So, October is National Bullying Prevention month and as promised I am kicking off my series on ways to prepare our children for conflict. I think we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about bullying, but so much of that conversation revolves around stereotypical images and ideas and often results in finger pointing and shaming.
Instead, I believe we need to spend more time talking about the skills and strategies we can give to our children to help them deal with conflict and aggressive behavior. Because as much as we want to protect our children and to wrap their hearts in bubble wrap so they don’t experience the hurts we know are out there, we can’t.
Our kids need to figure out how to deal with setbacks and disappointments. This is where the idea of resiliency comes in.
Resiliency is all about the bounce back when life throws something at you.
When your daughter’s best friends all of a sudden don’t want to sit with her at lunch. When your son fails an important test. When your daughter’s soccer coach calls her off the field because she isn’t playing well. When your son begins to have problems with some older kids on the bus. When your daughter gives up on a difficult project.
The more resilient your child is the more able he will be to deal with stress and pressure; to cope with everyday challenges; to bounce back from disappointments, adversity, and trauma; to develop clear and realistic goals; to solve problems; to relate comfortably with others; and to treat himself and others with respect (Brooks & Goldstein, 2012).
Now that is some pretty powerful stuff.
THE SOCIAL CONNECTION
But, before we get too much further in how to build resiliency, I want to spend some time talking about how your child is developing socially and why resiliency is so important not just for those big bullying moments, but for responding to everyday challenges.
Around the age of seven a pretty momentous shift occurs in the social life of your child.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan, in his book, Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child, describes this shift as a “move from the family-oriented stage of development into the rough and tumble world of peer relationships.”
It is at this stage when your child begins to define herself a little less in terms of the way of how you treat her and more by how she fits in with her peer group at school. Her self-image begins to be defined by the group, the pecking order that prevails on the playground (or in the lunchroom), instead of being determined solely by her parents or her inner conviction and what she thinks about herself.
In the early years, some children aren’t as aware of this social process as others, but as your child moves through middle school they will at some point be impacted by the opinions of others.
This social change is important to talk about because this can be a difficult period of adjustment if your child doesn’t have a resilient mindset. So many of us are prepared for the big bullying moments that don’t always come. Instead, it’s the hurts that come from close friends that are the most devastating.
SO WHAT TO DO?
Thanks to the power of neuroplasticity (one of my favorite words) everyone has the power to spring back from difficulties.
Neuroplasticity refers to “the ability of the nervous system to respond to intrinsic or extrinsic stimuli by reorganizing its structure, function, and connections (Cramer et al, 2011).
What this means is that each of us, to some degree, has the power to change the structure and function of our brains. We can positively influence the way in which our brain develops, how efficiently it operates, and what skills it acquires (so cool!).
Neuroscientists have found that brain structure actually changes from moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day (Southwick & Charney, 2012). Which means that there is lots of room for change and growth no matter what our age.
HELPING YOUR CHILD BUILD RESILIENCY
Set realistic goals and expectations: The more your child is able to accomplish the more positive he will feel about himself and his abilities. Having goals are what helps move us forward and can guide and shape our growth and development.
The trick is to help your child find goals that are realistic. Going for an A on a science project isn’t realistic if you only start the night before. No matter what age your child, is he can easily set goals that he can move towards.
Recognize mistakes as learning opportunities: everyone makes mistakes, and sometimes they can be tough to recover from, but if we aren’t making mistakes then we aren’t growing.
When your three year old spills the milk she is pouring, or your sixteen year old scrapes the side of the car as she backs out of the garage, there is a learning opportunity in there somewhere.
The key to the learning is to talk about the mistake, not just say “I told you so” – “I told you not to put so much milk in the cup,” “I told you not to park so close to the garage wall.” We all die a little bit inside when we hear the words “I told you so.”
Have your child accept the responsibility for her behavior and work together to figure out what she might change next time to avoid a similar situation.
Sense of worth by doing: It can be difficult for your child to build his self-concept if he feels that what he does has no impact on the lives of his friends and/or family.
Children like to feel involved and that they are contributing to the success of a group whether that is their family, a sports team, an afterschool club, or a group of friends. Your child might roll his eyes at you if you ask him to shovel the walk, or unload the dishwasher but even these small jobs can help him feel more grounded.
Spread out social network: Be conscious of the friendships and connections that your child has. In some ways this can be one of the strongest components in developing resiliency. If your child feels connected and valued in one group of friends she will be less vulnerable to mistreatment in another location.
Have her connect with children who have typical hearing, as well as children with hearing loss; children who live in your neighborhood and children from different areas. Look for opportunities for her to develop friendships outside school through different groups, activities, and teams.
Something to believe in: Every resiliency resource I consulted spoke about how fostering a sense of faith, transcendence, and spirituality in your child is one of the best things you can do to help him build a resilient mindset.
People have always turned towards a power that is higher than they are in times of trouble. Faith and spirituality can help to provide your child, and your family, with a set of guiding principles of how you want to be treated and of how you can treat others.
This doesn’t have to be done with an organized religion, but it does have to be something that your family works on together consciously. Having someone or something that your child can believe in can help to give him the inner strength he needs to be strong.
Changing negative scripts: I think this is an important one for kids with hearing loss. We spend so much time talking about and working on areas of weakness (think IEP meetings, therapy sessions, etc.), that our kids can become stuck in the idea that they are not good at anything.
Stanley Greenspan, in his book Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of Your School-Age Child, asks us to imagine how we would feel if we were made to spend 90 percent of our time doing tasks that were difficult. One example he uses is what if you were right handed, but made to write with your left hand several hours a day. The results would be frustrating and would not make you develop enjoyment of the task.
Dr. Greenspan’s suggestion is to “spend no more than 50 percent of practice time on a child’s weakness,” the other 50 percent of the time should be spent on developing your child’s natural strengths. Think of ways to help your child use her strengths to develop her weaknesses, that way she can begin to gain more confidence in her abilities.
Brooks, R. & Goldstein, S. (2012). Raising Resilient Children with Autism Disorders: Strategies for Helping Them Maximize Their Strengths, Cope with Adversity, and Develop a Social Mindset. McGraw Hill: New York.
Cramer, S.C. et al (2011). “Harnessing neuroplasticity for clinical applications.” Brain, 134 (6), 1591-1601.
Southwick, S.M., & Charney, D.S. (2012). Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges. Cambridge University Press: New York.
Photo credit: Tony Alter