When I was 12, my mother died suddenly of cancer -- an emotional blow I didn't fully recover from for many years. When I became a mother myself, I was haunted by the fear that my daughter might have to suffer a similar loss. Like most parents, I wanted to shield my child from pain. But I also wondered if there was any way I could prepare her to face adversity -- and bounce back.
A growing field of research indicates that there is. Over the past decade or so, psychologists have studied people who suffered childhood trauma, from poverty and illness to abandonment and sexual abuse, and discovered, to the surprise of many, that some people emerge from severe adversity relatively unscathed. What's more, these survivors share specific traits (see "Can Your Child Bounce Back?") that helped them navigate the treacherous channels of their childhood. The question for those of us in loving, stable families is whether we can teach our own children those same traits.
Can We Foster Resilience?
Steven Wolin, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at George Washington University, believes that we can. Dr. Wolin, coauthor, with his wife, Sybil Wolin, Ph.D., of The Resilient Self: How Survivors of Troubled Families Rise Above Adversity ($23, Villard Books), believes we can help our children build "emotional muscles" to help them rebound from hardship. And we can do this with a few basic parenting tools, including what Sybil Wolin, a developmental psychologist with Project Resilience in Washington, DC, calls "modeling" -- demonstrating through our own behavior that "hardships are conquerable, manageable." We accomplish this when, for instance, we maintain our sense of humor when we're running late and stuck in traffic.
In addition, says Ann Masten, Ph.D., director of the University of Minnesota's Institute of Child Development, we can "use the teaching moment" -- pointing out appropriate and inappropriate responses to stress in other people we see on the street, in books and movies, even in our own families. Most important, we can encourage the kinds of behavior that build emotional strength, from independent problem-solving to collaboration. Masten and others in the field also point to certain key actions that we can take to help our kids develop the combination of traits collectively known as resilience.
Encourage the Three I's
Central to the ability to rebound from stress is a sense of mastery over your own life. And what fuels this feeling are the three I's: independence, initiative, and insight.
If we want to raise independent children, the first thing we have to do is pay less attention to one of the most basic of parental urges: Our desire, often finely tuned, to keep our kids out of harm's way. "You don't want to overprotect your children," says Jerome Kagan, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University. "Let them know that it's okay to climb trees, to engage in rough-and-tumble sports." And, from an early age, teach them to do things for themselves, from pouring a glass of juice to inviting a friend over for the afternoon to, later on, scouting the library for information about prospective colleges.
To encourage initiative -- the ability to self-start -- Sybil Wolin suggests letting your children begin to tackle not just everyday tasks but personal problems as well; instead of telling them what to do, ask them what they think should be done (and make sure they follow through). According to David Miller, Ph.D., associate professor of social work at The Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University, this is also a good way to help your kids develop insight -- the ability to understand why things happen, and how our own actions can make a difference. Miller offers the example of a child who's gotten in trouble at school for fighting at recess or talking back to the teacher. Instead of simply punishing the child, suggests Miller, sit down with him and, together, look at several alternative ways he might have behaved; then let him choose the behavior that would have led to a better outcome. "This kind of approach lets children see that they always have choices," he says.
Set an Agenda
Miller believes that one of the most important resources for a child facing adversity is the ability to plan. Understanding what it takes to devise a plan and -- this is key -- to see it through to fruition allows children to find practical escape routes from potentially threatening situations. And seeing oneself as a planner is empowering. You can practice planning with your kids in positive situations: Putting together a lemonade stand, say, or organizing a slumber party. Let them put these same skills to work when real problems arise: If your daughter brings home an unexpected failing grade, for example, let her be the author (with your guidance, of course) of a strategy for bringing her performance in that subject up again. If there's been a fire in your house, let her help you put some safety measures in place.
In studies of children at risk, faith has repeatedly emerged as a key protective factor. This may be the result, says Masten, of the support provided by religious organizations in times of need and the simple fact that many people are connected to religious organizations. More important, faith tends to confer a sense of optimism in the future that is highly resistant to stress. Of course, the word "faith" generally brings to mind organized religion, but it can also mean, in Masten's words, "a sense of meaning and purpose in life." Resilient children and adults share the belief that they matter, that life matters, and that they have the power to make a difference.
The literature of self-help abounds with stories of people who have soothed their own grief by reaching out to others -- people like Candy Lightner, who established Mothers Against Drunk Driving after the death of her child in an alcohol-related accident. Dr. Steven Wolin notes that children, too, find solace in helping others. Take advantage of everyday opportunities to promote empathy: Ask your kids if they can imagine being in the situation of people they see on the news. When you slip a dollar into the Salvation Army kettle, explain why you're doing it. Let your children see you in the act of helping others -- for example, paying a visit to an elderly neighbor -- so they can observe the way these actions lift your spirits.
In The Resilient Self, Sybil Wolin calls creativity "the safe harbor of the imagination" -- a place where children (and adults) can slip away to find refuge from the emotional storms that rage around them. Creativity, says Wolin, is also a way of rebuilding a shattered world. In Savannah, GA, for example, a program called Blues in the School encourages troubled high-schoolers to heal their troubles through music, by literally singing the blues of their own lives. Parents can apply the same principles to their own kids, Wolin says. When my daughter was anxious about her first ballet recital, I suggested that she sit down and draw two pictures: one of her nervous self and the other of the glorious ballerina she hoped to be. She had great fun sketching out a rubbery, nervous dancer with down-turned mouth and knitted brow, and the twin image -- a beaming prima ballerina performing a perfect pirouette -- which let her see herself as she could be.
Of all the resources we can muster against despair, humor may be the most restorative. What better way to cut a demon down to size than to laugh at him? It's also important, says Dr. Steven Wolin, to be able to poke fun at yourself -- something that may not come easily to your average 6- or 12-year-old. Nevertheless, he advises, it's a trait that can be taught. Let your child see you make light of your own troubles; even better, laugh at something silly the two of you may have done together: "Weren't we dopey to forget to bring along our umbrellas? Now we look like a couple of drowned rats."
Teach Team Spirit
Kids who can bounce back from adversity understand the power of collaboration; they seem to have a natural impulse to "recruit" -- to reach out to others in times of trouble. They also show the ability to engage adults, notes Dr. Steven Wolin, in a few very specific ways: Showing curiosity, asking questions, and making eye contact. If your child, like mine, is shy around grown-ups, try coaching her before an encounter; together, think of a few simple questions she can ask -- about family, a job, a hobby, or even a pet, for example.
Whatever you do, don't let your children "tough out" bad times by themselves; instead, encourage them to come to you and others who can help. Make an effort to foster relationships between your children and what Masten calls "a network of caring adults": Relatives, neighbors, teachers, guidance counselors, clergy, coaches, etc. And make sure your kids participate in a positive group activity, like scouting or team sports.
Finally, don't forget that family matters -- even, says Masten, when the family isn't around. In the years after my mother's death, my brother and sister, along with three doting grandparents, were unfailingly there for me. And though she's no longer around, my mother provided me with a reservoir of strength and love that I continue to draw on -- a gift of resilience I hope to pass along to my own daughter.