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Building resilience in children


July 18, 2013
QAs a parent, I want to be able to help my children to be resilient, be able to recover quickly from setbacks they encounter in their daily lives. How can I help them develop this trait?

A. I focus on resilience as a desirable trait in general. There will be many parents who are concerned their children have experienced some type of bullying by others, even if the circumstance does not fit the criteria for "bullying" as it has been identified by the schools in recent months. In fact, parents suffer when their children are observed to be hurt by others, and struggle to find appropriate ways of responding to this. In this, parents often are dealing with their own pain in witnessing the hurt, as well as trying to be guides for the children in learning to cope with adversity.

It is important to keep in mind children are masters at problem solving by nature.

It is critical to start with this premise and to act as guide rather than expert: to move slightly to the periphery, listen in a non-judgmental and calm fashion and help them work through their feelings and decisions about how to deal with an upsetting, or devastating, experience. Not only does this approach help children experience a sense of competence going forward, but it takes pressure off parents who feel the need to come up with good solutions to problems their children, not they, are facing. The creativity children demonstrate in coming up with their own unique solutions is often amazing to witness.

In the last 15 years there has been a growing interest in "mindfulness" in psychotherapy, that has proved useful to adults and children alike. I find children I see in therapy dealing with anxiety or traumatic situations do well with this approach. It involves looking at the situation with a non-judgmental and realistic appraisal. It means trying to find a way of accepting the situation even if it is not ideal, or good. It emphasizes the realization it is a transitory experience, not permanent. And one must not be defined by that hurtful experience.

From this point, resolutions about how to respond to the problem often flow easily, because the emotional drama has been sidestepped, and the realization has been introduced that this too will pass. If one can learn from it, and grow stronger, all the better.

I will end with a metaphor I find works well for me.

My brother is an arborist and planted a Larch tree in a windy place. He did not stake it. Two years later, he pointed out the resistance wood it had developed, and said that often trees staked too long cannot stand on their own. Maybe children are like that, too.

McKinley Light is a licensed clinical social worker, board certified marriage and family therapist for adults, children and adolescents in private practice in Grosse Pointe. She can be reached at (313) 640-7762, ext. 1.

The Family Center, a 501(c)(3), non-profit organization, serves as the community's centralized hub for information, resources and referral for families and professionals.

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