At this time of year those of us who have children might be looking forward to, or dreading, the prospect of school. Whether it’s watching our little one take off for preschool for the first time, or seeing our teenager take off in their car for their last year of high school, we can be forgiven for observing with mixed feelings. Some of us are going through other issues, major lifestyle changes like moving or job adjustments, and no matter who we are, we want to know the answer to the same question: will they be all right?
This is a good question, and in psychology we have an important word that provides part of the answer; resiliency.
Resiliency is often used to describe the characteristic of an object to withstand pressure or punishment and return to its original form, like a steel spring. In a strange way, the psychological definition is the same: the ability to recover quickly from a crisis, depression, or negative life event and resume normal functioning. What we say is that children who have greater resiliency are able to handle stressors and change far better than those who do not have it as much. Children who have this strange, somewhat unpredictable x factor tend to do better across their entire lifespan.
Sadly, there is no pill for it. It is somewhat mysterious and far from an exact science. But we know some of the characteristics that are most associated with it. If we can highlight these areas, we can help give our children the best possible chance for success in a challenging world.
First, children thrive on appropriate challenges. There are two major errors to avoid. If we seek to shelter our children too much, we may make them too dependent on us. Conversely, if we push them too hard outside their comfort zone, we risk traumatizing them.
Healthy relationships help train our children to trust the help that can be gained from other people. If our home is stable, welcoming, and allows for the proper expression of emotion, our children grow up equipped to form nurturing connections with others. If it lacks in this respect, our kids may learn the wrong lessons about people and become lonely and isolated, unable to benefit from the most natural reward of our species; love and friendship.
Finally, the gift of a stable and supported identity cannot be overvalued. When we provide structure and love to our children, supporting their independence and fostering their interests, we assist them in discovering the beautiful thing that they are. Much of our strength as adults comes from being able to forge our authentic selves in the safe arena of our family life.
There are no guarantees. Life is complicated and people are individuals; there is no exact alchemical recipe that creates a perfectly well-adjusted child that can withstand any shock that the world throws at them. But if we practice instilling resiliency in our children, we can watch them go through their transitions (and ours) with confidence. We know that their steel springs will be compressed, stretched, and challenged; we can help make sure they will spring back more often than not.