Trauma is as an emotional response to an unexpected and frightening event. Children may experience trauma in the wake of a natural disaster, school shooting, loss of a family member, divorce, separation from siblings or countless other unexpected events. The question of why one child (or adult) who is exposed to an event becomes traumatized and another does not is hard to understand. Suffice it to say, in some cases it is simply due to differences in our ‘hard wiring’ or neurological system, but primarily it is based on one’s resilience.
According to the International Resilience Project, resilience is “the human capacity to face, overcome and be strengthened by or even transformed by the adversities of life”. Parents and caregivers can promote resilience in children every day by teaching and modeling ways to effectively handle adversity. As in most things, the behavior we model for our children in our everyday lives has the most impact on their growth and development. They seem to follow what we do, rather than what we say.
Three Sources of Resilience
The International Resilience Project teaches that children draw resilience from three areas.
- Resilient children can identify relationships with those in their families, schools and community who are there for them, and understand how each person helps them. For example, parents who provide structure and rules at home with clearly stated expectations and routines; teachers who support their learning; and the firefighters who keep them safe.
- Resilient children know their internal strengths, including feelings, attitudes and beliefs. The resilient child knows that s/he is lovable, responsible and trustworthy.
- Resilient children learn social and interpersonal skills, and believe that they can manage their own problems and/or act to get their needs met. S/he knows how to communicate, problem solve, manage their feelings, etc.
Building Resilience in Kids
It is said that how we do anything is how we do everything. This means that a person or family who generally approaches situations rationally and handles challenges calmly will respond to most situations in that way. On the other hand, one who becomes emotionally overwhelmed or paralyzed with fear when faced with day-to-day challenges will likely respond in that way to adversity.
Generally, we learn as children how to approach life, problems and challenges. Those coping mechanisms usually follow us throughout our lives unless we actively seek to learn other ways of coping. Children generally respond to life’s challenges in the same way their parents do.
There are exceptions. Some children are forced to take on an adult role in the family much too early. This may be due to to illness, addiction or other chronic problems that rob the oldest child(ren) of his/her youth. Often these young people grow up to respond very differently than the adults in their family. However, it is the exception rather than the rule.
It is important to know that adults (parents/caregivers, etc.) who are able and want to learn to be more resilient can do so with cognitive behavioral therapy and lots of practice. While it is harder to unlearn old patterns and relearn new ones later in life, it can be done. It would be a gift to your children to pass along the skills, beliefs and attitudes that promote resilience. Many people have made difficult changes for the sake of their children.
Resilience in Action
Teach your children how to solve problems by modeling or talking them through situations that require problem solving skills. This also teaches them healthy ways of communicating. An adult who jumps in to solve the problem rather than allowing a child to think it through and come up with alternatives is robbing the child of an opportunity to learn and grow. This also sends the message on some level that the adult does not believe the child is capable
When a child is confronted with strong feelings, it is best to help him/her identify and process these feelings. By acknowledging his/her feelings, you give the child permission to express these feelings openly. We must be careful not to inadvertently send the message that certain feelings are unacceptable or not warranted (“There’s nothing to be afraid of - why are you so scared?”). It is better to assure the child that his/her feelings are normal and that everyone has the same feelings at some point (“Even adults get scared at times.”).
My brother told me a story many years ago about my young niece being afraid of a monster in the closet. Somehow he intuitively knew to get the tennis racket, go to the closet and slay the monster for her. This was much more effective in building resilience than simply reassuring her that monsters do not exist – clearly to her they did.
By handling my niece’s disclosure in this way, he sent the message that it was safe to tell him about her fears, and that he would protect her. My niece also learned how to slay the monster in the closet, and used the tennis racket herself to do so later. She learned to solve her own problems, and began to see herself as capable.
Children also follow our leads about how to cope with stressful situations. When I was a young teen, we had a housekeeper who was very frightened by lightening and strong winds. When it stormed, she would become very anxious and rush all the kids into the basement (there were four of us and usually a few neighborhood kids). I was old enough at the time that I usually didn’t go along when she herded the others off to the basement, as I wasn’t afraid of thunderstorms.
My mother came home one day just before a storm and saw the housekeeper rushing the younger kids into the basement. I heard my mother tell the woman not to ‘do that to the kids’ because it would make us afraid of storms. Apparently, my mother wasn’t afraid of storms, so neither were we. Unfortunately, she didn’t honor the housekeeper’s fear in the way she handled this situation.
I can’t remember how the housekeeper resolved this conflict, as she was truly terrified of storms. I suspect she still went to the basement with the younger two kids during storms. As a result, my youngest sisters could have developed a fear of storms, I suppose, but they didn’t. It appears my mother’s attitude toward storms protected all of us from adopting the housekeeper’s fear. It may helpful to examine your own attitudes and beliefs to ensure they build resilience in your kids
Grotberg, Edith H., PhD. "A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit." A Guide to Promoting Resilience in Children: Strengthening the Human Spirit. The International Resilience Project, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.
"This Emotional Life: Resilience." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.
Trauma. American Psychological Association, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.