By Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.
All parents worry to a greater or lesser extent about their children’s future. Even when children have relatively easy times growing up, many parents have voiced anxiety about how happy, successful, or content their children will be as adults. Not surprisingly, concern about the future quality of life is heightened when parents observe their children struggling behaviorally at home, academically in school, and socially on the playground.
The Helping Professional/Futurist
Parents bring their worries to helping professionals–physicians, psychologists, social workers and educators. They arrive at our offices with a list of immediate problems, but what they dread is that these problems, rather than representing stages of childhood, may be prophecies predicting significant future problems extending into the adult years. Helping professionals are asked to play the role of futurists. We evaluate children examining not only their current problems but the risks these problems pose for adult life. Increasingly parents expect helping professionals to provide estimates of future functioning. These often fall under the term, prognosis. Further, if the prognosis is adverse, parents request and hope that helping professionals can, through the prescription of medical, psychological, behavioral, and educational interventions, improve their child’s functioning. The ultimate goal is to reduce adversity and improve the future.
In general, helping professionals have been trained to undertake the role of futurists through the use of a deficit or weakness-based model. That is, we are trained to measure symptoms, evaluate problems, determine diagnoses, and set about to improve outcome. Traditionally, improving outcome has been equated with reducing symptoms. This is the essence of a deficit model. If I identify what is wrong in order that I can better understand an individual’s functioning and future risks, I can then set out to fix the symptoms and in the process improve the future. While this model has served well both in identifying what is wrong and prescribing deficit-based interventions that have resulted in a relief of symptoms, unfortunately it has not been found to positively affect the future of children struggling with a wide spectrum of issues. We believe that although this lack of positive impact could simply be the result of poorly designed research, it could also be a function of an unbalanced approach focusing on deficits in the absence of assets or strengths.
Resilience and the “Resilient Mindset”
The focus upon strengths in helping overcome adversity has been referred to in the research literature as resilience. Resilience is the capacity to deal successfully with the obstacles in the road that confront us while maintaining a straight and true path towards life’s goals. In the past the concept of resilience has typically been confined to children who have experienced major adversity in their lives. However, we believe that the concept of resilience can and should be applied to all children, that all children face different challenges in life and that the children who have developed what we call a “resilient mindset” will handle these challenges with greater effectiveness and success.
The better able we are in articulating the features of this mindset, the better equipped we will be to reinforce this mindset in our children. We believe children with a resilient mindset view the world in an optimistic and hopeful way. They feel special and appreciated in the eyes of significant others. They have learned to set realistic goals and expectations for themselves. They believe that they have the ability to solve problems and make decisions and thus, are more likely to view mistakes, hardships, and obstacles as challenges to confront rather than as stressors to avoid. They rely on coping strategies that are growth-fostering rather than self-defeating. They are aware of their weaknesses and vulnerabilities, but they also recognize their strengths and talents. They are empathic and possess the skills to develop satisfying interpersonal skills. They are able to seek out assistance and nurturance in a comfortable manner. Very importantly, they are able to define what aspects of their life they have control over and to focus their energy and attention on these rather than on factors over which they have little, if any influence.
It is beyond the scope of this article to review in depth the research literature focusing on resilience, but there is emerging evidence that parents exert a significant positive impact on helping their children develop a resilient mindset, a mindset that impacts not only on their children’s current functioning, but ultimately on their future success and happiness. In the remainder of this article we will offer five strategies to guide families to help children to become more resilient.
1. Teaching Empathy by Practicing Empathy.
If our children are to communicate effectively and develop satisfying interpersonal relationships, it is essential that we help them to develop empathy. Empathy is viewed as one of the cornerstones of emotional intelligence as described by Dr. Daniel Goleman. Empathy may be understood as the ability to put oneself inside the shoes of another person and to see the world through that person’s eyes. While empathy is an essential interpersonal skill, operating in all relationships, it is far more difficult to achieve than most of us realize. This is especially true when we are upset, angry, or disappointed with another person. When we are empathic we not only ask ourselves what we hope to accomplish when we say or do things, but as importantly, we consider the following question, “Are we saying or doing things in a way that our child will be most responsive to hearing us?”
We teach our children empathy when we listen closely to what they have to say, when we validate their statements, and when we say and do things in a way in which they will be most responsive to learning from us. We avoid preaching, lecturing, or offering comments that may be experienced as judgmental and accusatory. Guiding questions that we pose for ourselves are, “Would we want anyone to speak with us the way we are speaking with our children? How would our children describe us at this moment? How would we hope they described us?
As an example, a parent may have as a goal, motivating a child to work more diligently and expresses this by exhorting the child to “try harder.” While the parent may be well-intentioned, the comment “try harder” is frequently experienced as accusatory. Consequently, the parent’s remark may actually backfire, leading to further resentment. An empathic statement might be, “I know that you are having trouble with your math homework, many kids do, maybe together we can figure out what will help.” We must remember that the development of empathy provides the foundation for effective communication and interpersonal skills that are vital features of a resilient mindset.
2. Teaching Responsibility by Encouraging Contributions.
If children are to develop a feeling of accomplishment and pride, we must provide them with ample opportunities for assuming responsibilities, especially responsibilities that strengthen their belief that they are making a contribution to their home, school, or community environments. We have found that enlisting youngsters to use their “islands of competence” in such pursuits as tutoring younger children, painting murals on the wall of the school, watering plants, bringing messages to the office, or going on Walks for Hunger, helps them to feel that they are making a positive difference. This serves to reinforce their motivation and self-esteem as they witness concrete examples of their achievements.
3. Teaching Decision-Making and Problem-Solving Skills and Reinforcing Self-Discipline.
An essential component of resilience and high self-esteem is the belief that one has some control over what is occurring in one’s life. To acquire this attitude of ownership, children require experiences from which they can learn and apply decision-making and problem-solving skills. We can encourage them to articulate problem areas, to think of possible solutions, to consider what solution might work best, to attempt that solution and to assess the results. This can be accomplished by involving children in discussions of how best to solve particular problems such as issues with friends, having them decide when and in what order to do their homework, having them consider ways to solve problems with a sibling or asking them to do research on a particular project.
The use of problem solving skills can also be enlisted in the important process of discipline with the goal of promoting self-discipline. This is an important goal for all children, but perhaps even more so for impulsive youngsters who display limited use of self-discipline or self-control. One way we can accomplish this task is to obtain the input of children in the development of rules and consequences that affect their lives at home and at school (children are often more likely to remember and follow rules and develop self-control when they are involved within reason in participating in the creation of these rules and consequences). These kinds of activities empower children by reinforcing a sense of ownership, commitment, accountability, and self-discipline.
4. Offering Encouragement and Positive Feedback.
Resilience is nurture when we convey realistic appreciation to children and help them to feel they are very special and important to us. By doing so, we become what Dr. Julius Segal calls the charismatic adults in their lives, that is, adults from whom children gather strength. Spending special time alone with our children, writing them a brief note of love or appreciation or hugging them are examples of this strategy. We might note that a number of youngsters, such as those with learning and attentional problems, are frequently given the label special needs. While we recognize the importance of this label in securing services and funding, we also believe that we could use similar words on a banner that would appear on all of our homes and schools, namely, every child who enters these doors needs to feel special.
5. Helping Children Deal with Mistakes.
The fear of making mistakes and looking foolish is one of the strongest roadblocks to developing high self-esteem and resilience. Children are often vulnerable to feelings of defeat and are likely to retreat from tasks that may lead to failure. We must help our children realize that mistakes are an important ingredient in the process of learning. We can do this in various ways, such as responding to children’s mistakes by showing them the correct way to solve a problem and not by saying such demeaning comments as, “Do you have any brains?” or “You never do anything right!” In the school setting, at the very beginning of the year before teachers have taught any lessons or given any work, they can introduce the topic of mistakes in the learning process. In the discussion teachers can share memories of their own anxieties about making mistakes when they were students and involve the class in a discussion about the best ways to insure that students not worry about making a mistake. Placing the issue about the fear of making mistakes out in the open typically serves to lessen its potency, thereby increasing opportunities for learning.
In general, resilience is linked to a sense of optimism, ownership, and personal control. What we have learned from both personal and professional experience is that we can all serve as the charismatic adults in children’s lives–believing in them and providing them with opportunities that reinforce their “islands of competence” and feelings of self-worth. This is truly a wonderful gift we offer and it is also an essential ingredient to improve the future of children. It is part of our legacy to the next generation.