Parenting Solutions: Teaching Children to Bounce Back: Ways to Raise Resilient Kids

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

When a crisis arrives, there are steps that parents and other significant adults can take to help children not only survive, but even to thrive.

Recently the Los Angeles Times featured a front-page story about high school senior Margie Peralta. Although she was afflicted by poverty, a terribly abusive mother, and forced to live in an array of foster homes, the San Fernando, Calif., teen-ager is the “picture of success,” according to the newspaper.

Growing up in a poor neighborhood, Margie often had to outrun tough kids who chased her. Worse was the fact that she often had to outrun her mother, who by Margie’s account would often beat her in bursts of frightening, unprovoked rage. The abuse became so severe that child welfare authorities placed Margie in a series of foster homes—places that she says exhibited their own “kind of weirdness” and that she describes as being like prisons. Yet, she displayed a remarkable ability to bounce back from each negative situation she encountered.

Thanks to her inner resilience, this high school senior seems destined for a future of success, not of utter failure. Margie is graduating from San Fernando High School with high honors and as editor of the school newspaper. She has been admitted to the University of California, Berkeley.

A harsh reality of life is that children, like adults, will experience their own unique trials and tribulations. Some may be minor—receiving a low grade on a project—and some may be major—the death of a parent. When a crisis arrives, whether it is large or small, some children flounder while others seem to flourish.

Although resilience, the ability to bounce back from trouble, may be more naturally inborn in some youths than others, that bounce-back ability can be a learned skill. Here are some important steps that parents and other key adults can take to help children not only survive but even thrive:

  • Always show love and support. Margie Peralta’s painful history was eased because of gentle support received from an English teacher at her middle school.That teacher began to transform her life. One of the class projects was a daily journal that Margie didn’t have much interest in at first. But as she began to scratch words onto paper, the young woman began to discover herself. The more she discovered, the more she felt control over a life that was unpredictable and brutal for her.

    “He [the teacher] made me see my strengths instead of weaknesses,” she says of her former instructor. “Before him I thought, One day I’ll go to a junior college and be O.K. But he said, ‘No, one day you’ll go to a university and be successful.’ He changed my standards.”

    The lesson: Always extend love and support to children, especially when they are struggling with a crisis.

  • Encourage a child to use friends as a buffer against stress. ”Cheerful company shortens the miles,” declares a German proverb. Apply the wisdom in that saying toward a child dealing with crisis and encourage your child to remain emotionally linked to a good friend or two. A true friend always helps us think our most noble thoughts, put forth our best effort, view the world optimistically, and generally be our best selves.Consider the experience of 12-year-old Cody Unser, daughter of professional race-car driver Al Unser Jr. In early 1999 she was stricken by a mysterious disease. Within a day the sixth grader went from being an active and athletic child to becoming paralyzed from the chest down. Bewildered doctors struggled to make a diagnosis, finally concluding she had transverse myelitis (TM), a rare and mysterious disease that destroys the spinal-cord nerve cells.

    Although there are many frustrating moments and days, Cody, who now moves about from a wheelchair, is emotionally energized and strengthened by friendship. As soon as she returned home from the hospital, “I had my friends over… because I missed them so much,” she says.

    Particularly important to Cody is her friend Danielle Marquez, who spends a lot of time with Cody. “I think of [Cody] as the same person,” says Danielle. “She is just sitting down most of the time.”

  • Show children how to adopt survivors’ traits. Be guided by these words from Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian author who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913: “Misfortune is great, but human beings are even greater than misfortune.”While there is much suffering in our world, there is also the overcoming of suffering. Like adults, children can and do triumph over tragedy.

    Vital to this process is the adopting of psychological survival attitudes. Clinical psychologist Ann Kaiser Stearns interviewed people whose lives were shattered by serious disease, unexpected death, chronic pain, the trauma of being prisoners of war. Based on her interviews, Dr. Kaiser Stearns identifies the following attitudes as common to survivors. Examine these and help your child adopt them:

    • I will accept life’s challenge.
    • I will not be defeated.
    • I will vividly examine the future.
    • I will take advantage of available opportunities.
    • I will not assume the victim posture.
    • I can do it if I set my mind.
    • I have to be willing to expand.
    • I am consciously deciding to be in the company of good people.

    In addition, Dr. Kaiser Stearns cites a positive attitude as vital for surviving: “At heart, they [survivors] are optimists who struggle to maintain a positive attitude in the aftermath of the most difficult of human circumstances. They can enjoy life at times, even while hurting. There is the ability to see humor in a situation or laugh at themselves.”

  • Advise children to help others. Ironically, in helping others, we help ourselves. That is especially true when children are undergoing a crisis. By helping someone else, children take the focus off their pain and regain some control over their lives.When word spread that Cody Unser was hospitalized, she was deluged with 200 stuffed animals by her father’s fans. Even though she was frightened by her terrible ordeal, she had the maturity to be bothered by the fact that other children in the hospital did not have as much support. “I’d hear them crying,” she recalls. “They’d be in some empty room with maybe one balloon. I started giving them my stuffed toys.”
  • Prepare for crisis. William B. Carey, M.D., a clinical professor of pediatrics and author ofCoping With Children’s Temperament: A Guide for Professionals, offers this advice for helping children better deal with trouble:”If you are planning to move to a new community, divorce your spouse, adopt another child, enter the hospital, attend the funeral of a loved one, or bring any significant change into your family life, talk with your children about it in advance. Do not pull any surprises.”

    Dr. Carey also advises that a parent listen carefully to his or her children’s concerns, acknowledge any fears and apprehensions, and answer questions honestly and directly. “Reassure them and give them the facts about the situation in a clear and age-appropriate way,” he says.

  • Get children into the outdoors. ”Nature is a great reliever of anxiety for both you and your children,” writes educator Dr. Wayne W. Dyer in his book, What Do You Really Want for Your Children? His suggestions include camping; hiking; and sitting in a boat, appreciating the beauty of a lake, pond, or river. Even a simple stroll through a park can be rejuvenating.”Young children crave nature, and you can raise them to appreciate it by making every effort to instill a love, and a healthy respect, for the magnificent miracle that is in everything natural.”
  • Remind children that no crisis lasts forever. Due to lack of experience, children often fail to understand that a bad day will end and a crisis will pass. They need coaching from an adult to realize that the cause of their distress is not going to be a permanent condition. Here are some simple ways to help a child see that a situation is temporary and can be reversed or corrected:
    • Your team lost today, but there is another game next week.
    • Your grade is low, but the teacher will let you rewrite the essay.
    • If you call John and apologize, he won’t stay angry at you.
    • You fell off your bike, but if you keep practicing, you will ride like a pro.

    These sentences are effective in helping a child understand that his or her negative feelings won’t last forever and that one failure won’t ruin everything.

    Finally, encourage children to seek the good that can come from the bad. The 17th-century British writer John Bunyan observed: “Afflictions make the heart more deep … more profound, and so, more able to hold, to contain, and beat more.” Like adults, children need to learn from sad experiences and discover the power of transforming adversity into advantage.

    Victor Parachin writes from Tulsa, Okla.

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