Last weekend we had a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day”. I won’t overshare, but it felt like the things I want to be, strive to be, and mainly believe that I am as a mama all went out the window. That night after everyone had gone to bed, I was left with the feeling that I had really let everyone (myself included, but my kids the most) down. I walked around all the next day with that feeling. Crap! I felt like disappearing into a black hole of cheeseburgers and wine. I felt like moving anonymously out of town, witness-protection-program-style. I felt like quitting everything. Obviously I couldn’t actually do any of these things, so instead I did what works best for me now that I’m a mom: snuggle my babies and comfort myself with research and science.
I work with families whose terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days are much more serious and devastating than our little fiasco was, and where those days are the norm not the exception. One thing I have learned and seen over the 16-plus years I have spent in this field is that kids are amazingly resilient. While this is never something that should be taken advantage of, this is a fact that is comforting to me. And, even more comforting, there are proven ways to actually boost your kids’ resilience (Yay! Back to what I love about being a mama!). No matter what shitty awful thing just happened, there are always concrete things you can do right now to love your kids by helping them build their inner strength.
The easiest and most important thing we can do to give kids a resilience boost is love them. I don’t even need to talk about this part; as moms, we just know how to do it. But there’s more to building connection than “just” love. They need us to spend focused, undistracted time with them. Meaning no checking Facebook, no physically-there-but-mentally-solving-a-work-problem (I’m totally guilty of both of these things, btw), no half-assery. Clearly some (alright, a lot) of the time we spend with our kids is going to be distracted and unfocused, but they also need us to regularly carve out moments to be 100% present with them. Doing this gives us the opportunity to implement two of what Dr. Charlene Messenger, author of Secrets of the Third Little Pig: 7 Steps to Build a Child’s Inner Strength (one of my most worn-out and dog-eared books), says are building blocks of resilience: praise and listening. When we really “be” with our kids, we notice specific things they do that we can genuinely compliment them on (instead of just telling them they’re smart all the time, which is not recommended, but that’s a whole other discussion). We also are practicing active listening. This lets them feel heard, builds trust (so they’ll tell you stuff later–hopefully, fingers-crossed–as teenagers), and models communication skills for them. As Dr. Messenger points out, “Out of listening grow the arts of negotiating and problem-solving.”
Today I had lunch with my Son in his Pre-K classroom. I haven’t done this in a very long time, but he hasn’t brought it up in a very long time either. I think I will be going back every week. He’s been going through kind of a “surly dinosaur” phase, but the whole time I was there he was grinning from ear to ear, asking for things with “please” and “thank you”, sharing with his friends. He was almost literally beaming. As in I almost saw actual sunshine explode from his face. I stayed for story time and the start of rest time. Still grinning, he snuggled his little self down into my lap and tried as hard as he could to actually go to sleep. Buh-bye, dinosaur. Welcome back, J!
Structure provides reassurance. Knowing what to expect goes a long way toward things being ok, toward getting back to normal when there is a disruption. While our daily routine is different every day (flexibility is important! structure does not equal rigidity!), pieces of each day are so comfortingly predictable. Our bedtime routine is my favorite. Get-up-and-go-to-school time is like clockwork (including the part where at 7:40 I holler intermittently at everyone to get their shoes and socks on for fifteen minutes minutes until 7:55, when I announce that the first bell is going to ring at school in exactly ten more minutes and I’m going to the car and if anyone gets a tardy it isn’t because of me). Dinner time together as a family provides structure that research has shown to ward off myriad troubles including obesity, drug abuse, chronic stress and growing up to be an unpleasant d-bag. My Husband and I are both really into food—cooking it, eating it, sharing it with friends—so this one is a no-brainer most of the time. Cooking dinner together has become part of the dinner-together routine, and E and J are gaining skills and competence (another resilience booster, see below) as our sous chefs.
Structure also means giving kids a framework to help them understand what they are feeling and what to do about it. We can label our kids’ emotions for them from the time they are very little, so they can learn to understand and express their feelings. We can also provide a pre-determined spot they can go to, or way they can ask to take a break from whatever is stressing them. In our house, we’ll say “I need some space” and it’s automatically honored, no questions asked. My kids will even call me out when it looks like I’m about to lose my shit, saying “Mama, do you need to take some space?”
Do not underestimate the power of positivity. Happify.com lists reasons why and summarizes research quite adroitly here, so I won’t re-invent the wheel (click the link, though, it’s quick and totally worth reading). The American Psychological Association lists “Nurture a positive self-view” and “Keep things in perspective and maintain a hopeful outlook” as two of the ten “Tips for building resilience in children and teens”. Kids (and adults) who see the world as good expect more good. And kids (and adults) who believe they are effective, competent, and basically good people are more likely to bounce back quickly from whatever misfortune inevitably befalls them.
My pessimist Husband sometimes mocks my optimism in a tone of voice and with context that implies optimists are oblivious, ignorant, and/or spoiled. Like optimism is a character flaw that reasonable and thoughtful people eventually outgrow. I disagree 100-and-more-%. While, yes, I am probably naturally optimistic (NOT A BAD THING), I am also intentionally optimistic. I practice gratitude. I have set up a habit for myself that whenever I change from one environment to the next (i.e. going outside from my office, getting into my car to go home, walking in the door of a building), I make mental note of what I am thankful for in my life in that exact moment. I also keep a running written list of “Things To Be Happy About”. This started 25+ years ago when I was in middle school and got a hold of the book “14,000 Things To Be Happy About”. When I feel really giddy or filled-up by something, I add it to the list. We can boost our kids’ resilience by intentionally and daily asking our kids questions that get them thinking about what they’d add to their “list”, what they’re happy about.
TEACH SKILLS AND PROBLEM SOLVING
Confidence and self-esteem don’t come from giving every kid a trophy just for showing up. Confidence and self-esteem come from knowing that we have the skills to handle things—including when things don’t go as planned—and knowing we are good people (because of inherent human goodness, of course, but also because we know our character and actions to be mostly good). Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, co-author of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings, has identified “seven C’s of resilience” (Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Contribution, Coping, and Control), largely centered around this concept, and HealthyChildren.org outlines how we can help our kids build these important skills here. One main takeaway for me from this was this: help kids gain skills, then let them test them out and learn from mistakes.
I am a problem-solver. My first instinct whenever I hear about a problem is to jump immediately (and, annoyingly to many people, sometimes before the problem has been all the way expressed) to a solution. I am also (and also probably annoyingly) somewhat of a control freak. I get a vision and I execute. I have learned to force myself to just listen to problems, and to sit back and open-mindedly allow other people’s ideas and contributions to “my” projects. This is especially important as a mom. My kids don’t need or want me to rush to the “answer”. They want me to listen to them, hug them, express that I understand them, and then ask questions that help them get to their own answer about how to solve the problem. And despite my instinct, and the fact that I think I know a whole lot about design, my first-grade Daughter CERTAINLY doesn’t want me to micromanage the placement of glitter icebergs on her “Arctic Wildlife” diorama research project on the beluga whale! So I restrained myself and let her do her thing. And you know what? It turns out she has a pretty good eye for design too.
ENCOURAGE HIGHER VALUES
Regardless of “religion”, encouraging belief in something bigger than oneself is an important building block of resilience. People tend to live up—or down—to their own and others’ expectations of them, so why not set the bar high and teach that there is something more important to live for than just oneself? For some people, this is God. For others, it’s humanity as a whole. I don’t think it matters for this purpose what the “something” is, but I do believe it matters that there is a “something”. So many models of psychology, recovery programs, and even school mottoes reflect this. Dr. Messenger lists “higher values” as the 7th building block of resilience. The secretary at E’s elementary school ends her morning loudspeaker announcement every morning with “Work hard, play safe, and be a good human”.
So on that note, in the words of a former radio show host I’m hesitant to name— but am always surprised at how often I agree with—”Now, go do the right thing!”