While there are many skills parents long to instill in their kids, one quality that can carry them through life’s ups and downs is resilience. Big life changes — like moving, parents getting divorced or experiencing the death of a loved one — can force kids to learn resilience, but Edmond-based clinical and school psychologist Dr. Lisa Marotta says there are everyday moments that provide opportunities for resilience building, too.
“Resilience is the ability to bounce back when life does not go the way that you think that it should,” explained Dr. Marotta. “Resilience is dealing with the unpredictable and uncertain. We have to be able to quickly respond, adapt and be effective in how we adapt.”
Dr. Marotta is quick to point out that many families have already had a lot of practice in resilience during the coronavirus pandemic. Dealing with things like school closures, adapting to virtual learning and missed events like birthday parties have all been resilience-building opportunities for families.
“In our culture, there is this tendency for parents to look at childhood as kind of this blissful time where kids are innocent and don’t need to be stressed by the world,” said Dr. Marotta. “But actually, from a psychological standpoint, we want them to be able to learn how to manage stress because life is stressful. There are tricky things that happen all the time where kids need to be able to get calm, manage their emotions and have clarity of mind to be able to say, ‘So what do I do now?’ You figure out what you do, you make that choice and then how you evaluate that is where you get further growth.”
Resilience in action
The month of April is designated as the Month of the Military Child by the Department of Defense Military Community and Family Policy in recognition of the sacrifices military children face day in and day out as their parent, or parents, are serving in the Armed Forces. Oftentimes, military kids have to learn resilience at a very early age as they navigate constant change with deployments, frequent moves to a parent’s new duty assignment and new schools.
For the Williams family, the biggest challenge came when they had to uproot their family from Oklahoma City to Virginia. Josh, an Air Force Major, and Amanda, a photographer, had to identify varied coping strategies for their two daughters, 4-year-old Mya and 12-year-old Ava Casillas, as they responded differently to the change.
“Mya was outspoken with her feelings but Ava became very quiet and withdrawn,” recalled Amanda. “She seemed very indifferent, so I had a ‘come clean night’ with her, which is what my own mom would do with me growing up. It was a time for us to sit down and have a conversation with the understanding that I was not going to get angry with her but that I would help her work through whatever mess she was in.”
When Amanda asked Ava how she liked Virginia and how she felt about making new friends, Ava broke down in tears.
“So we started talking about how to be intentional with maintaining old friendships while also making new friends,” said Amanda. “When she did start making friends at her new school, I had her get their numbers so we could invite them over for pizza at our house. It really is important for parents to give their kids that safe space to talk through whatever they are feeling.”
The Corsers also know all too well the importance of communication in their dual-military family. Parents Michael and Kristine are both Majors, Michael in the Active Duty Air Force and Kristine in the Air Force Reserve. The Corser kids have experienced several big life changes over the years, as Michael and Kristine have had 13 duty stations and 11 deployments, as well as countless stateside work trips and a short tour in Korea. Their oldest child, Damien, has attended 10 different schools.
“Our family’s schedule is busy, constant and ever-changing,” said Kristine. “We’ve found that open and honest communication is key to any process of change. As much as we can, we let our kids know what changes may or may not happen, how the process will go and what the expected outcome is.”
They also create fun experiences to engage their children and prepare them for change. In addition to Damien, age 20, the Corsers have two daughters, Isabella, 14, and Adilyn, 3.
“My husband and I love to plan special ways to announce our next move to the kids,” said Kristine. “Last time we sent them on a scavenger hunt throughout the house where they found clues that they pieced together to figure out where we were going. It is OK to have mixed feelings of sadness, loss, hope and joy. In the end, no matter where we go, we know we are in this together.”
Tips for building resilience in kids
Military or non-military, there are many simple moments throughout a child’s day that can contain a wealth of learning and resilience-building opportunities.
“For example, if I’m a kid and I forgot to bring my lunch to school one day, but I don’t like what they are serving in the cafeteria, I might feel upset,” described Dr. Marotta. “But I have to get myself calm, think about what my options are and then I have to make it work. And it’s that ‘making it work’ which builds my confidence that I am capable of making things turn out OK. If you think about that across a day for a child, then there are many opportunities for them to learn confidence that they can solve their problems.”
When dealing with a tough situation, Dr. Marotta first advises parents to acknowledge their child’s emotions, recognizing that it is normal for the child to feel distressed no matter how big or small the issue may be. Oftentimes, parents also need to find their own sense of calm.
“A lot of times, we’re all melting down at the same time!” laughed Dr. Marotta. “But think about effectiveness rather than efficiency. There is a bigger picture and it’s not about getting your kids to feel better immediately. It’s about all the learning that happens from this point of distress to the point of resolution. If you are solving their problem and trying to rush them through to feel better, you’re not being that learning model of how we return to calm.”
Dr. Marotta also reminds parents that it is a sign of resilience to ask for help.
“That’s true for parents as well as kids,” said Dr. Marotta. “If a kid is trying to problem solve exclusively on their own and continuing to meet obstacles and disappointment, we want them to know that they don’t have to figure it all out by themselves. Having a trusted person — parent, teacher, coach — that is able to help sit with your child in those hard feelings and get to the other side of it, that’s what gets them more and more ready for ‘adulting.’”
4 quick tips to help kids navigate challenges
- 1. Acknowledge the child’s emotions.
- Model a sense of calm.
- Concentrate on effectiveness rather than efficiency: don’t rush them to resolution and don’t solve the problem for them.
- Encourage kids to ask for help when they need it in processing emotions and solutions.
When it’s time to seek professional help
Dr. Marotta advises that parents may want to seek professional help from a counselor if a child is stuck in their emotions and starting to think things like “there is something wrong with them or they are stupid.” Also, if a child is acting out, using maladaptive ways to cope (e.g., drugs, hanging out with friends instead of doing schoolwork) or avoiding their problem entirely, it may be time to seek professional help.
Resilience resources For Young Kids
• Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst
• Fortunately by Remy Charlip
• Sesame Street’s The Big Moving Adventure app
For Elementary Kids
• After the Fall by Dan Santat
• Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees
For Middle & High School Kids
• When Stars are Scattered by Victoria Jamieson and Omar Mohamed (graphic novel)
• Front Desk by Kelly Yang
• I am Malala (Young Readers edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick
• Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine by Dr. Michele Borba
• Building Happier Kids: Stress-busting Tools for Parents by Dr. Hansa Bhargava
• Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety by Erica Komisar
• Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook: Using Mindfulness and Connection to Raise Resilient, Joyful Children and Rediscover Your Love of Parenting by Dr. Laura Markham
Each of these for-parent authors will be featured speakers at MetroFamily’s The Modern Art of Parenting virtual summit, held April 1-8. Learn how you can attend for FREE at modernartofparenting.com.