In the wake of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, parents, teachers, journalists and bloggers all over the world are discussing best practices for talking to children about disasters. Among my friends and colleagues, there is palpable angst about the effects of social media exposure on their children, who see and hear daily accounts of the war in Libya, destruction in Japan, and the threat of large-scale radiation exposure for thousands of citizens across the Pacific. As one friend posted on Facebook, "The world is on fire and I don't know what to tell my son."
Seemingly absent from the global conversation is a more interesting question: "What makes children resilient?" So many discussion threads I am reading these days suggest shielding young children from knowledge of wars and disasters -- anything that could scare them or threaten their feelings of safety in the world. I can't help but question this uniquely American choice to overprotect children, often treating them like delicate hot-house flowers with fragile egos and a bottomless need for support, lest they wilt under the stress of everyday life.
Resilient kids usually become resilient adults, able to roll with the punches of being human in an imperfect and unfair world. The quality of resilience -- long studied yet not well understood -- is nonetheless recognized as critical not only to the individual's adaptation to life's challenges, but to society's collective survival. It is those individuals who can persevere through their own adversity, be strengthened by it, and actually catalyze others to do the same. In the best of cases, these children grow up to become those agents of change who give back to the world more than they take, making it a better place for all of us.
While a child's natural temperament and genetic makeup are factors in his or her ability to successfully face challenging circumstances while learning and growing from them, there are many things adults can do to help children develop strategies for offsetting anxiety, managing stress and learning to overcome fear and trauma.
Here are 10 things that loving parents and other adult role models can do to foster resilient children who become resilient adults:
- Let children experience adversity, real or contrived. A child who is caringly supported through, but not shielded from, news of natural disasters or war, deaths or illnesses of loved ones, parental divorce or job loss, and so on become stronger children (and adults) who are more empathetic to others facing similar stressors. Children who have the good fortune of escaping trauma during their childhoods need #2 below even more than those for whom life has provided sufficient challenges in the formative years.
- Allow age-appropriate "micro-failures." Wendy Mogel, author of "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" and "The Blessing of a B-," warns against succumbing to Lake Wobegon parenting where all the children are above average. Parents must be willing to let their children fall and pick themselves up. Making mistakes while young is essential to a child's ability to overcome larger adversities later in life, and parents must resist the urge to intervene and rescue. Skinned knees and B-minuses are character building!
- Participate sparingly in the "Congratulatory Culture." It can rob children of the ability to appreciate a job well done. When children are glowingly affirmed for everything they do -- usually out of adult fear that the child will have low self-esteem -- they are deprived of authentic feedback and become cynical, mistrustful of effusive adults, and doubtful about their abilities. In other words, excessive A-pluses, blue ribbons and hyperbolic praise usually backfire.
- Model comfort with mild anxiety. Let kids solve their own problems when adult intervention is not truly needed. Put children in situations where they need to be flexible, to explore, to structure their own time, to socialize without supervision, to be out of their comfort zone. For example, let a city child walk in the woods with a friend in the country. Bear attacks are exceedingly rare, but projected parental anxiety is exceedingly common and harmful.
- Do not overindulge. It is OK for kids not to have everything they want or everything their friends have, and to have to earn some of the material things they desire or the privileges they seek. It is OK for kids to have to wait or to prove that they are responsible.
- Love your children unconditionally. It's become a platitude, and unfortunately that undermines a very important message: Parents must love who their children are, not what their children are and do. They must love them even if they make a B-minus, even if they do not make the travel team (and schmoozing/threatening the coach is forbidden). Parents of course still love their children, even when they do not keep up with the Joneses' children, but kids often mistake parental competitiveness and disappointment for lack of love.
- Cede control when reasonable. Let children, in an age-appropriate fashion, have as much power, as many choices and as many opportunities to succeed or fail as possible -- without worry that parents will disapprove, swoop in or take the control back.
- Teach children to be independent but to seek help when needed, and to understand that these are not mutually exclusive. Kids who feel empowered to be agents of their own destiny, but to ask for help along the way as needed, are operating from a position of strength and confidence. The latter without the former leads to weakness, while the former without the latter leads to folly.
- Help your children develop at least one talent. While the differences between kids who have one, two, three or more areas of interest and accomplishment are negligible, the difference between kids with one talent and none are significant. Adults should open as many doors as possible for kids to explore interests when they are young, and to proactively nurture at least one athletic, artistic, academic or other area of talent that the child can be proud of as he or she grows up.
- Teach and model social justice. Show children how to stand up for themselves and others, how to be empathetic, how to carry out thoughtful acts for others, and how to integrate acts of service into daily life, throughout life. This is both formative to developing resilience, and a positive outcome to doing so. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "Be the change you seek in the world." If the key adults in kids' lives live this way, the kids will be more likely to follow suit.
Resilience is a somewhat elusive quality, but children in firm possession of it can weather not only hearing long-distance stories about the tsunami in Japan, but also actually being there and emotionally surviving it. We can continue discussing the degrees to which we should shelter our American children from seeing and hearing accounts of the tragedy, or we can refocus on what is really important -- helping our children understand that sometimes bad things happen to good people, and that life does go on. The message is one of the indomitability of the human spirit, even in the face of disaster, and that is noble indeed.