Resilience is one of the most important skills we can teach our kids, as well as one of the hardest ones to instill. One big hurdle is the narrative that our kids tell themselves about their lives. We want them to believe that they can accomplish anything. They often see themselves through the prism of whatever traumatic event they have suffered. Their negative stories about themselves can set up or exacerbate serious mental health problems, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or suicidal thoughts. Even more frustrating, their narratives live in their emotions, and data and logic do not reach them easily.
Our foster or stepchildren come to us with built-in narratives based on their personal experiences. The story-telling impulse is embedded deeply in our brains and it is an almost primal instinct. Developing narratives is how children learn to make sense of the world from their earliest days. From fairy tales to Instagram, our stories are how we communicate deep ideas and emotions. Those stories that we tell ourselves about our life experiences play a significant role in our mental health, social interactions, and development of resilience.
Unfortunately, the impulse to find a coherent story means that young people may learn the wrong lessons in the face of adversity. Foster children, for example, may decide that they are the villain in their life story who will never have good things happen. Children of divorce may decide that lifelong relationships are as fantastical as unicorns and living happily ever after. Whatever their narrative, they will view everything that happens, including what we do or say, through that story.
So what do we do when our children have negative narratives that predict disaster? We know from both experience, numerous studies, and what our grandmothers taught us that people with positive attitudes are more resilient people. Resilient people undoubtedly are more successful, both in terms of life satisfaction and navigating difficult situations. It would be wonderful if we could inject that inner strength into children. But there is no way to do that. What we can do is give them a safe place and the resources to change their narratives, which in turn can help them develop personal resilience.
Logic and Lectures Do Not Work
A child’s self-narrative lives in a part of the brain that logic cannot reach. No matter how eloquent we are — or how correct in our analysis — we cannot lecture our children into accepting a new story about their traumatic experiences. That’s not to say that our words do not matter. Positive feedback always is more helpful than negative. But we can't expect our children to learn only from our lectures. How we treat them will carry much more power than what we tell them.
We also cannot use words to increase their self-esteem. We've learned from decades of self-esteem culture that praising children for being smart or important or valuable just doesn't work. Rather, we should praise their positive behavior, such as not giving up or pushing through disappointment. The old coach’s advice of “just walk it off” does not work for concussions, but it is good psychology to teach resilience. If we can help our kids find success in personal growth, we can take the first steps toward helping them change their narrative about themselves.
Don’t Fight Our Roles
Many of our children will cast us as one of the characters in their narrative, even before they know us well. They will label us based on their own experiences and expectations, and we have little control over whether we are a villain or a good character. Foster children may lump us with the case workers who control their lives. Stepchildren will have heard many stories of evil stepparents. I used to tell my stepsons that I had read all of the stepmother manuals — Cinderella, Snow White, and Hansel & Gretel. Fortunately, we had a good enough relationship that they understood the joke.
Breaking through these stereotypes can be very difficult, and it takes time. It does no good to complain about them. Our best course is to ignore them (or joke about them) and quietly disprove them. We cannot control a child’s narrative. We can only be kind and loving no matter how our children view us. If nothing else, we can model the positive outlook that we want to see in them.
One role that we should aim for in our children's stories is being the mentor. As I've discussed in an earlier blog post, every story has a hero, a villain, and a mentor. Kids will cast themselves as the hero, and they will only rarely and very reluctantly cast their biological parents as the villain. That leaves only two roles for us, either villain or mentor. We should aim to be the mentor. Only then will they listen to our advice about how to get through tough times and frame adversity as a learning experience.
We need to learn from the characteristics of mentors. In earlier posts, I've discussed the important traits of unconditional love with strong boundaries, wisdom (or at least a lot of knowledge), self-sacrificing, and giving kids room to learn for themselves.
Build Social Support Networks
One of the more pernicious aspects of an adverse experience is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The trauma sets up self-defeating reactions and behaviors that lead to more difficult circumstances and more negative experiences, and before long children are locked into self-defeating personal narratives. Recent psychological research shows that one of the most important ways to foster resilience is to provide social support systems and emotional support. We may not be able to shield our kids from the result of their trauma, but we can set up networks of friends and family members who can offer a protective effect and positive impact on their lives.
Help Them Succeed
Finally, we can best change their narrative by helping them find something where they can succeed. If kids can see tangible success, then they will be better able to change the arc of their own story and start believing that they can triumph over difficult times. It may be hard for us to find areas of success, but even small projects can give kids positive outcomes that can change their view of themselves. Look for ways they can succeed, even in small ways, in their everyday lives.
You also can look for larger projects that can help them find success and more positive emotions. Some children are athletic while others are better in art or music. I love organizations such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts where children earn badges. The child not only learns skills, but has something tangible to prove that they learned the skill. Those rewards can last a lifetime. The owner & cook of a charming B&B where we stayed once had framed his cooking merit badge from Boy Scouts and proudly hung it in the dining room. He said that merit badge had been the hardest one to earn, but it had launched him on a career as a chef. Children will not believe us when we tell them they can succeed; they will believe it when they start succeeding.
Helping children change their negative stories about themselves is never easy. It is not easy for us to change our own narratives. There are many, many techniques we can learn both for ourselves and our children. These principles, however, are a good way to find the turning point that will help both us and our children craft winning stories for our lives.