Allison JOHNSON : Bouncing back – encouraging resilience in your child

By Allison Johnson, M.Ed., Program Consultant AADAC Youth Services Centre – Calgary

It was first published in Alberta Parent Quarterly magazine, May-July, 1999

Once, long ago, I embarked on a terrifying new adventure. It wasn’t one of my choosing. It was, instead, one of those gauntlets that life periodically throws down before us, a challenge that we have no choice but to face the best way we know how. There was no precedent in my peer group for this. No one could, I felt, really appreciate or understand my anticipation, or my terror. What lay before me was big. It was momentous. It was — elementary school.

As adults, it’s easy to minimize, or forget entirely, the stresses and strains of childhood. No matter how old we are, all of us reach milestones and turning points. For kids, starting at a new school or facing a challenge is a huge turning point. Like any adult facing a daunting new situation, kids feel the pressure too. « This is new. Can I handle it ? What if I fail ? What if these strangers don’t like me ? » In order to fit in, some kids may make unwise choices, including experimentation with alcohol or other drugs. Fortunately, most of us survive these transitions and adapt well. We do that by drawing on our innate resilience, our ability to bounce back from adversity and cope with stress and change.

Resiliency is a hot concept in mental health research these days, and it’s a refreshing change from the usual preoccupation with what’s wrong with everybody. Resiliency assumes that everyone has abilities, attitudes, and tendencies that can help them survive, even thrive in stressful or adverse situations. While some of these abilities are innate, many are developed or enhanced by exposure to supportive people and environments. These positive personal tendencies and environmental conditions are called protective factors.

Bonnie Benard, a prominent researcher in the field, has narrowed a long list of protective factors down to three key qualities that help children and adults manage stress points in their lives. These qualities are :

Having a caring and supportive relationship with at least one person (in the case of children, this person is an adult ; a parent, a teacher, a neighbour, a relative, a member of the clergy) ; Hearing consistent, clear, and high but realistic expectations (« I know you can do it ! » messages), and Having plenty of meaningful opportunities to shape, influence, and control aspects of one’s environment.

These factors combine with the ability to develop close relationships with others, good problem-solving skills, a clear sense of purpose, and faith in one’s abilities. Of course, having caring and supportive people around you who tell you you’re capable and competent, and who support you when you test your wings contribute significantly to self-esteem and your own sense of competence. The relationship between resilient personal qualities and the kinds of things in the environment that shape them is clear.

So how is resiliency important for kids who are facing an unfamiliar or challenging situation ?

Every new circumstance we encounter is a potential threat to our well-being. Like adults, kids run the risk of failure, of making the wrong decision, of responding in the wrong way. The temptation to take the path of least resistance, to maintain feelings of relative safety and security, is strong. For some kids, the path of least resistance may mean caving in to peer pressure, or making the unsafe or unwise decision rather than risking rejection or censure. However, many kids thrive in the face of change, even chaos. Why ?

Because they have a basic faith in their ability to manage novel situations. Because they have cheerleaders in their midst. Because they have past successes to draw from that tell them they are capable of handling a tough situation. Because they are resilient — they bounce back.

Kids who adapt in healthy ways to adversity and change tend to have higher self esteem, are more likely to succeed in school, are less likely to drop out, to get pregnant, and to develop drug problems, than kids who stiffen and snap when strong winds blow. Resilient kids seek out — and use– the support of people who believe in them. They are given, or recognize, every opportunity to fly and they take it, knowing that if they fall, they’ll have learned valuable lessons for next time. Resilient kids are survivors, even thrivers — sometimes in the most horrendous of circumstances.

How can you as a parent or caregiver nurture resilience in your children ? Try these tactics ; they probably sound familiar :

Be aware of key milestones and transition points in your child’s life. Entering school, changing from elementary to junior and then to senior high, graduating high school and entering the workforce or college — all these are high stress points and require you to be available and supportive ; Listen — really listen — to your child. Check any tendency to minimize or trivialize your child’s concerns. Even if your child insists they are fine and refuses to talk, expressing your concern lets them know that you’re there for them and that you care — an important thing for a child to know at any age ; Offer tips and hints when you’re able, but allow children to solve the problem by themselves. Resilient kids learn to problem-solve only when they’re allowed to. Don’t be afraid to let them see you struggle with and solve problems, either ; Let kids know how capable they are. We all need a cheering section, even if it consists of just one person. Kids have an uncanny sense of whether people believe in them or not, so back up your words with an abiding faith in their abilities ; Encourage them to ask for help where necessary. This helps them build a support network, something that’s crucial when things are going badly as well as when things are going well.

By the way, I survived my transition to elementary school all those years ago. The experience helped me to learn much about my ability to handle new situations, and it set me up to handle greater challenges down the road. All of us have an innate ability to manage change and stressful situations. Some we will handle with greater ease and grace than others. But each time we manage a challenge, we reinforce the believe we have about ourselves that we can « do it. » Kids who have their resiliency nurtured and cultivated are set up to successfully deal with not only school transitions, but also the many other life challenges that will, inevitably, come their way.

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