Children need to learn to cope in adversity

Try as we may, the one trick we will never be able to pull off as parents is to protect our children from all harm. We can be quite sure that from early on, things will not always go their way. They will feel sadness, anger hurt, fear. They will be disappointed by others and sometimes even by their own actions. We know this from our own experience.

And much as we may want to help and protect, we may end up taking over a problem that belongs to the young person, thus denying them the opportunity to learn about life and develop inner strength. Resilience; the ability to recover and bounce back after a setback or shock. Courage; the ability to disregard fear. I heard an interview on the radio once which gave a wonderful insight about courage. Being interviewed was a much decorated pilot from WW2, known for his acts of extraordinary courage in the air. He was asked where he found this courage. “I never felt courageous” he said, “I was terrified the whole time. I just did what I had to do”. So courage is not something we have or do not have. It`s about how we face the challenge.

It does not help to worry. Underlying much anxiety in children is the dread of problems arising, expressed in this way by an eight-year-old girl. “I don`t want to worry. I just want to keep everything safe and settled…it feels like a voice in my head saying all the bad things that can happen.”

“Bad” things can and do happen, and we can learn valuable lessons from them. Parents can help by not being afraid themselves of their children`s expression of negative feelings, and rather help them deal with them. “I can see that you are feeling really sad that…would you like to talk about it?”. Or, “I can understand how disappointed you are that…”

We may have to overcome the urge to reassure and try to “fix” the problem ourselves, but this kind of open reflective response leads naturally to problem solving. “What do you think you can do about it?” Just the fact that someone is interested and attentive, can empathise with how we are feeling and encourage us to find ways to deal with the difficulty and then praise our efforts, is strengthening. And each problem faced builds greater resilience to cope with the next one.

I met with a boy through a difficult patch where he had got himself into trouble, but came through it repentant and wiser. I asked him to articulate the insights he had gained in the process. He said, “It`s going to be a rough ride but hang on, you will learn from what you have done and you will get through it. Believe there are people you can go to to discuss it, and get help from.” Or in the words of a 12-year-old girl. “ You have got to think, it`s like a maze, and you just have to face it.” With a little bit of help, children can access their own intuition and wisdom.

Too often we are hard on ourselves. We make mistakes. But looked at honestly, we probably did the best we could at the time, given what we knew then. Insights gained can help us the next time.

Ruth Stanford, a colleague of the psychotherapist Carl Rogers, tells this story.

“A compassionate person, seeing a butterfly struggling to free itself from it`s cocoon, and wanting to help, very gently loosened the filaments to form an opening. The butterfly was freed, emerged from the cocoon and fluttered about, but could not fly. What the compassionate person did not know was that only through the birth struggle can the wings grow strong enough for flight. Its shortened life was spent on the ground; it never knew freedom, never really lived.”

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Published in: on March 19, 2010 at 8:34 am  Leave a Comment