It's no secret that in 2021 mental health problems will continue on a steep rise for children and families. Resiliency is described by many as the ability to bounce back after facing hardships in life. It is a trait that we can develop, which is good news for those struggling right now.
Tenacity is our lifeline for surviving the challenges of 2020, 2021, and beyond. This critical trait can be learned throughout life, whether your child is an infant, a teen, or a young adult!
According to Dr. Bruce D. Perry, one of the most renowned experts in the study of childhood trauma, resiliency builds when stressors are moderate and predictable.
Consider the stress of learning to play a new sport, for example.
- Learning a new skill is a stressor.
- Performing that skill in front of others is a moderate stressor.
- Knowing when and where you will need to show up for practice and games regularly makes the stressor predictable.
Therefore, it is likely that encouraging children to play sports should build resilience, as long as it is not causing severe distress to the child. As the parent, it will be your role to discern what is too much pressure, and this can be difficult. With practice, these decisions will become more manageable if we stay aware of our child's cues. Parenting is mostly an experiment and a "back and forth" of learning what works and what doesn't work.
We can also use Dr. Perry's equation about moderate and predictable stressors to determine whether or not an event will likely build resilience or break it down. For example, Covid-19 is a stressor that most would agree is beyond moderate due to its life-threatening nature. It is also very unpredictable and changes our routines and expectations daily. Because of these factors, the stress of Covid-19 is likely having a traumatic impact on humans, especially children without strong support networks and healthy coping mechanisms in place.
Many factors determine our ability to handle stress and overcome adversity. Resiliency is a trait that falls on a spectrum, with most of us somewhere in the middle. However, some people are set up from birth to be less resilient, while others have the advantage of developing more profound resiliency.
What contributes to our children's ability to thrive after hard times?
- A strong support network
- Innate temperament
- Secure Attachment Style
- Cognitive functioning
- Overcoming mild-moderate stress in the past
- Warm and supportive parenting (not tough love)
What are some circumstances that break down our ability to overcome adversity?
- A history of traumatic events
- Lack of control over one's life
- Authoritarian, controlling parenting
- Insecure attachment due to loss, neglect, and abuse
- Unstable family life
- Unsafe neighborhoods and schools
- Unhealthy lifestyle habits
Caregivers and those working with children can support resilience by:
- Sharing our vulnerability with children
- Letting children see us struggle at tasks and persevere
- Encouraging them to participate in activities that result in an end goal (board games, puzzles, stringing beads, reading chapter books, sports)
- Waiting and observing our children instead of jumping in
- Giving a child space and time to figure out and solve their problems
- Understanding the components of authoritative parenting and allowing our children to develop an internal locus of control and intrinsic motivation.
- Letting go of the power over our children and allowing them to make decisions (age appropriately)
Suffering is an expected part of this journey because resilience is a muscle that we strengthen over time and experiences. However, developing this muscle is most effective when encouraged by warm, loving, and responsive caregiving. Children need breaks from frustrating tasks, and they need to know it is o.k. to give up sometimes. The pressure to "never give up" could turn into a from of "toxic positivity" if we harp on it too much. I like to focus on the fact that my child tried and made an effort, regardless of the outcome
I believe we support our children most when we are aware of their cues for emotional overwhelm and intervene when needed. Building resilience and tenacity is a delicate dance. AND, it is also the work of conscious parenting that will guide our children to become compassionate, motivated, and emotionally healthy adults.
When in doubt, practice the power of waiting. Wait to see if they can pick up the tiny object with their chubby baby fingers. Wait to see if they can stand up without your help. Wait to see if they decide to fill out the college application on their own. There is empowerment in waiting.
***If you like this discussion, please join us in my Facebook group, Emotiminds. It is a private community of parents, teachers, and mental health professionals working together to build our children and families' emotional well-being. We would love to have your perspective!