Monday Motivator: Developing resilience in children
Until this winter, resilience has never been as significant to me as it was Jan. 29-31, 2019.
Dangerously low temperatures challenged most of us. Starting our cars, commuting to work or
taking the dog for a walk when wind chills promised to bite off our noses in a matter of seconds
were not for the faint of heart. For those who stayed in the area, persevered and survived the
bitter cold, I'm convinced our resilience tanks just got refilled.
Resilience is an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change. Simply, it's
our ability to bounce back from life's challenges. Resilience helps us recover from loss and
trauma and fosters a sense of well-being, happiness, and peace.
Imagine that each of us has a tank in our brain and in that container is a hypothetical mixture
that keeps us resilient; able to handle the stresses we face without developing symptoms of
illness. This mixture helps us stay alive and vital.
Each of us has a different size container depending on our genetics, influences from our
environment, the quality of caregiving we received when we were children, and the
temperament we're born with. No matter how large or small our tank, if we keep it adequately
filled, we will remain energized, vital, and relatively free of symptoms, including mental illness.
Drs. Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda, co-founders of the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, looked at the relationship between childhood trauma and subsequent physical and
mental illness. According to their research, the more adverse experiences a child has had, the
greater their risk of mental illness.
Felitti and Anda developed an Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, questionnaire and a score to explain a person's risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. Their 10-point survey assesses an individual's exposure to childhood trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health, emotional and social problems. A score of four (out of 10) and above is a strong indicator (50 percent) of a child getting diagnosed with a mental health disorder. With a score of four or more, the likelihood of developing chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; and suicide, 1,220 percent.
It turns out, our experiences as children have a huge impact on our physical and mental health,
as well as affecting our sense of autonomy and our relationships with others. Resilience is
important because it psychologically immunizes children from mental illness. For a child,
examples of traumatic "bumps" in their life might include an addition to the family (a sibling or
stepparent), separation or divorce, loss of a loved one, bullying, serious illness or injury,
relocating, natural disaster, parent job loss or other economic hardship.
When life is going well—for us or for our children—it's easy to be positive and happy. But
when life becomes bumpy, resilience helps us get through tough times.
The image of a resilience tank is a metaphor, and it is helpful because it points out that there
are things we can do to develop our—and our children's capacity for—resilience.
First, it is essential to teach children self-control. Self-control helps us handle life's
disappointments, worries and frustrations. It makes it easier to focus on goals, finish what we
start, and wait for things we want. Self-control is the foundation for developing other inner
strengths that build resilience.
There are simple ways adults can help children develop self-control and boost their own at the
same time. Children imitate what they see, so adults can model self-control. Practice deep
breathing to calm yourself. Breathe through your nose for a count of three, hold for two, and exhale for a count of four. Regular practice helps adults and children remember to use deep breathing as a natural and helpful response to stressful situations. Help your child picture something pleasant; perhaps a favorite animal or special place. This helps a child who is feeling stressed focus on something that is soothing. Praise your child for waiting: "It was really hard for you to wait your turn, but you did it!"
Second, practice flexible thinking with your children. How we think about situations that
happen to us determines how we feel and what we do. In stressful situations, it's very helpful
to pause and take a step back so that we can look at our problems from a different perspective.
The more flexible we can be in our thinking the more we can stretch ourselves to come up with
solutions to problems. We can encourage children's flexible thinking by gently challenging their
assumptions and imagining another way to do something. This helps children learn there is
more than one way to do things.
Third, build confidence in children by developing an "I can do it" attitude. Children develop
confidence when they keep on trying even when the task is challenging. Adults can help
children develop the confidence and determination to keep on trying despite obstacles and
frustration through encouragement. Identify one strength in your child every day; avoid labels
and criticism; focus on improvement, not perfection; avoid making comparisons with other
children; create opportunities for success and minimize mistakes; instead, concentrate on what
was learned. Show your child mistakes are OK because they can help us learn what to do
differently the next time. Encouragement builds resilience.
Fourth, having an optimistic outlook is one of the best ways to develop resilience because it
makes us feel better, gives us hope and protects us from depression and poor health. If we give
ourselves negative messages—"bad things always happen to me"—or think our problems are
unsolvable, then we are more likely to give up trying. Children copy the adults around them. If
they see their parents showing a positive outlook, it is more likely that children will develop a
positive outlook, too.
Fifth, giving children responsibility helps them feel like they can contribute. Children who see
themselves as useful and helpful develop a belief in their own worth. Taking responsibility
helps them recognize they can make a difference and makes children feel that they count. Give
children age-appropriate chores and make tasks achievable so your child doesn't get
discouraged and can see progress. Children as young as 2 and3 can help put clothes in
the washer or dryer, match socks, and put toys away. Make mistakes a learning experience for
children — don't shame them.
A sixth way to develop resilience in children is to allow them to make choices for themselves.
One of the most important factors in a child's later success is not socioeconomic status,
parents' achievement, or even IQ. Instead, the best predictor of later success is self-efficacy.
Self-efficacy is the belief that one can accomplish something by working at it. If we believe we
can do something and have the self-discipline to apply ourselves, we are likely to get it done.
Allowing children to make choices for themselves fosters independence, teaches cooperation
and leads to less conflict with parents. When children have more self-confidence and higher
self-esteem, they are better able to resist peer pressure to engage in unhealthy behavior.
The gift of time
Seventh, building close, loving relationships with our children is one of the most important
things parents can do to support children's resilience.
Children do best when they feel loved, understood and accepted and are protected from harm. Feeling wanted and loved helps us steer through the bumps in life. Material things are nice, but they're no replacement for quality time with our children. Being truly present to our children—and not looking at our phones when we're with them—sends the message that they are loved.
We can also teach our children how to have caring relationships with other important people in their lives like grandparents and other extended family members, friends, neighbors, and community members. This helps them develop healthy and fulfilling connections with others. And it makes it easier for children to reach out when they need help.
It's OK to ask for help
Finally, everyone needs help sometimes. Reaching out for help is part of resilience, and our
children will benefit from learning this, too. Tell your child it is OK to ask for help when we need
it. Reaching out for help when we're going through difficult times is nothing to be ashamed of.
One way is to ask for support from family, friends, and faith or cultural groups. Another way is
to look for help from community supports and services like telephone help lines, counselling
services, food banks, community centers, self-help groups, etc.
Resilience helps you and your children be prepared mentally for whatever comes your way.
Resilience not only helps you survive but thrive—even in Minnesota winters.
Sources for this article:
Emmons, Henry Dr. The chemistry of calm (2010). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Felitti, Vincent Dr. and Anda, Robert Dr. (2010). "The hidden epidemic: the impact of early life trauma on health and disease." London, England: Cambridge University Press.
http://www.wisebrain.org/tools/wise-brain-bulletin/volume-12-2] http://crowwingenergized.org/mental-health" target="_blank">www.reachinginreachingout.com/resources-parents www.wisebrain.org/tools/wise-brain-bulletin/volume-12-2] crowwingenergized.org/mental-health Minneapolis" target="_blank">crowwingenergized.org/mental-health Minneapolis
MinneapolisStar Tribune (Sept. 9, 2018), "A dose of play," pp. SH1, SH3.
White, Joseph D. (2014). A Catholic parent's tool box: raising healthy families in the 21st century.
Beatrice Comty-Charnock is a marriage and family therapist and alcohol and drug counselor, and certified lifestyle coach and volunteer with the Crow Wing Energized Mental Fitness Goal Group.