Backbone and Bounce: Building Resilience
What can parents do to help their children bounce back under adversity, with a basic sense of confidence in themselves in spite of difficult circumstances? And when a parent has a child who collapses when things are difficult, what can be done to build his resilience?
In a sense, these are perhaps the key questions of parenting. During any ten-year period, I would venture to guess that in the lives of most families, at least one genuine crisis will develop, or smaller ongoing difficulties will gather and create real trouble. And though we work hard to prevent it, our children will be hurt by these crises. They will need a reservoir of confidence in themselves to come through well.
So how do we build resilience? Studies have shown that if just one person in a child's life is consistently supportive, a child is much more likely to overcome difficult circumstances. Just one person who is enthusiastic about the child. Just one person who lights up when the child walks into the room.
Feeling close to one dependable adult is at the heart of resilience for children
We parents love our children deeply, but sometimes our communication with them gets muddled. Disapproval, impatience, or indifference clouds our interactions with our children when we're overworked. We have to play many roles with them: sleep monitor, cleanliness checker, homework prodder, educational guide, the list goes on! And as we juggle those roles, our ability to feel our hearts lift when they walk in the room can wilt.
Dedicate time and enthusiasm
Special Time is a simple way to remind our children that we love them. It works especially well when there are persistent irritants in our relationship with them, because it disciplines us, the parents, to be pleased with them for a specific period of time. I call Special Time a "listening tool" because it's a reliable tool for putting us parents in the listening, accepting, and enthusiastic role, so that our children can tell that we're behind them.
To do Special Time, you set aside a period of time, short or long, whatever you can carve from your day or week. You say, “Hey, tomorrow I'm going to have a half hour after dinner, and we can do whatever you want to do! Think about it, and we'll make it a date!” (If you have older children, you need to set conditions around whether or not you have transportation to go somewhere, whether or not you will spend money, and how much.) Then, enthusiastically go with whatever activity your child chooses. Jumping on beds, building a fort in the living room, making pancakes, going outside and playing catch, lighting a whole box of matches one by one in the back yard. Whatever they've chosen, you love them, make lots of eye contact, touch them affectionately, and energetically throw yourself into the play. Set a timer, and don't let anything short of an earthquake interrupt your focus on your child. When the timer goes off, let your child know you loved being with him, and let him know when the next Special Time will be.
What your child chooses will help you see what he loves and what he wants. This is very important communication for you to receive. When your child can show you what he loves, and you pay warm attention, he feels closer to you. That closeness is the heart of resilience. When a child's parents aren't able to play a good role, any other caring adult willing to be "crazy about" the child, and to give Special Time in some form, can build resilience in that child.
Listen to the feelings that emerge
Often, Special Time encourages a child to try to express feelings that they need to offload. And this brings us to the second factor I think is crucial in building resilience in children. When children have someone willing to listen to their feelings all the way through, they can bounce back from disappointment. They don't have to carry festering upsets year after year. They express them, cry or tantrum their way through them, and see their world as shinier and more hopeful afterward. I like to call this Staylistening, because the parent has to make a conscious decision to stay with a child who is clearing away his upset feelings.
Here's one parent's story of how Special Time and Staylistening can work:
I could tell my seven-year-old daughter was going to "blow" anytime. She was upset at every little thing, elbowing her sister, accidentally tripping her, things like that. So I told her, “Tomorrow we're going to do Special Time, and you can play whatever you want to with me.” She woke up at six a.m. and came in ready to do Special Time! So I got up, and we played this game over and over that she kept winning. She was delighted to win, and I made sure I lost. That was part of the deal.
At one point, my younger daughter came in and wanted my attention. I told her, “This is Zetta's time, and I'm playing with her. You can go with your Daddy.” She didn't want to go, so getting her situated with her Dad took some time. When I came back, I saw Zetta huddled behind the sofa, furiously writing. I asked her, “What are you writing?” She showed me. It said “I hate my sister. She's ugly. I hate curly hair. I don't want her around.” I said, “Good, I'm glad you're writing all this down. Do you hate her?” (Trying to give her permission to have these feelings.) She told me, “I don't want a sister! I want to give her away. I wish we had never had her!” She went on for a while about how much she didn't like her sister. Then she said, “Would you sit and watch a video with me all the way through?” I never sit with them while they're watching their videos. So I said I would.
She then went into the other room, put the video on, and went and got her sister. She put her sister on the bed, curled up with her, and put her arms around her. Then she said, “Mom, come and sit here. I think you should be right between us, so Annie gets to sit next to you, too.” She moved Annie over, and made a place for me. We sat and cuddled and watched the video together, and she was lovely with her sister the rest of the day.
Children build resilience when someone cares enough to listen to their upsets all the way through, without arguing, trying to be logical, or condemning them for how they feel. The feelings are like a storm passing through—if the lightning can strike and the thunder can roll, the energy of the storm dissipates. If no one listens, the bleak thoughts and bad feelings are stored up, but they become hard to manage and are ready to pop at every little excuse. With regular chances to be heard, respected, and loved through an emotional storm, children come to depend on themselves and their ability to get through tough times, unfair times, frustrating times, and lonely times.
Staylistening gives a child a sense that although you don't have the same feelings as they do, you can love them just the same, and stay with them until the feelings change for the better. With listening, the feelings do lift. With listening, problem solving will follow a good, cleansing emotional storm. And your child, if not resilient already, will become so as you Staylisten through necessary upsets that help him clear the feelings he trips over every day as he tries to learn, love, and bounce back from adversity.
We parents need to build support
Of course, to make these kinds of generous initiatives toward your child, you need to build your resilience as a parent! Parenting is an emotional ultramarathon—there's so much to learn and so little help with the work. Setting up a Listening Partnership, so you can take turns being listened to and returning the favor for another parent who's trying hard, is an excellent way to build your own resilience. You need some good-hearted person, who'll keep their advice and judgments on a short leash, while you talk about how parenting is going for you. Special Time and Staylistening are much easier to do when you've had permission to tell someone your hopes and disappointments. These Listening Partnerships make a surprising difference in the feel of life as a parent! And they give us a fighting chance to have fun with our children, an important part of building their bounce and their backbone.