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More PsychNotes: Parenting

March 28, 2016       
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Teaching Resilience
by Monica A. Frank, PhD

Many people come to Excel At Life and other psychological resources when they are struggling with events in their lives. However, people have often said to me when they realize how learning these methods can help with everyday problems and even ward off more serious ones: “I wish I had learned this in high school.”

The beauty of the cognitive methods is they can be taught prior to serious problems occurring. In fact, most people who seem to face stressful events without a scratch have at some point learned how to think about situations in a way that helps them adapt more easily. Perhaps they learned from a parent, or from a teacher, or from life circumstances.

For instance, when I was a child I was terrified to speak up in class. In the seventh grade, I had a teacher who asked me to join the speech team. Surprised and thrilled she thought I could do it, I overcame my fear and joined the team. From that experience I learned fear was not something to shrink from but something to confront and defeat.

I often told my clients that the difference between them and people who were coping with the same kind of events is they didn't learn the methods at an earlier age. Sometimes they even learned the opposite because their role models were dysfunctional. Instead of being taught to be resilient, they were taught to be fearful, to feel hopeless, to avoid risk.

What is resilience?

Resilience has been described in many ways. The definition I like best is resilience is the ability to judge adverse events in a way that allows the person to thrive instead of suffering negative consequences. What this means is when something bad occurs, the person views it in a more positive way. Like my experience with the speech team—I learned that mastering my fear instead of letting it control me could be exhilarating and rewarding.

Resilience is different than “coping” with stressful circumstances. Coping means that the person is affected negatively by the stress and uses strategies to manage the situation and recover. Resilience, however, is viewing the situation in a different way so that it doesn't cause as much stress (Fletcher and Sarkar, 2013). It truly is believing in concepts such as “failure is an opportunity.” When a person thinks in such a way, problems aren't defined negatively and so don't cause the same degree of stress.

How can resilience be taught?

First, do not protect children from all negative events. Instead, teach them how to cope with the events. Recognize that life situations are opportunities to teach important lessons. When you approach adverse events in this way, your children will learn the same.

Teaching children occurs at the time an event happens, not before. Think of it this way. You could instruct a child on how to ride a bike but until the child is actually on the bike your lessons don't have much effect. The child might need to fall a few times while learning how to ride.

A lot of parents have asked me why they should let their child make a mistake when they are capable of preventing it. My explanation is that failure at a young age typically has fewer consequences than when they are older. Adults have families and jobs that can be seriously impacted by mistakes. If adults didn't learn how to manage problems when they were young, their lives can be more seriously affected. Children do not have others dependent upon them in the same way.

By not overly protecting children, parents then have the opportunity to teach life lessons. In particular, they can help the child learn how to correct mistakes and cope with disappointment. Parents can teach children perspective and help them recognize that problems are inconveniences but not catastrophes. They can provide hope and cultivate gratitude rather than focus on unfairness and despair.

Fletcher, D. and Sarkar, M. (2013). Psychological Resilience: A Review and Critique of Definitions, Concepts, and Theory. European Psychologist, 18, 12-23. DOI: 10.1027/1016-9040/a000124

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