Languishing is a big buzzword of late, describing what a lot of us are feeling after more than a year of pandemic fallout. Languishing is a befuddling case of the blahs. It’s the limbo state that exists in the drift downward on the mental health continuum, with flourishing at one end and clinical depression and anxiety at the other.
Languishing saps your energy to do the healthy stuff of life, such as exercise and nutritious eating, and it makes the drudgery and effort of homework and chores seem Herculean. If you think it’s hard on adults, just talk to kids, as I have for the past year. Here’s what they say:
“My parents keep saying, ‘Start a hobby! Learn something new!’ It’s bad enough just staying at home and doing remote schooling. Then you get to feel guilty that you’re a lazy blob.”
“I know it’s bad for me to just stay in my room and do social media. But when I start thinking about all my worries or look at my parents’ sad faces, tracking Beauty Khan’s new dances on TikTok is a huge relief.”
“Everyone says it’s okay to grieve the loss of my football and basketball world, but when I look back on my junior year, all I see is my life painted in grey. The word ‘remote’ sums it up.”
As I say throughout my books, “You might be right, but are you effective?” Parents are right when they tell their kids that exercise, going outside and engaging in new hobbies will make them feel better, but do kids choose to do so? Do we?
In his New York Times article about COVID-19 languishing, Adam Grant describes the research on languishing that has been around for a couple of decades. Mental health has always existed on a continuum from wonderful to terrible, with a middle zone of risky malaise and withdrawal from challenging goals. But now, the whole country has been sliding down the continuum because of the pandemic.
Grant’s recommended solutions to our languishing problem — to seek flow through healthy outlets and arrange for uninterrupted blocks of time to focus — are options that kids are unlikely to select themselves.
Flow is attained by becoming “at one” with an engaging positive experience and losing sense of time. Teens tell me they experience this state mostly when they game or numb out with social media. Suggesting blocks of time without those pursuits could incite panicky reactions and withdrawal rage. Kids can find joy, gratification and awe in other pursuits, but parents often must arrange those activities.
Trying to improve healthy habits is not a new agenda during the pandemic, but perhaps knowing that languishing is one step away from a downward slide into depression and anxiety may work to turn the tide on the entire family’s psychological ebb.
Every family will pursue activities that work for them, according to their vaccination status and what I call RATS (risk assessment, tolerance, safety). What follows are ideas I’ve gathered from families and youths I’ve worked with over the past year.
Socialize as families
Your child or teen may not be willing to initiate social outings with friends, but you can invite family and friends over for dinner. The ones who have fun kids are on the priority list. You’ll have to negotiate the safety measures, but croquet and badminton are not compatible with cell phone use. Thank goodness.
Schedule game nights
Do research on the cool new board games that got hot during the pandemic, and choose the ones your kids are willing to try. Novelty and laughter release our pleasure hormone, dopamine. And experiencing pleasure with warm companionship releases oxytocin, our “tend and befriend” hormone. Laughter and play are the opposite of worry and dread.
Okay, okay. Walking in a park is great, too. Bribing kids is fine. You do ____________ for them, and they do some form of embracing nature with you. Exposure to natural beauty sparks awe, an underrated positive emotion and source of anti-languishing medicine.
Negotiate but mandate youth activities
Children need to socialize, be with peers, acquire adult mentors, engage with character-building activities and get out of the house. Otherwise, they will almost surely languish or become depressed, if they haven’t already. Gather a list of options and insist that they pick one (or you will). Put long-distance outdoor swimming on the list as a way of making two hours of trail maintenance sound good. Use whatever leverage feels right to you — offer an irresistible reward or make screen use contingent on compliance. But whatever you do, make youth activities a priority.
Surprises perk up the brain and trigger joy. Get a friend to kidnap your child or teen for a fun outing. Glue a five-dollar bill on a note that tells them where they can find three more bills (which requires walking to three places in the neighborhood). Collect hilarious comedy sketches online and arrange laughing dates at bedtime.
Get or borrow a pet
Pet care is a big responsibility, so if you aren’t ready for a new snake, rabbit or dog, that’s fine. But those who have them are happy to lend them out. (Want my Labs?) It is hard to be stressed out when you are walking a dog in a park. Positive distractions are a great way to move from languishing to happiness — for a while anyway.
Get a job
Languishing teens may not be enterprising, but parents can be when they yearn for their teens’ increased self-esteem, mastery and confidence. Many a reluctant teen started a window-washing, car-washing or baby-sitting business, only to swell with pride once it was successful. Middle-schoolers may hate chores, but they do like status and money. Maybe you bankroll some of the equipment to jump-start the business.
Plan an active summer
As we emerge from the sequestered fog of our pandemic year, do everything you can to structure some of this summer's activities for the outdoors, with other children, in social pursuits. Even two weeks of “rehab” (any camp) can jumpstart better well-being in kids.
You might have noticed parents are spearheading these agendas. I don’t expect kids to be motivated. Motivation is what is lost with languishing. Parents are tired and worn out, too. But they are also anxious about their kids’ mental health. Good anxiety can activate. We were activated to scrub groceries and procure toilet paper a year ago. Now, parental anxiety can activate a mission to improve their kids’ mental health.
The pandemic has caused many families to avoid participating in social activities outside of the home for fear of infection. Kids are five times more likely to die in car accidents than by contracting COVID-19. That said, every family will weigh the risks of infection against the risks of social and emotional problems for children who have lost a year of significant developmental opportunities. Kids can catch up, but the less loss, the better.
The great thing about doing things to reduce languishing in your kids is how much family well-being can be improved overall. Doing pleasant, active and healthy things improves everyone’s mental health, and parents get the bonus of the mutual good feelings, which enhance family bonding.
Until I had kids, I didn’t play board games, have a dog, go to parks, play a lot after work, cook healthy meals (almost) every night or avoid jay-walking. Combating languishing is really another valiant big lift to promote personal and family health. Protect your children and family from another form of pandemic harm! Prime your engines! Game on!
The pandemic has intensified an already alarming teen mental health crisis, and parents are more essential than ever in helping their children cope. Join ParentMap, Dr. Tona McGuire and youth crisis specialist Laney Brackett to learn how to keep the lines of communication open.