We all want our children to be able to handle whatever life throws at them. When times are hard—especially when they are older and we cannot be there all the time—we hope they will be able to cope well and thrive. What is it that sets some people apart as they overcome arduous challenges, even early in life?
There are three factors that characterize the lives and personalities of people who handle stress well: a close connection with a supportive person, self-awareness, and an acceptance of their own emotional experiences.
Children can often overcome huge challenges as long as they have at least one person, a witness, who understands what they are going through. This person is remembered all the person’s life as someone who cared about them and saw their value, someone to whom they could turn, even if just as an opportunity to get away from home for awhile.
Self-awareness and emotional self-acceptance are also found in people who deal effectively with stress. They know how things affect them and are not ashamed of their own reactions. They do not deny their feelings or put on a false front. Think of how much energy this saves! Super-survivors accept a wide range of strong, contradictory feelings in themselves. They don’t waste energy feeling guilty or ashamed of normal feelings. Their self-awareness also leads to emotional intelligence in dealing with other people.
If you want your child to be a super-coper, listen to her feelings and be a person she can safely turn to. Encourage her to share her inner world, not just her daily events. Training children to be stress-resilient is much more about bonding and compassion than it is about telling them what to do. It is having a secure attachment that makes them emotionally strong.
Loving acceptance by a reliable parent gives the child the message you are precious to me. When children feel this kind of attachment from their parent, they know that they are never psychologically alone. They always feel that someone is holding them in mind, caring about how they are doing, and alert to their inner state. Who doesn’t do better when they know someone is in their corner? Strong emotional attachments to loved ones also translate into a powerful desire to overcome problems because there is the certainty of a warm reunion after the hard part is over.
Children need to know that if they are upset and fall apart, someone will help them get it back together. They need to know that their deepest feelings, including emotional anguish, don’t scare other people. It is also essential that they do not feel that their needs are irritating or upsetting to other people. Parents don’t mean to pull back when their children are upset, but that is what can happen when the parent does not have the self-awareness to be comfortable with emotional reactions. By developing her own emotional self-awareness, a parent can become a better listener to her child.
The first step in stress-proofing any child is to be sure that his emotional tanks are filled at home. This means lots of eye contact, which is the main route through which children receive their emotional nurturance. Practice looking gently into your child’s eyes as if you are noticing the color of her eyes that day. As soon as a child wants to tell you something, if at all possible, stop multitasking. Don’t forget that nothing is small in a child’s world. If you want your child to feel strong in dealing with stress, you must take his problems completely seriously. If you dismiss or minimize something that seems trivial to you, the child will feel emotionally alone with a problem he cannot resolve on his own, thus weakening his self-confidence.
Imagine as deeply as you can what your child might be going through. Translate his problem into an analogous adult situation and see how you would feel. Remember that a child’s stress is not a problem to be solved, it is an event to be processed. Ask him to tell you the story of what happened, and if he doesn’t want to talk about some parts, let him fast-forward through that and tell you the rest. Think of how strengthening it is to know that you can talk about anything with someone who knows you and who cares.
Children have an amazing ability to find their own solutions if someone supports them when they are down. Often what kids need most is for parents to normalize their distress by saying, “No wonder you feel that way,” or “Who could blame you for being upset?”
Sometimes people feel that children need to tough it out, along the lines of what does not kill you, makes you stronger. But if something traumatizes you, you will have a weak spot until you are able to process what happened. Often parents do not give enough sympathy because they fear it will weaken the child, especially boys. The message is to suck it up and keep moving forward. But the crucial factor is whether the child feels he or she has a supportive foundation at home. With the feeling that someone has their back, children feel secure about trying hard things.
If your child is coming to you with her feelings and problems, you are probably turning out a child who can deal with stress. If you can listen to a child’s problems without telling her how she could have avoided the problem in the first place, you are making yourself a safe harbor for her to cope in. If you help her figure out what she really wants, by asking where she wants to end up, she will be able to pick a good direction for the future.
If you don’t spend too much time lecturing or warning, you and your child can collaborate to handle any stress. A strong connection at home means strong coping in the outside world. Remember, we all are only as good as our support team.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.