Bouncing Back

Studies show kids who are optimistic and resilient lead happier, healthier lives. Experts believe parents can nurture those personality traits in their growing children. How great is that?

In the book, Life Lessons (Simon and Schuster, 2001), David Kessler writes about being a young boy and seeing his mother fall down upon leaving the hospital. When he suggested she go back inside, his mother replied: “People fall, and then hopefully they get back up. That is life.”

Life throws all of us curves every day — whether it’s as minor as misplaced homework or as devastating as the loss of a loved one. Can we safeguard our children against adversity? No. But a growing body of evidence in the emerging field of positive psychology suggests that it is possible to teach our children how to face life’s challenges, just like we teach them to ride bikes and throw a ball.

The Face of Resilience

In his books, Learned Optimism (Vintage reprint, 2006) and The Optimistic Child (Harper Paperbacks, 1996), renowned psychologist and groundbreaking researcher Martin Seligman sets forth methods for practicing optimism. In light of what science is uncovering about the mind/body connection, Seligman calls learned optimism a “psychological immunization” that can protect children from both mental and physical illness for a lifetime.

The study of resilience emerged only about 50 years ago, but it is quickly gaining ground as people realize the advantages of proactive parenting and teachable life skills.

“Now, more and more people are looking at what gives people joy, and looking at how we can raise happy resilient individuals,” says Mary K. Alvord, P.H.D, author of a study titled “Enhancing Resilience in Children: A Proactive Approach,” published in 2005 in the journal, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice. Alvord is the director of a group therapy practice in Silver Spring, Maryland.

All of us are born with a certain temperament, says Alvord. Some temperaments are naturally more flexible and adaptable than others, but studies show people of all ages can learn resilience.

“Children with parents who are warm and loving, but who also set firm limits and boundaries and high expectations are most likely to be resilient because they have better peer relationships and family relationships,” says Alvord.

Project Resilience, a private organization in Washington, D.C., co-directed by Steven and Sybil Wolin, consults with schools, clinics and prevention agencies on fostering resilience. The Wolins define resilience as the human capacity to face, overcome and even be strengthened by experiences of adversity.

Seven Traits of Resilient People

Every day in our community and in the news, we see people who are not just surviving adversity — they are thriving in spite of it

Examples of resilience abound in popular children’s literature. Beloved titles like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Engine that Could are prime examples. But resilience isn’t some magic you hear about only in fairy tales. Psychologists like Alvord teach skills we can put into practice by shifting our viewpoint and seeing ourselves as survivors, not victims, and as people who are learning from our mistakes, not as failures.

Healthy people who thrive against all odds are not in denial. But, as they shed tears, they move forward, carrying their scars and lessons with them as they set new personal goals and ask for assistance from others.

According to a 2005 national poll by the American Psychological Association, 93 percent of Americans believe that perceptions, thoughts and choices affect physical health. So what qualities give people a leg up when life seems all uphill? Project Resilience identified seven common protective traits when they questioned 25 young men and women who had thrived despite hardships. The qualities are:

• insight – asking tough questions and giving honest answers

• independence – distancing emotionally and physically from the sources of trouble

• relationships – making fulfilling connections to other people

• initiative – taking charge of problems

• creativity – using imagination and expressing oneself in art forms

• humor – finding the comic in the tragic

• morality – acting on the basis of an informed conscience

It’s Never Too Late — or Too Early — to Learn

My father always said you can wake up each morning and think, “Good Morning, God!” or “Good God, it’s morning!” And experts say retraining thought patterns is a critical step toward resilience.

In a study of 577 people, Seligman found that something as simple as writing and delivering a letter of gratitude made people happier and less depressed for up to six months. In the same study, people were asked to write down three good things in their lives each day for a week and include the cause of those good things. These participants, like those who wrote letters of gratitude, reported more optimistic feelings, even months later, than the control group in the study, who were asked only to write down some early memories each night for a week.

Parents want to raise strong individuals who remain happy in the midst of life’s challenges. Some tips from the experts include:

1. Be empathetic. Offer your child an understanding ear without trying to “fix” everything and protect her from all of life’s hurts.

2. Practice an “attitude of gratitude.” Name things you are thankful for each night at dinner or bedtime.

3. Encourage creativity. Find creative outlets your child enjoys. Help her discover and develop her strengths.

4. Build community relationships. Give your child experience as a team member within your family and community through sports, academics and age-appropriate chores.

5. Encourage initiative. Instead of always telling your child what to do, allow her to use some problem solving skills

6. Exercise your family’s funny bone. Learning to laugh at yourself during difficult times is essential to reframing events. Model a sense of humor.

7. Teach self control. Children must learn to master emotions and behaviors.

8. Be a proactive parent. Authoritative parents are responsive and demanding. They exert firm and consistent, but not overbearing, control over their children.

9. Teach flexibility and adaptability. If you’re stuck in a rainstorm without an umbrella, try a shrug and a smile instead of a 10-minute tirade on the weather.

10. Encourage spirituality. Giving life a sense of purpose puts things in perspective.

Learning these skills is like learning a new dance step, says Alvord. “If you just do it once, you forget it. The more you do it, the more it becomes automatic,” she notes.

Eric Sparks, the director of school counseling for Wake County Public School System and president of the American School Counselor Association, says research on resilience is helpful for school counselors.

“In school counseling, we have always done what’s best for students, but we didn’t have a lot of research to base that on. Now, the recent studies have really given counselors a foundation for their work in this area, so we can increase our efforts in areas shown to be most effective and spend less time on areas shown to be less effective,” says Sparks.

So while your children learn to walk, tie shoes and spell their names, remember to throw in some humor, gratitude and high expectations to give them “immunity” against the bumps in the road. — CP

How Resilient Are You?

Would you consider yourself resilient or not resilient? Or maybe you fall somewhere in between? Rate your resilience quotient by assigning a numerical value to each statement below.

0 = not at all accurate

1 = somewhat accurate

2 = moderately accurate

3 = very accurate

4 = extremely accurate

1. I adapt easily to change ___

2. I feel in control of my life ___

3. I am creative ___

4. I have a sense of humor, even under stress ___

5. I have close relationships ___

6. I often volunteer to help others ___

7. I am goal oriented ___

8. I am independent ___

9. I have good problem solving skills ___

10. I can turn to others for help easily ___

11. I practice an “attitude of gratitude” daily ___

12. I like challenges ___

13. I believe things happen for a reason ___

14 I can handle uncertainty ___

15. I can deal with unpleasant feelings ___

Note: This is not a pass/fail test. The higher you score, the more resilient you are. If your resilience ratings weren’t as high as you’d hoped or expected, it’s not too late to nurture resilience in yourself. Seligman’s Web site, authentichappiness.org, offers additional information on teaching — and learning — resilience.