praise your teen’s efforts over inherent qualities. This reinforces the mentality that what matters is not necessarily the perceived outcome, but what your teen learned.
  2. Set manageable goals with your teen. Rather than allowing your teen to succumb to the pressure of getting into the best possible college, try encouraging them to think about achieving one smaller goal at a time. For example, a more realistic immediate goal might be to study for the ACT for two hours every week. Checking things off slowly, but steadily can help increase your teen’s confidence and make the scary, loftier goals seem smaller.
  3. Talk to your teen about how having a growth mindset works. Whether it’s JK Rowling, Michael Jordan or Beethoven, you won’t have to look far for examples of people who benefited from this mentality. The ability to take risks and learn from challenges is a trait of nearly all successful people.
  4. Practice adding the word “yet” to the end of sentences with your teen any time they say something discouraging. For example: “I’m not good at math… yet.”
  5. Remind your teen to relax. Stress can have a negative impact on one’s worldview, health and academic performance, so encourage your teen to do something positive when you catch them stressing out. Cooking, reading, biking or dancing are great ways to keep stress in check. 

Whatever you do to implement the growth mindset in your home, helping teens manage their social stress is well worth it. Do you have a growth mindset success story? Or perhaps additional tips for helping teens to cultivate a growth mindset? Share in the comments below!