By Victor M. Parachin
Illustration by Jeffrey Smith
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 homesplaces 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 minorreceiving a low grade on a projectand some may be majorthe 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:
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.
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."
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:
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."
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."
"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.
"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."
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.
Top of Page
|The Boy Scouts of America||http://www.scouting.org|