Think about the stresses children are living with these days: war, bullying, relentless pressures to achieve, divorce, threats of terrorism. Despite all our efforts to protect our children, the stressors continue.
That’s why the American Psychological Association has teamed up with Time magazine’s children’s publication, Time for Kids, to help young people cope.
I asked Russ Newman, the association’s executive director for professional practice, whether resilience is a characteristic we are born with and whether it is even teachable at all. He said research shows that resilience is not a single trait or characteristic but a cluster of traits, most of which are teachable.
Over the years, I have spoken with hundreds of people who had endured terrible adversity and seemed to emerge with minimal scarring. These are people who are living productive lives and making a contribution to the larger world. In my informal research, I found that they seemed to have one thing in common: someone who believed in them.
Newman agreed: “What we have found is, one of the most significant factors in people who seemed resilient was that they had good relationships. Strong connections with others. The essence of what helps seems to be the relationship itself.”
Something else that researchers found was that resilient people are able to take care of themselves. They tend to sleep more, exercise more, eat healthier, and create more time for relaxation in their daily lives. I wondered about the impact on a child of being raised by anxious or depressed parents who tend to deprive themselves of these things, or see the world as dangerous. Newman acknowledged that although this kind of parental style could inhibit a child’s emotional growth, the original research on resilience was with children who seemed to do well despite living in difficult or dangerous families.
According to Newman, other characteristics of resilient people include the ability to maintain a sense of optimism and the ability to keep stressful events in perspective. Resilient people also tend to maintain a routine and have specific goals and plans to achieve them.
Newman said these are all teachable behaviors: “Each of these are simply characteristics of people who tend to be resilient. They are really just ordinary behaviors. So there is no reason to believe that one cannot increase their sense of resilience by cobbling together a set of behaviors that works best for them.”
Certainly, teaching new behaviors involves more than a class or a couple of posters on the wall. That’s why the psychological association would like to see schools integrate resilience strategies throughout student life.
Although learning the behaviors associated with resilience can be very helpful, I believe resilience is more than a teachable set of behaviors. I believe it is simpler and much more spiritual. I wonder if resilience is something we are born with and lose over time, since research shows that children tend to be more resilient than adults.
There are many things children do better than adults. Children tend to be more open, trusting, even more empathic than adults. Children don’t linger in the past or worry about the future. Perhaps these are also essential characteristics of resilience.
The American Psychological Association has done a wonderful service by providing these valuable materials for students, teachers and parents.
I would just add one small element: Let’s try letting the children teach the grown-ups.