First scenario: a child who is part of a stable and loving family of 5 goes through a huge loss at age 12. Her older sister decides to leave the family’s house in a stressful condition. Suddenly she stops being part of the family’s routines. At this stressful moment, the family offers psychological and emotional support to the 12-year-old. But she says she prefers not to talk about her feelings claiming that it only makes her sad. The parents respect her preference. A few months later this child tells her parents saying that emotionally she feels so miserable that she started cutting herself.
Second scenario: a 14-year-old child receives the news that the family is relocating to another state for work-related reasons. The child is extremely distraught and expresses that she doesn’t want to go. The parents explain that they must move and the child comes up with suggestions to avoid it. She suggests splitting up the family, financially downsizing or accepting unemployment. The family firmly explains that the proposed solutions aren't feasible options. The following week the child is caught shoplifting. The week after that, she is found sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night. Being these actions entirely out of character, when asked why she did it, she says she doesn't know.
Third scenario: a bastard child is sexually raped at the age 5. Raised by a single alcoholic mother alcoholic who is mentally ill, she grows up in a volatile environment. Despite that, she goes through her teenage years never doing drugs or breaking the law. As an adult, she forms the family she wishes she had had. She also develops a practice to help others with emotional and psychological issues. She develops anxiety issues later in life, which she deals with through therapy and medication. Other than that her records as a child and teenager are squeaky clean.
What is the difference between these three children? The first two children went through particularly stressful events in an otherwise average and stable life. The third one endured a lifelong of abuse and neglect. The first two had a breakdown in the face of change in their immediate environment. The third one flourished despite her challenges. Why haven't the constant, safe and loving context of the first two children equipped them to deal better with change and loss?
THE CONCEPT OF RESILIENCE
We talk a lot about resilient children these days. But what does it mean to be resilient? The Merriam-Webster says that resilience is "the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.” Psychologists today understand resilience as a learned skill, which can be fostered by parents and teachers. The American Psychological Association website offers a Resilience Guide for Parents and Teachers. Its tips to build resilience include teaching self-care and encouraging connections. It also discusses the importance of maintaining a daily routine and nurturing a positive self-view. But aren’t precisely these things that middle-class parents focus on while raising their children? I know for a fact that the first two scenarios mentioned in this article met these criteria. Nonetheless, those were the children who acted entirely out of character when presented with a life challenge. The third one, who had none of that, was the only one who showed resilience. How come?
Some experts claim that we protect our children and teens from frustration and deception to a fault. We give them awards for competitions they didn’t win. We give them praises that they didn’t earn. We try to protect them from painful changes in our lives (divorce, for example). We prioritize them trying our best not to neglect our need in the process. And I don’t see anything inherently wrong with that. We are parents; we are wired to help our children grow and thrive. If that means keeping them from emotional and psychological pain, so be it. But are these actions generating the best results?
Despite our efforts, the rates of depression, self-harm, and anxiety among young teens are at unprecedented levels. And it isn't that the problems that they face today weren't there years ago. These kids just seem less resilient and more fragile. And, as is America’s natural tendency, we look for behaviors that may be generating this increased fragility. Are we coddling them too much? Are we overprotective? How are we, the parents, damaging our kids? Others look for psychiatric dysfunctions to try to understand any abnormal behavior. Do they have an oppositional defiant disorder? Are they developing anxiety? Maybe they are depressed? If we can find some mental disturbance, we can resort to medication that will make our children okay again.
Some say that the fact that our teens are children of the post 9/11 generation increased their fragility. They grew up in an era of national insecurity. Nowadays, terrorism and mass school shootings are the norms and not the exception. However, the rates of anxiety and depression started raising only in 2012, 11 years after 9/11. It is true that the effects of exposure to trauma can take time to start showing. It is also likely that the current official numbers are on the lower end since many people don’t seek help. But what can we say of the children who lived through the war like some of our living grandparents and great-grandparents? We look at them as references of strength and resilience! How can war have made them stronger and our children, when faced by our current adversities, grows more vulnerable?
One thing is different now: exposure. Our teens are exposed to their problems all the time. They are online full-time (to social media, to the internet, to one another), so they never take a break. They can’t escape school or peer pressures when they go home, and they can’t avoid home problems when they are at school. Which means that, while the teens of the old days had to deal with situations that were higher in stress, our teens have to deal with stressful situations continually. And that may be draining their abilities to cope.
EARLY INDEPENDENCE AND SOCIAL DEMANDS
Even though this is one possible cause, I do believe that there is more to it. In my opinion, the main difference between then and now was bonding and family relationships. Children of war endured horrible things, but powerful attachments sustained them with the adults in their lives. Those were people (close and extended family) who they trusted and who cared for them. These days, with the demands of modern society, we need to make our children independent as early as possible. Thus, we focus on being present in their lives without paying much attention to being connected. We are around them working on our phones or computers, not sharing their activities and their world. Without sharing, communication, and attention, there is no bonding.
Some will then argue that teenagers want anything but being connected with their parents. “Have you seen how hard it is to get a teenager to look up from their phone screens?” Oh, yes, I have a teenager of my own. I know how her world spins around her best friends (which can change pretty often) and her social life. But I think that this is mostly my fault. Over the years, this peer-oriented behavior became gradually accepted as natural. As such, parents accepted that teens will take distance from them and that eventually, they will come back. I can say I did. But, even though we grew to accept it as natural, how healthy is that? Teens’ fragility before life challenges increased in recent decades. So did their vulnerability to addiction and suicide. Coincidently, so did peer-orientation. Back to the wartime, those children who endured horrible abuse and wind up okay had safe, loving c0nnections with the adults in their lives. Many of them even lost said adults, but the benefits of those connections held them up for a lifetime. And I believe that it has made the whole difference.
When our most significant attachments are to peers, it is hard to feel safe and secure. They are also going through the transitional period of adolescence. As teenagers, their interests and attention fluctuate on a daily basis. They are learning and growing, their preferences and attachments are all over the place. They may have more things in common, and they may speak the same language. By all means, they are necessary in the life of our teenagers. But those can’t be their most meaningful connections. During this confusing and demanding time, when hormones are overflowing their bodies, our teens need a safe harbor. And that can’t be provided by peers, but by mature, stable adults – the parents. When that secure attachment is there, they feel stronger to overcome the challenges that are natural to life.
Therefore, instead of focusing on teaching behaviors that increase resilience, we must focus on cultivating relationships that will improve our child’s confidence. Regardless of what life throws at them, these bonds are what will make them feel safe. Through them, our children will know that they have at least one point of reference that doesn’t change in time: us! Once that connection is secure, they are safe to face all the challenges of adolescence without falling apart.
Luckily, the stories mentioned at the beginning of this piece had their happy ending. Both the children who had the breakdown and the one who grew up to write another story for herself are okay. My guess? The children who fell apart during difficult times bounced back quickly because the secure attachment with the parents was there. And that proves that, even when there is some peer influence, our children eventually fall back to their core values. And that core has to be built in confidence, love, and trust. Which can be done by no one other than the parents.