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Cultivating Resilience in Our Children

What makes one person robust in the face of adversity, and another fragile and weak? Human beings have the potential to be incredibly adaptive, but not everybody develops this capacity. It is not so much what happens to us, but our response to it that matters. I am fascinated with resilience, and how to cultivate it in our children.

Many people practice what I call the ‘hard-knock school’ of resilience: they just have to “toughen up.” Parents and professionals often venerate the child who does not get upset, and “soldiers on,” despite the wounding world they experience. The British ‘stiff upper lip,’ it seems, is in vogue.

On the other hand, a child who cries when they get hurt, feels sad when they are left out, is frustrated when they don’t get their way, and melts in a complete tantrum when things are just too much, is seen as weak, fragile and overly emotional. Most well meaning adults lean in and say, “That’s enough. Let it go.” That is, “Don’t cry, don’t make a mountain out of a molehill, he didn’t mean it, it wasn’t your fault, you deserved it, that’s not worth crying about”, etc. In other words, we want them to adapt to the situation.

Which child does better in the long haul? We want our children to be able to “bounce back” from difficult experiences, to recover from hurts and wounds, and be restored in vitality and vigor. True resilience leaves us transformed, making good fertile compost from life’s challenging experiences.

What do children need to become mature and resilient adults? Dr. Neufeld, developmental psychologist, helps make sense of this: Children need to be able to feel their tender emotions.

Long considered a nuisance factor, neuroscience has now confirmed that emotion is pivotal to the maturation process. Those children who are unaffected by loss, by hurt, by rejection, and who can “take anything,” are often hardened emotionally. They appear strong, but their maturational process comes to a grinding halt. In this case, the defenses are strong, not the child. This emotional defendedness is like scar tissue, and interferes with true resiliency.

The hard-knock approach to life often results in a loss of healthy functioning, and hinders growth and development, because kids can no longer feel the vulnerable emotions that are crucial to helping them grow up. We should be affected by loss, by rejection, by hurts and wounds! The brain can either feel the wounds, or defend from feeling – but not both at the same time. If the brain is keeping the child safe by defending against vulnerable feelings, it can no longer move that child to grow up. It’s a sacrifice play, and comes at great cost. The defenses camouflage our underlying human fragility. Our capacity to feel our emotions, particularly our sadness and tears, is key to developing resilience. It is through our grief that we let go.

So how do we become hardy, without becoming hardened? We want our children to be insulated from a wounding world, but not by the brain defending against vulnerable feelings. The most important safeguard we can provide is a strong emotional attachment to caring adults. If we can capture our children’s hearts, and matter more than their peers, we can keep them from feeling the sting of the wounds and losses they experience in their world. We also want our children to have many experiences of futility, of things not working and not getting their way (see August issue of Valley Voice). Our job is not to make everything work for our kids, nor to make them happy, but rather to make sure they can adapt to the things that don’t work. Parents often want children to understand the situation, but adaptation is an emotional process, not a rational one. Kids need to feel their sadness and disappointment about all the things they can’t change in order to adapt. They are meant to get upset! So we need not get in the way of this with logic or reason, but instead help them keep their hearts soft enough to feel their upset and provide arms for them to cry in. The good news is they won’t always have to have a temper tantrum when they can’t have a cookie or a fit when they lose a game. Once their brain realizes they can handle not getting their way, they will adapt and resilience will blossom. Finally, we have to believe in our kids, in their ability to endure the sadness and disappointment that comes with being human, and believe that they are strong enough to handle what comes their way.

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“The secret of parenting is not in what a parent does, but in who a parent is to their child.” – Gordon Neufeld