Every time I think about Calgary I think about the floods that ravaged the community in 2013. As I remember how all those flooded areas looked, I think of how the community came together and those skills most needed in a disaster after the initial shock has passed. At the top of that list is resilience. So what is resilience really? And what are the ways to teach resilience? And as a parent, if I recognized it’s importance and wanted to know how to teach my child resilience what would I do? Firstly, let’s look at what resilience is. It’s defined as the ability to recover from adversity and by all accounts, looking at my local bookstore, it has become one of the popular buzzwords of our time.
What is resilience really?
Books rattle on about it. Experts too. The following quote comes from the American Psychological Association and it sums up much of what I’ve read about developing resilience. “Relationships that create love and trust, provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance, help bolster a person’s resilience.”Of course, they’re absolutely right. Yet something seems to me to be missing from the general discourse about developing resilience and that is, that much of the discussion fails to mention what needs to happen in childhood to create it. The focus instead is confined to having a supportive and loving family, as though this in and of itself, will create resilient children.
That’s where I have a problem, as from my observations from the work I do helping solve children’s common behaviour issues, there’s far more too it than that. I think that’s why from a societal point of view, we are creating children that are less, not more able to handle stress.
Let us first agree though that resilience is critical to coping with the bumps of life that seem to be getting increasingly bumpy. But that begs a question. If it is so critical, then can resilience be taught? And if a loving, supportive family is not enough to create it, what else is needed?
How can you teach resilience?
Can you sit with your children pointing to a book and explain ‘resilience’ as if it was like learning to use the potty or teaching your child how to share with friends? Does it come from trying to learn a skill over and over again until they can do it in their sleep?
No, it doesn’t come from any of those. Resilience is not a skill in the traditional sense. It’s an integral part of being. It results from how you are brought up and the more you are exposed to situations that produce it, the more you will develop. Yes, you can improve your inner resilience and adaptability but it comes from experience and only experience can teach it.
Isn’t it ironic then, that just at the time when we need our children to develop resilience the most, experts, policy makers and parents alike are rapidly eliminating all the experiences that produce it.
Society at large is ruining our children’s ability to develop resilience
So what are those experiences and how is the lack of them impacting our developing children in a way that might ultimately affect our very ability to survive as a species in the long term? If what produces resilience is under assault, what are those assaults? Well, they come under names that we might not even recognize. Try ‘Self esteem’ and ‘Safety.’ It’s not that the concepts these words suggest are bad; rather that that the pendulum has swung so heavily in their favour, that our children are now being denied experiences that are critical to their ability to later navigate the adult world. In short, they symbolize all the words out there that are designed to make us feel good without doing anything remotely out of our comfort zone.
You see, resilience comes out of a struggle. That’s it, there’s no other way to get it. Take the wrong bus and end up at the wrong stop will build you resilience but only if you aren’t able to place a rescue call for someone to pick you up. Failing math and having to try harder: There’s a good one. Having to go to another soccer game and try again because the last time you mucked up and everyone is mad at you. Realizing that a course or activity you thought you’d enjoy is just terrible but sticking with it anyway, even though you’re sometimes miserable.
All the things that we generally think of as negative experiences to be shied away from, are actually integral to being able to actively navigate the world as the adult and deal with the bumps of life. And that is the world as it is now.
The experiences that naturally develop resilience are being peeled away one by one
And it starts so young. Last week, whilst cleaning out a closet, I came across a flyer from a toy store from last Christmas. I took a quick glance and here’s what I found. There was the Fisher Price ‘Smart Cycle.’ Get all the experience of riding your bike without the experience! No wind in your hair. No thrill of taking the corner too fast. No wobble when you move the handlebars too severely. No need for all those worries when your bike is firmly hooked up to the TV. Same for the Fisher Price “Fun 2 Learn Smart Fit Park.” Who knew you didn’t have to go outside and get a tad bit frosty to have some fun this past winter?
Safe, secure and coddled might sound good but it denies children the very coping mechanisms that will make the difference to them as adults.
Babies are coddled and carried about long after they actively outgrow their bounds and want to explore. Moms and dads come running the moment they squawk because they’ve been brainwashed to believe that meeting their children’s needs means never allowing the minimum of discomfort to develop. Nobody is suggesting you ignore your kids but letting a child struggle for a little while for a toy that’s difficult to get or to operate is frustrating, yes, but it also has a huge part to play in the development of resilience. The struggle to get the cherished toy, as difficult as it may be, is what produces the final pleasure of having succeeded.
The more difficult something is to accomplish, the more rewarding it is
You see, it’s that momentary discomfort and struggle that leads to real resilience and ironically, even pleasure. In ‘Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment*,’ Dr Gregory Berns explains that satisfaction is more about the struggle than the achievement itself. In other words, it’s more about the journey and not the arrival. The human brain needs new experiences that are challenging.
How many times have you heard that children should not be allowed to talk to strangers even though the librarian is a stranger, as is the bus driver? How many children are not allowed to play at the playground without mom or dad in tow, following along behind just in case they should fall? How many young children are not allowed to navigate the yard alone? Even the older ones are frequently not allowed on a city bus or not allowed to walk to soccer practice.
For far too many children these days, life is a series of dulled experiences. Experiences that have literally had the very life and inherent risk sucked right out of them.
Let your children struggle a bit
So for all those children whose real experiences are reduced to an empty shell, I implore parents to understand their children’s real needs and take on board the real importance of struggle. Try to resist stepping in to sweep away all your children’s problems as you’re simply not doing them any favours in the long run.
Children, especially little ones, will look to you to see how you deal with things that affect them. Show fear of the world and they will too. Show undue upset at a minor bonk on their head or the fact that their friend has suddenly ditched them to play with someone else is, to give them the idea that such setbacks are overwhelming and deserve great attention, dissection and angst. By all means discuss what happened but do so in a way, that allows them to develop resilience in the face of a negative event and that’s by not focussing on it or giving it undue attention.
Talk about challenges whilst being focused on something else
The best way to discuss an event without giving it that undue attention, is to open the natural doors of communication and talk about it whilst focused on something else. Try sorting the laundry basket together or sweeping the floor. Talking to your children whilst engaged in another task is the way parents have offered support to their children for millennia. To chat whilst doing something alongside your child, is to create an environment that transcends minor difficulties and offers support in a natural way that helps children learn to bounce back from disappointments.
So when it comes to the question of how to teach your child resilience understand that disappointments and even disaster are an integral part of life no matter how hard and frankly horrible those experiences may be, or how much we’d like to enjoy life without them. After all, what’s important is not just how often you fall but how often you get back up again. For an article about how to stop being a hovering parent, click here. For more parenting help, click here.