Illness, divorce, crime, war, abuse, poverty and other similar life trauma forever damages some children while others seem to possess the natural ability to move on. Why is that? Some children experience these things and become mentally or emotionally crippled for the rest of their lives. Others experiencing the same horrible events are somehow made stronger and go on to lead healthy and productive lives.
What’s the difference between the two groups?
This particular question has been at the core of a number of research projects. Social scientist, psychologist, medical doctors, educators, and others interested in the well being of children have long sought to understand what causes some children to do well in bad environments and awful situations while others do poorly.
The point of the research isn't just academic. It’s very practical. If we can understand the difference then those working with children might be able to replicate the conditions for success and eliminate the conditions for failure.
Growing up in poverty, a child of a teenage mother, I've often pondered about these things myself. During my childhood I experienced abuse and neglect of every category. I moved over fifty times before I was eighteen. I lived through some terribly bad situations and experienced some pretty nasty stuff but my life today does not reflect any of that. Why is that?
People who hear my story often want to know how I made it. There is a theological answer that has to do with prayer, the ministry of others in my life, and the unconditional love of my heavenly father. But there's also a sociological answer. That answer is not separate from the work of God but rather a recognition, I believe, of how the creator made us.
Think of it like this. Why do some children get sick a lot and others don’t? It most likely has to do with the individual child’s ability to fight off various illnesses. Things like their physical constitution, diet, and exercise will not only affect how often they get sick but how quickly and successfully they recover from illness. It may also have something to do with the health of their environment and of people around them.
Child resilience is the mental, emotional, and psychological ability to weather life's storms without long term negative consequences.
So what kind of emotional vitamins do children need to do well? What kind of mental nutrients give children the strength required to push through difficult times? What environmental conditions are better suited to help children make it through tough times? But the more important question is, what can we adults do to ensure that all children get what they need to be resilient?
There is a great deal out there on this subject. Some of it too scientific to get a handle on and some of it to antidotal to be truly reliable. Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine is the author of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wing. I recommend it as a great place to start.
Dr. Ginsburg simplifies the subject and categorizes the research in a lists of seven traits that build resilience. It’s made easy to remember because all of the traits begin with the letter C – competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping, and control.
I'm convinced, that if we strive to make every activity, lesson, conversation, event, and relationship centered on instilling these qualities into the lives of children, we will ensure their success. The opportunities are unlimited and the long term benefits are incalculable.
Competence: Competence describes the feeling of knowing that you can handle a situation effectively. We can help the development of competence by:
1. Helping children focus on individual strengths. That doesn't mean we deny or ignore a child’s weaknesses but rather we make a purposeful choice to identify a child’s strengths and find ways to let that child live within their strengths as much as possible. As a side note to this point - be sure to recognize the competencies of siblings individually and avoid comparisons.
2. When child do make mistakes be sure to focus on specific incidents rather than on generalities. Then help the child strategize how to not make that mistake again.
3. The best way we can build competence in children is by empowering them to make decisions. Even small children can be given options. Asking toddlers if they want and apple or a banana, for examples, starts exercising their decision making abilities early on. As they get older give them more options and more important decisions.
4. Be careful that your desire to protect your child doesn't mistakenly send them a message that you don’t think he or she is competent to handle things. The unintended consequences of the “helicopter parenting” is that we are building a generation of protected children who lack competence and therefore confidence to tackle life problems on their own.
Confidence: Confidence is a child’s belief in his own abilities is derived from competence. Here's some ways to build confidence in children.
1. Clearly express the best qualities in your children but be careful not to overly focus on their talents or physical abilities. Be sure to point out such things as fairness, integrity, persistence, and kindness. Those kinds of traits are relevant and useful in every stage of their life.
2. Recognize when children do well - really do well. False praise, grade inflation, and trophies for doing nothing but showing up does not build real confidence. It only builds a hollow confidence. I'm convinced that the self-esteem movement of the last four decades has done more harm than good.
3. When we do offer praise, and we should do it as often as we can, be sure it's always honest and about specific achievements.
4. While we want to build confidence in children by allowing them to try new things be sure not push the them to take on more than they can realistically handle.
Connection: Connection is about developing close ties to family and community. It’s about creating a solid sense of security that helps lead to strong values and prevents alternative destructive paths to love and attention. You can help your child connect with others by:
1. Building a sense of physical safety and emotional security within your home, school, and community. Children simply can not grow strong without a sense of safety and well being.
2. Allow the expression of all emotions, so that kids will feel comfortable reaching out during difficult times. Sometimes we adults suppress our emotions but children should always feel free to do that.
3. Another way to create feelings of safety while encouraging connection is to address conflict openly in the family.
4. Creating a common area where the family can share time (not necessarily TV time). The dinner table is a great place for this. My adult children often talk about how much our conversations and laughter at the dinner table meant to them.
5. Fostering healthy relationships that will reinforce positive messages. Be sure children have opportunities to be connected to extended family if possible and to others in the community. Church should be a place where children are connected.
Character: Children need to develop a solid set of morals and values to determine right from wrong and to demonstrate a caring attitude toward others. To strengthen your child’s character, start by:
1. Demonstrating how behaviors affect others. Here's where conversations around the dinner table can have multiple positive outcomes.
2. Help your child recognize themselves as a caring person. Point it out when you catch them caring for someone or something. Praise them when you see them demonstrating a positive character traits like honesty, respect, and diligence.
3. Encouraging the development of personal faith and morality. Just remember these can’t simply be taught, they must be caught. The best way for them to "catch" faith and morality is to see it lived out in other people.
Contribution: Children need to realize that the world is a better place because they're in it. Understanding the importance of personal contribution can serve as a source of purpose and motivation. A child who has a strong sense of purpose can handle a lot of difficulty. Teach your children how to contribute by:
1. Communicating to children that many people in the world do not have what they need. But it can’t stop there. We must then demonstrate how those needs can be meet. Teaching children there are unmet needs in the world and then showing them how they can meet those needs not only helps to counter the more selfish side of their nature but also give them the confidence needed to do something about it.
2. We do that by stressing the importance of serving others by modeling generosity and then find opportunities, create opportunities needed, for each child to contribute in some specific way to some particular need. It will also build character and connection.
Coping: Learning to cope effectively with stress will help your child be better prepared to overcome life’s challenges. How do we do that?
1. Like everything we've talked about so far, it starts by modeling positive coping strategies on a consistent basis. Children are like sponges. They absorb everything including how we adults cope with stress in our lives. So, lets be sure we're doing a good job of it.
2. Parents, teachers and others must realize that simply telling a child to stop a negative behavior will not be effective. We must give them tools and strategies to do that.
3. Likewise, we must also understand and appreciate that many risky and negative behaviors of children are attempts to alleviate the stress and pain in their daily lives. Here’s where empathy is required. Do not condemn children for negative behaviors. When we do we potentially increase their sense of shame. Also, we should never punish children for doing childish things.
Control: Children who realize that they can control the outcomes of their decisions are more likely to realize that they have the ability to bounce back. A child’s understanding that he or she can make a difference in their own lives by their actions and attitudes further promotes competence and confidence. We can empower our children by:
1. Helping them to understand that life’s events are not purely random and that most things that happen are the result of another individual’s choices and actions. They especially need to see the connection between their own behavior and the consequences of that behavior on others.
2. Those who care for and work with children must Learn that discipline is about teaching, not punishing or controlling. Use discipline to help a child understand that actions produce certain consequences.
Children are remarkably resilient. They have a lot of built in survival skills. Fortunately because of that, it takes very little to change a child’s life for the better.
Many successful adults who had difficult childhoods, like myself, can remember a pivotal experience that allowed them to turn their troubled lives around. For some it was an adult who showed confidence in them. For others it might have been a summer camp that expanded their competence.
For some it was a connection with the friendly neighborhood Kool-Aid mom who feed them when they were hungry. For others it may have been a safe place like a local church that nurtured their spirit, taught them character, and allowed them to express their ideas and talents.
It really doesn't take much to turn a life around. It doesn't always take a lot of resources but it does always take caring and a willingness to intervene by adults.
Of all the techniques that build resilience in children, two things are paramount. First, children need to know that there is an adult in their life who believes in them and who loves them unconditionally.
Secondly, kids will live “up” or “down” to our expectations. Expect more not less from them but also with those higher expectation be sure to also give them the resources they need to meet them.
There's no simple way that guarantees resilience in every child. Nonetheless, we can challenge ourselves to help every child develop the ability to negotiate their own challenges and to be more resilient, more capable, and happier.