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Bright Futures

Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's

August 21, 2020, John L. Barton, PhD
Kids and Resilience: Needed Now, More Than Ever

Tests. The big game. Social drama. Sibling rivalry. Changing bodies. An uncertain future.

These are some of many challenges children face every day. Our hope is that our kids “bounce back” when they wrestle with these challenges. This “bouncing back”, or resilience, is the capacity to deal effectively with adversity. Resilience allows the body to respond to a threat with an effective hormonal reaction (the flight or fight response) and a quick return to a baseline of relative calm.

COVID. Unemployment. Social isolation. Racism. Demonstrations. An uncertain future.

Our children need to be resilient, now, more than ever. And while turbulent times are unprecedented in some ways, we can learn from some kids who grew up with poverty, divorce, family violence, mental illness, and/or alcoholism. What was it about the 1/3 of these children who survived and even thrived growing from that environment? Researcher Ann Masten, PhD, called this extraordinary ability “ordinary magic”.

The children who grew to be reasonably happy, healthy, competent adults were those who had a connection with at least one grown-up who encouraged trust, autonomy and initiative. They had the ability to regulate emotions, were engaging, sociable and able to attract others and had talents valued by peers. Resilient children also have particular mindsets. Rather than thinking, “It’s not fair!”, “I can’t do it”, “I don’t matter” or “I’m helpless”, they have a more optimistic mindset. They believe, “I’m hopeful”, “I’m close to others”, “I know my strengths and weaknesses, and I learn from mistakes”.

Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, wrote a book aimed at helping parents boost their children's resilience by enhancing the “Seven Cs”: Competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control.  Competence, for example, is born of experience. Parents can shape these experiences toward the development of competence by taking a step back from scheduling every minute of their child’s day, which allows for self-directed play, noticing successes and commenting on the effort required and failures as opportunities for growth. A budding sense of competence breeds confidence, which parents may enrich by setting reasonable expectations and playing to their child’s strengths. Parents nurture their child’s confidence when starting a conversation where the goal is listening and learning rather than lecturing and correcting.

Character is another important component of resilience. An aspect of character that has received a lot of attention recently has been dubbed, “Grit”, by Angela Duckworth, PhD. Grit is perseverance, diligence, and a commitment to hard work and practice. Those who are “gritty” (and resilient) see life as marathon, not a sprint. Her research found that “grit” predicts success more reliably than talent or I.Q. And the best part? Anyone can learn to be gritty. Duckworth cites the “Hard Things Rules”:

  1. Everyone has to do a hard thing
  2. You can quit, but…not until you’ve fulfilled your commitment
  3. YOU get to pick your hard thing

In a time when the world needs so much, parents have an opportunity to help children feel the worth of their contribution to the family, their school, the neighborhood, our country, or the world. From doing an extra chore to writing a card to a nursing home resident to expressing themselves regarding equality and justice to protecting the planet, contribution dispels hopelessness and strengthens the belief that a child matters.

Resilient children also need strong defenses. Effective thinking is at the frontline of defense. When your child explains negative events, encourage them to consider a few questions:

  • “How much of this is because of my actions and how much is due to some other causes?”
  •  “Is this permanent or temporary?”
  •  “Is the effect wide-spread or specific?”

Once these are answered, ask:

  • “What is the evidence for your belief?”
  •  “What are worst/best/most likely outcomes?
  • “If the worst were to happen, which of your Seven Cs would help you manage the situation?”

The things that are out of our control may be more-easily accepted in the context of hope, connection, and a safe, stable, nurturing relationship.

Now, more than ever, our children can and will be resilient.

Resources

  • Ordinary magic:  Resilience in development. Ann S. Masten (2014) Guilford Publications      
  • Building resilience in children and teens: Giving kids roots and wings. Kenneth R. Ginsburg (2014) American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Great: The power of passion and perseverance. Angela Duckworth (2018) Simon and Schuster
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