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Raising a Resilient Child

Sarah Chana Radcliffe M. Ed., C. Psych.

Life isn’t easy. From infancy through childhood, what can parents do to help their kids bounce back from adversity and face challenges with resilience?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

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STRONGER TOGETHER We can’t prevent our children from falling, but we can teach them to stand up again. Resilience increases in children who have a strong bond with at least one loving adult all the way through childhood and adolescence

F ailure. Hardship. Stress. Trauma. Disappointment. Rejection. Loss. Life is full of inevitable tests and challenges, starting from the earliest years. Some people handle adversity with resilience. They’re flexible and optimistic in the face of difficulty; they know how to start over again… and again, if necessary. Others flounder, unable to bounce back and regain firm footing.

Consider this scenario: “We all worked hard — day and night for years. We knew even before we graduated that some of us wouldn’t pass the final exams and, even if we did, some of us wouldn’t get positions; the competition for placement was that intense. So although it was a crushing blow, it wasn’t surprising when the last of my rejection notices came in. That was it for me. I had taken the examinations the maximum number of times; there was nothing else for me to do but find a different career.

“My roommate was in the exact same position, which was good for me in a way, because it gave me someone to commiserate with, someone who really understood what I was going through. It helped me regroup, look to the future, and even come up with a plan. I thought the two of us were on pretty much the same page. When it turned out that my roommate’s plan was suicide, there was no one more shocked than I was.”

Exact same stress. Diametrically opposed reactions. Lack of resilience leads to an inability to cope, a tendency to become overwhelmed, intensely discouraged, even hopeless. It leads to black-and-white thinking, a sort of rigidity that closes down the doors to effective problem-solving. Lack of resilience also leads to increased physical and/or mental illness, exacerbating symptoms that may have rested quietly below the surface.

Resilience is the very opposite. It’s the ability to adapt to situations, to look for and find solutions to problems, to come to terms with and release the pain of disappointment, loss, and injury, and, ultimately, to move on. Not surprisingly, research shows that resilience improves health and happiness and fosters success in one’s endeavors.

As parents, we want to teach our children how to handle the ups and downs of life and to rebound from devastating events. But aside from giving birth to kids with resilient genes, what can parents do to foster this powerful characteristic?

Inner Calm, Outer Stability

Children dealing with everyday stress — being told that they can’t have something they want, being forced to do something that they don’t want to do, being “abandoned” to a babysitter and so on — can be helped to develop resilience starting from birth.

As your child’s competence grows, so does his confidence that he can work things through and deal with whatever Hashem sends his way throughout his life’s journey

The first step in setting a child on a path to resilience is a rapid and consistent response to his cries during infancy. Why is this so foundational? Think about it this way: Imagine if you were kidnapped by aliens, taken to a foreign planet, and placed in a dark chamber. You’re completely helpless and dependent on those who brought you there. When you want contact, comfort, food, or care, the only thing you can do is shout hysterically in your native language. When you shout, nothing happens; no one comes. You fear for your life. Your heart beats in panic, you can’t think, you exhaust yourself trying to be heard, eventually falling into a fitful, anxious sleep, fight-or-flight chemistry flooding your system.

Now imagine a different scenario: Every time you shout, a rather friendly alien enters the chamber and, seemingly understanding your needs, gently provides for you. After a while, you stop screaming — you simply ask in a regular voice. Over and over again, your needs are promptly and reliably met. As your nervous system calms down, you’re able to think better, and can concentrate well enough to make progress in deciphering the foreign language patterns and try to ultimately improve your situation.

Establishing security in infancy and early childhood gives a youngster a head start on acquiring a calm nervous system, which is what promotes exploration, learning, optimism, and other resilient characteristics.

Why is resilience so dependent on a calm nervous system? In response to stressful situations, the sympathetic nervous system floods the body with a wave of chemicals to help us fight, flee, or freeze. When we’re in this highly charged state, our breath is fast, our arterial blood pressure high, our heart rate accelerated. We can’t operate from a physically and emotional stable place.

Fortunately, there’s a “reset” button, which can help us shift into the “parasympathetic zone.” Sometimes called the “rest and digest system,” this part of the nervous system slows the heart rate and relaxes muscles. Most importantly, the chemistry generated by the parasympathetic region allows for optimal problem-solving and action-taking. This is where we want to train our children (and ourselves) to go internally — and they can get there by doing anything that calms their nervous system.

Some children need more help with this than others. For example: “A little ‘no’ throws my nine-year-old into fits of hysteria. It’s like he can’t tell the difference between a life-threatening emergency and a feeling of disappointment.”

Indeed, that’s exactly what is going on for this non-resilient youngster. The child cannot differentiate between the two scenarios because he’s oversensitive to the internal chemicals that accompany both. His hypersensitivity is inborn: How quickly and how intensely stress chemistry is released varies from person to person. It’s as if the little boy in our example has a “loose dial” on the switch that controls fight-or-flight chemistry; he “loses it” under conditions that others would find unpleasant rather than intolerable.

Although that kind of “loose dial” is set at birth, the process of learning also impacts on wiring: The more often a person repeats a thought, feeling, or behavior, the more often that thought, feeling, or behavior will occur. Practice — the act of repetition — causes the brain to learn and quickly access patterns, whether the pattern involves responding calmly or exploding in rage. (Excerpted from Family First, Issue 543)

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