You hear it all the time: children will get through all sorts of emotionally difficult experiences because they’re “resilient.” But are they?
Sheryl Sandberg raised the issue this week in a New York Times op-ed taken from her book,“Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy” (with Adam Grant).
She shares my observation that children are not naturally resilient, despite the oft-repeated assertion, and she describes ways she encourages that skill in her 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son since the sudden death of her husband two years ago.
You see evidence of kids laid low by painful circumstances all the time. Sophie, aged 4, reverted to diapers when her parents split up. Jason, 7, refused to go to school, clinging to his mom, when his dad left for a tour of military service. Twins James and Mark, 9, increased their brotherly conflicts when their mom took a full-time tech job. Such negative reactions to major changes are so common among children, we expect them. Yet even as we tend to these sad responses, we continue to say off-handedly, “kids re resilient.”
In my book Don’t Divorce: Powerful Arguments for Saving and Revitalizing Your Marriage, I note that resilience means bouncing back to a former shape, and yet after a big blow—like parents’ divorce, but it could be any crushing event—children are ill-equipped to regain their previous equilibrium.
Children aren’t born with social skills—they’re simply primed to survive. They’ll do what they must in order to handle setbacks, but how they do that is not an innate resilience—it’s the flailing of a drowning man. The childhood task is to understand the world, and through experience and inculcation, learn the skills to navigate it. When a frightening event happens, kids can’t just summon some store of “resilience” that’s poised, ready for use.
You may have heard the bromide, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” Yes, enduring family upheaval may, after the trauma, cause some children to emerge stronger (and others may withdraw, or become fearful). But what caring parent would subject her child to the part that nearly “kills” him on the prospect that the child might be fortified for a subsequent ordeal?
Some events, like the death of a parent, aren’t a matter of choice. But most major shifts children endure might be mitigated or avoided if parents placed highest priority on family stability. After a trauma, a youngster can never recapture his former state of childhood innocence—he becomes hardened and cautious lest he suffer again.
In Saving Childhood: Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence, my husband and I write about the fragility of a joyful childhood, and the diligence with which parents must guard it. Our publisher chose to put this excerpt about an interchange with our then-young daughter on the back of the book jacket:
Last year on Shayna’s eighth birthday, our guests serenaded her over the cake, and our delighted daughter beamed. Toward the end of the day, she came over to Michael to cuddle. “I want to say goodbye,” she said sweetly and solemnly.
“Why?” Michael asked with some surprise.
“Because,” Shayna explained, “after today, you’re never going to see a seven-year-old daughter again.”
And of course, she was exactly right.
Assuming a child can absorb a hardship without permanent impact ignores that children are building their outlooks with every experience, every day.
Dr. Anthony Scioli, author of Hope in the Age of Anxiety, says building resilience relies on hope, a sense of mastery and attachments. When kids face situations like parental loss or divorce, relocation, or a major jolt from family routines, they lose attachments (or opportunities for them) and lack the control over the situation to feel mastery. In the face of events they find hurtful or confusing, their hope is shattered.
In other words, family disruptions prevent children from becoming resilient, and undermine what limited resilience they may have picked up.
What can loving parents do? First off, when making family decisions, remember that the most beneficial climate for your children’s development offers security, consistency and optimism. One of the points I make in Don’t Divorce is that staying in a low-conflict marriage (and two-thirds of divorces occur in low-conflict homes) “for the sake of the children” is a noble, laudable choice. That’s not to say that spouses should keep suffering, but that maintaining a stable home for the children you love can be a worthwhile motivator to address problems rather than call it quits.
Reassuringly, in studies of couples who deem themselves unhappily married, three-fourths of those who stick it out report five years later that their marriages are happy or very happy. Viewing your present differences as a “rough patch” or finite problem to solve can remind you of the long-term significance of your marriage.
In making other choices—moving to a new home, taking on more work—consider how brief and precious these years of childhood are. What household upgrades or amount of added income is worth the impact your decision will have for your children, and the loss of time you’ll have to enjoy and influence their upbringing?
And when circumstances force major adjustments on children, don’t assume they can just sail through. Instead, minimize the amounts and types of changes they’ll face, and keep constant any grounding influences you can.
For example, maintain the child’s surroundings—the familiar room, the usual routines and the caring adults who form his world. Talk to your children about the changes around them, and suggest ways they can see at least some differences in a positive light, while acknowledging the downsides and resultant feelings. Put yourself in your child’s shoes, and share how you imagine you’d feel if confronted with the adjustments your child must make.
The good news is that children can learn how to handle adversity. “Positive Psychology” guru Dr. Martin Seligman runs a program at the University of Pennsylvania that teaches resiliency, which is one of several coping skills necessary for well-being. Other school-based programs focus on adapting to change and awareness of emotions. But such courses exist because children aren’t naturally capable of rebounding after a blow.
Sheryl Sandberg describes the ways she fosters her children’s expression of feelings, and maintains the memory of her husband. With experience, time and practice, assisted by caring adults, children can become better at processing and responding to hardships thrust upon them. But when you hear someone justify a major family shift with “the kids will be okay—children are resilient,” do those youngsters a favor and find out more.