Resiliency: A Skill Your Child (and you) Need

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.

Is Your Internal Alarm Going Off?

When our alarms go off every morning, we can hate them.  We are yanked out of whatever dream we have been having and forced to immediately contend with a new day.  Though we ourselves set the alarm, and in more wakeful moments will acknowledge the necessity of getting up and going to work, the disruption to our sleep is not something we welcome in the moment.

Ignoring alarms is generally not a good idea.  I don’t know anyone who attends with joy to a fire alarm, but they do call upon us to take swift action that could save our lives.  Those little lights in the dashboards of our cars alert us at the same time to problems with our vehicle and impending expenditure and inconvenience-but ignore one for a long time and it could mean far worse things. If you grew up in a place with tornado sirens and the real possibility of dealing with one of these deadly storms, you know the rush of fear that can swiftly go away when you remember it’s the day they test the mechanism.

Perhaps the most common alarm we ever deal with is the alarm to our bodies represented by pain and distress.  A valid question might be, ‘Why do we still experience pain and psychological distress at this point in our development?  Why haven’t we evolved out of it, or developed a different way to register the need for us to take action?’

Because that’s what alarms are—an alert to the necessity, however inconvenient, risky, or uncomfortable, to do something different.  The tornado siren makes us take shelter, the dashboard indicators make us examine how our vehicle is functioning, and the morning alarm makes us climb out of our soft beds and into the challenges of a new day.

Your psychological alarms might be telling you a variety of things, some of which you may wish to seek out guidance to help with.  That lack of sleep could be telling you that your anxiety is reaching a point where your basic biological rhythms are being affected. That depressed mood could mean a wide variety of things, and can last months or years without intervention. And that substance abuse or other addiction issue is its own best alarm, as anyone who’s struggled with those things knows. 

We face so much pressure, both culturally and occupationally, to be ‘perfect’. In many professions, our persona of invulnerability and the pressure of constant high functioning might make us take our mental health less seriously or ignore it altogether.  The initial resistance to seeking out help is often about ‘What if?’ scenarios:  What if my boss finds out I am drinking too much?  What if my teammates notice my excessive highs and lows?  What if my country loses its faith in my ability to contribute?

Unfortunately, this is one of those adult decisions that doesn’t always have optimal outcomes.  It’s up to you, and your consideration of your loved ones, what to do (if anything) about your mental health.  Acknowledging your problem and enrolling in some kind of treatment may carry with it some occupational risks, but the alternative deserves equal evaluation. As anyone who’s ever had any kind of job knows, ignoring the alarm is neither responsible nor intelligent.