By Barbara Gochberg, PhD
There is a book that has stayed with me since I first read it to my children many years ago. A little boy named Jim is beginning school, filled with anxiety and self-doubt. Jim notices that he is the shortest in the class, and he is worried that he cannot hang from the monkey bars as well as the other kids. We can imagine a whole range of his possible worries:
What if I can’t read as well as the other kids?
What if I can’t run as fast?
What if someone says something not nice to me?
Elinor, the new girl in school, simply shrugs her shoulders each time Jim raises a concern and says, “So what?” Her nonchalance is not meant to be dismissive, and she does not contradict the fact that his concerns feel very real to Jim and that they may indeed represent true vulnerabilities. Instead, in my interpretation, she offers an alternative approach:
It may be true that you can’t hang from the monkey bars, or that you might be the shortest in the class, but does it really matter? Isn’t it possible that you can put your worries into perspective, and while they may not disappear, they may become less powerful and relevant?
Elinor offers Jim an early lesson in resilience.
This book, which I briefly summarized, was written well before resilience arrived as an important word in the lexicon of psychological health. Although in an admittedly simplistic way, little Elinor was suggesting to her new friend Jim that stress, worries, and difficult social and academic experiences do not have to define his experience of school; there is actually an alternative way to cope with these challenges. She did not offer him advice on how to grow taller or excel at the monkey bars; she introduced him to the idea of perspective. Whether objectively real or subjectively worrisome, our challenges and fears can be kept in perspective. They do not need to define us or completely color our experience.
I have always found Elinor’s wisdom, as well as the simple and sweet companionship she offers to Jim, very endearing. And years later, this story serves as a good introduction to the concept of resilience.
When we talk about resilience, we are referring to the ability to withstand, tolerate, and eventually thrive, even in the face of life’s hardships, whether those hardships reflect an individual child’s worry, such as being “good enough” or “the best” at something in school, or the very grave reactions triggered by a major life stressor. Resilience suggests enough flexibility to tolerate discomfort or stress, and an adaptability to changes and conditions that are not optimal.
Resilience does not mean being impervious to the full range of emotions inherent in the experience of both everyday life and major life stressors. Even the strongest and the most resilient children and adults have their moments of disappointment, regret, sadness, anger, frustration, and fear. Resilient people allow those emotions to surface, yet importantly, they learn how to keep those emotions within bounds. The process of learning to manage strong feelings is the important developmental work of childhood, and a critical path in the development of resilience as well.
What helps children keep perspective in the face of disappointment? This is a question parents and educators face each day. Worry and fear are contagious; it is easy to transmit our worry to our children. The good news is that we can strengthen and transmit our resilience as well. When we face challenges with a realistic appraisal of what is difficult, and an acknowledgement of the feelings that the challenges engender, we are modeling how honest reflection helps us cope, taking steps along the road to resilience.
In part, children are quietly looking to their parents and their teachers for clues of how to react. How do we as adults handle our emotional reactions to daily disappointments? The idea of keeping perspective is especially important as we work to modulate our own emotional reactions. We can teach kids to manage their own emotions with empathy (“That must have made your day so tough.”). We can make explicit what problem-solving strategies we use to manage our own emotions (“I gave myself a little time to feel bad, and then I told myself it was time to move on.”). We can practice the time-honored combination of perspective-taking and the art of distraction (“This felt like a very big disappointment to me and I was really upset, but I got busy and soon I realized it was only a small disappointment.”).
Growing this resilient worldview does require some optimism and leaps of faith, but does not require us to be perfect parents or teachers, modeling resilience at every turn. Life is messy and perfection is simply out of reach, unrealistic, and probably not much fun. When a goal feels unattainable, it reduces our willingness to inch forward and try. We are not required to see the proverbial glass as half full, as much as to see the glass from all of its perspectives: full, empty and somewhere in between. The honest acknowledgement of disappointment and hardship, the ability to envision feeling strong and confident, and the capacity to tolerate and manage the accompanying feelings can help significantly.
Finally, the old adage “Laughter is the best medicine” must have been coined by a very psychologically astute and resilient person. Laughter and joy are early, fundamental experiences, learned by infants in the shared building of those critical first relationships. Finding the opportunity to laugh and to feel the distinct pleasure of a shared joyful moment reminds our children and ourselves of the possibility of facing at least life’s smaller disappointments with a shrug and a “So what?”.