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Bouncing back: nurturing resilience in children

Published on: March 01, 2010

Happy boyChrista Brelsford, a 25-year-old American, was visiting Haiti when January’s earthquake struck. Pinned under a building and badly injured, she was rushed — by moped — to a military hospital. Christa survived, but her right foot was amputated.

“I’m not worried about my foot; I’m so thankful to be alive,” she said with a smile a few days later on the Today show. Wasn’t she devastated, host Matt Lauer asked, when she found out doctors couldn’t save her foot? “I’ll still get to live my life; there are a lot of people in Haiti who won’t,” Christa said.

Christa, it turns out, was well equipped to handle the crisis she faced in Haiti. That’s because she has resilience. It’s resilience that will help see her through her recovery — and through the considerable challenges she’ll continue to confront.

Resilience, says Kristi Kwon, Ph.D., is what propels people to make it through strife, catastrophe and other difficult situations. “Resilient people are able to adapt well in the face of adversity,” says Kwon, a Bellevue psychologist who treats children and adolescents. “This can range from daily obstacles, to natural disasters, to the loss of a parent or friend.”

How crucial is it that our children develop resilience? Very, she says. “Kids who don’t cope well with setbacks become more stressed. And the accumulation of stress can lead to depression, anxiety and antisocial behavior.”

Overwhelmed kids

These days, we’re seeing more stressed kids than ever, experts say. “Every generation of children has a higher risk of depression than the previous generation,” says Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., the author of Raising Resilient Children and Nurturing Resilience in Our Children. That’s because the pressures they face keep increasing, he says. “The world creates more and more stress on our children.”

As parents and educators continue raising the expectation bar for kids — looking for higher levels of performance in school, sports, community service — the list goes on — kids start operating on overload, says Ron Feinberg, M.S.W., a Mercer Island therapist. “They feel overwhelmed, helpless and powerless,” he says.

Why do some youngsters seem more affected by these pressures than others? Blame it on biology. While there are probably no “resilience genes,” there are inborn traits that influence whether or not a child will become resilient, Goldstein says. “Some children are very easy to comfort from birth while others are much more difficult to calm and comfort,” he says in Nurturing Resilience in Our Children. “This latter group often experiences a very low emotional threshold and a high intensity of reaction.”

But, he adds, “Biology is not destiny. [Resilience] is something you can learn.” But it takes effort, tolerance and plenty of support from parents, he says.

Rescue me!

We’ve all seen the “lifeboat parent” — the one who constantly protects her child from obstacles, bad news or pretty much anything unpleasant: “Don’t mention the earthquake in front of Jack.” Or, “Don’t let Abigail find out about the birthday party; she wasn’t invited.”

Families that seem to know all the right moves in other parenting arenas sometimes crumble when faced with a sensitive child who runs for cover when things go wrong.

But constantly shielding children — even emotionally vulnerable ones — doesn’t work so well, says Goldstein. “If we create a world for them without adversity, then we really don’t know whether they will have the wherewithal to cope and thrive.”

In Nurturing Resilience in Our Children, Goldstein says there are only some areas in the lives of children that require rescuing, and “those typically concern issues of safety and security.”

The trick is to expose kids to challenges without overwhelming them. Goldstein calls this “stress inoculation.” While children don’t need to actually suffer to develop resilience, they do need to experience the successes and failures all kids encounter, he says.

Stepping in

What’s the best way to foster resilience in your child — even if he’s the hypersensitive type?

Kwon says start by becoming a good listener. “Allow your kids to express their emotions about a scary or unhappy experience,” she says. “Talk about it. Offer warmth and support, and put the incident in perspective. Say things like, ‘Is it really the end of the world that you got a C?’”

Help your child build close bonds with family and friends, she says, but make sure the friendships are positive ones and that the friends are good role models.

Limit the time your child spends with what Feinberg calls “virtual relationships.” When kids devote hours to Xbox, they’re not honing their social skills. “Kids need to practice with their peers to build social resilience, and with adults to deal with authority figures. They need real-life experiences,” he says.

Be an emotion coach. “Help your children build and use a ‘feelings’ vocabulary,” Feinberg says. “Self-awareness and emotional intelligence are building blocks to fostering resilience.”

Ask your children to talk about their day — and how they felt about it, says Feinberg. “That narrative is the practice tool for building resilience.”

Linda Morgan is the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Emotional, Social, and Academic Potential.

Ten ways to help nurture resilience in your children

  1.  Be empathetic. The ability to see the world through your kids’ eyes is essential for fostering resilience.
  2.  Communicate with respect. Always consider whether you’re saying things in a way that will make your children more receptive.
3.  Be flexible. It teaches kids there are alternative ways of solving problems and that you can learn from your mistakes.
Give kids your undivided attention. Kids feel loved when they know their parents enjoy being with them.
Accept your kids for who they are. Your kids may not match your expectations, but it’s vital to recognize their innate temperaments.
6.  Give kids a chance to contribute. When we enlist children in helping others, we communicate our faith in their ability to handle a variety of tasks and give them a sense of responsibility.
7.  Treat mistakes as learning experiences. Kids whose parents overreact to mistakes tend to avoid taking risks and end up blaming others for their problems.
8.  Stress your children’s strengths. Although resilient kids aren’t deterred by failure, they also relish successes. Their sense of accomplishment and pride give them the confidence to persevere the next time they face a challenge.
9.   Let your kids solve problems and make decisions. One trap that many parents fall into is the tendency to rescue their children too quickly.
10. Teach discipline. The ultimate goal is to nurture self-discipline so that your children will act responsibly even when you aren’t around.

      Adapted from Raising Resilient Children by Robert Brooks, Ph.D., and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.


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