StorkNet presents . . . Celia Straus'
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Bonding While Building
Resilience in Our Children
by Celia Straus
We live in Washington, D.C. For three weeks this past fall, our family, along with everyone else in the region, experienced the terrorism generated by two twisted individuals known worldwide, at that time, as "the sniper." Although, my fifteen year old daughter, Emily, does not attend high school in Rockville, Maryland, the epicenter of the shootings, her school in Washington, D.C. became an armed camp over night. She and the other children in our community learned a whole new vocabulary of words, most often used in prison environments such as "lock down" and "Code Blue." One night the relentless media coverage culminated in a broadcast announcement from "the sniper" that, "Your children are not safe, anywhere, any time." The next morning I watched Emily, who, up until that point, had expressed concern but not outright fear about what was happening around her, actually hesitate on the front porch to scan the street and the trees for any signs of danger before
As 2003 begins, we continue to be bombarded with dire warnings of vengeful terrorist networks, impending war, nuclear rearmament and most recently, smallpox, a disease we had wiped off the face of the earth until someone decided it would make a terrific weapon of mass destruction. If we are not on the alert, our children could watch unbelievable acts of premeditated violence and destruction on the evening news every night of the week. Yet, how do we prepare? How do we handle our awareness that, since September 11th, life seems to have permanently shifted into a precarious state?
It makes sense to stay as connected as possible to our children in times of crisis. We sharpen our communications skills (especially our ability to listen), and we try to gauge their emotional reactions to an event such as 9/11 or the Washington, D.C. Sniper or simply a news headline that: "The United States is going to war and many American soldiers could die." "The leader of Iraq has deadly chemicals that can kill you just by breathing them." "Child kidnapping is on the rise." "Thousands of children are lost in our foster care systems." "Unemployment is up and people are losing their homes." Besides assuaging their fears and gently correcting their misconceptions, there is something else we can do. We can help them become more resilient. We can increase their ability to be strong and resourceful during times of hardship and crisis whether now or later, because resiliency is a crucial life skill at any age and at any time.
How do we teach resiliency to our children in ways that match their individual needs? There are no Mapquest directions for this journey, but there are a number of guideposts that point to places where our children can learn resilience. Child psychiatrist, Dr. Neal Mazor says we can provide our children with three basic elements to make them more resilient: 1.a safe and secure place to go; 2. people they love and trust and who value them, and 3. a sense of competence and self-confidence. For most of us numbers 1 and 2 are fairly easy. We believe that our home environment is considered by our children to be a safe and secure place to go. We believe that we, their parents, are the people our children love and trust and we value them more than life itself. However, it is Dr. Mazor's third element that presents more of a challenge. What are some of the ways to enhance their inner sense of competence and mastery?
Nourishing our child's sense of competence and self-confidence can begin by talking with them about their strengths. Fortunately for us, talking to our children about how they are strong enough to handle what is going on around them offers lots of opportunities to bond. We're not dwelling on their problems or deficiencies, but instead their accomplishments. We're not taking an authoritative approach because, goodness knows, we personally could use some more resiliency ourselves, so we take a "we're all in this together" approach which instantly establishes common ground. We build on our positives, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant.
For example, during the "sniper" crisis, Emily and I talked about how her determination to find out the truth turned out to make her feel better about herself and her ability to cope. Makes sense, doesn't it? But in a crisis, it is easy for anyone, not just teenagers, to become subjective about what is going on around them. At her high school the level of anxiety over the uncertainty of a sniper "on the loose" was being increased by the high drama of being in a "lock downed" environment. With police guarding exits and entrances, and some parents calling at each announcement from the media, many students were on the verge of hysteria.
During an assembly on the situation, a police officer from our second district was answering questions from the audience, focusing primarily on what was known and not known about the killings. His answers were fascinating yet at the same time were "fanning the flames" of the collective perception of crisis. Then Emily asked what exactly the odds were of a kid going to her school being killed. The police officer answered that the odds were extremely slim, but at the same time, there was no way to absolutely guarantee no one would be hurt. In other words, life is uncertain, and all we can do is the best we can which does not include overly dramatizing reality. The previous line of questioning continued but Emily felt "much better," she told me, even though some of her friends thought her question "a big duh." By talking to her about this one spontaneous act she was able to see how what she did was both competent and self-confident - that it wasn't the answer that made her feel better, but her ability to ask the question.
The best support we can give our children is to help them believe that they have resilience and can act on it. Doing so does not require long explanations about the nature of resilience, but it does require attention on our part so that we acknowledge our children's strengths when we see them.
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