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Growing Resilience: Mastering Adversity

Contributed by Jody McVittie

As weird as it may sound, our children need to experience adversity to grow resilience. The sense of mastery that grows within a child having overcome challenges is one of their biggest sources of resilience.

As parents we interrupt many of the opportunities our children have to develop mastery because we lose the distinction between danger (where it is our job to secure safety) and pain (where there is an opportunity for learning). We go in for the rescue too quickly. The drawers in my family medical office were fun to play with because they felt so good when they moved in and out. My young patients loved that feel so much I made sure that there was one drawer that held things that would not harm a child. Even though I okayed drawer play, parents often reacted quickly when their toddlers started pulling and pushing on the drawers for fear that their child might pinch some fingers.

Pinching fingers would indeed result in pain. It is not dangerous. Running in front of a moving car is dangerous. Standing too close to the fire in your nightgown is dangerous. Not getting invited to a birthday party, having your teacher get upset with you, having your sister bite you…that is painful but not dangerous.

Young children experience many things as pain. They hurt when they are disappointed because they don’t get what they want. They hurt when they are tired and hungry and they don’t even know what they want. It is important for them to know that when pain shows up in their life that they won’t dissolve, disappear or be less loved. They can learn from experience that though they don’t like pain, they can handle it and that it isn’t permanent. As parents it is not our job to fix our child’s hurt or to “make her happy” but instead to offer support, some brief language for feelings and to have deep faith that she (and we) will move through it.

Why is this so hard?
• When our son or daughter is in pain we feel pain too. That’s no fun, so in order to feel better ourselves we rescue our child. Those darn mirror neurons!

• Many of us believe that a good parent is a one who can keep their child happy and protect her from pain. (Parents who focus on their child’s happiness will grow an entitled confused child.)

When your child is struggling:
Notice your own reaction to their pain/hurt/disappointment and take a deep breath. (This takes practice.)

Be present. Don’t talk away the discomfort, tell him it will be better or explain with lots of words. Your calm, trusting presence matters.

Name and normalize. “I know you are disappointed that you can’t have a cookie right now. You wanted one!”

Allow expression with appropriate limits. “It is ok to be mad and to tell me how you feel. It is not ok to call me names or to throw things.” “I can tell you are disappointed it is ok to cry.”

Re-connect. After he settles down enough to hear you, offer a connection. “Would you like a hug or to sit and read together?”

Wait to problem solve until your child is back in her “better self” to start the conversation. It is rarely an emergency. Time is on your side.

One little addendum is important here. Our culture has historically used pain to “teach.” While it is true that we all learn from painful experiences, teaching children what to do instead of what not to do is much more effective long-term. Consequences and punishment do not build resilience. Instead, they create a rupture in the relationship between you and your child and while they may work short-term, the long-term results are less than helpful. Life is hard enough. You, the most powerful person in your child’s life, don’t need to intentionally add to that pain.

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