As rates of depression and anxiety skyrocket during the pandemic, helping our children develop resilience is more important than ever. Putting external guardrails in place is important in preventing suicide, but the only long-term solution is helping them develop the internal strength to bounce back from the problems that life can throw at us. I have found some very helpful suggestions here and here. Another technique that we can borrow from the business world is the all-important backup plan.
Having a Plan B does not come naturally to our children. American culture encourages them to “follow their dream,” and implies that having an alternate backup plan somehow is selling out. High-achieving students often cannot see a way off the treadmill. This attitude is not new. More than 150 years ago, Henry David Thoreau complained, “The youth gets together his materials to build a bridge to the moon, or, perchance, a palace or temple on the earth, and, at length, the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.” Yet, people with well-built woodsheds usually are happier than dreamers without a shelter.
Helping children develop a Plan B can show up in all sorts of lessons. My husband and I used to ask our boys the same questions whenever they went out. “Where will you be, and what time should we expect you? If your transportation flakes out, what’s your back-up plan for getting home?” They always knew that the only acceptable answers to the last question were, “I have your Uber account on my phone and my phone is fully charged.” We also always reminded them of the backup plan to the backup plan. “If you need us, we will come get you with no questions asked.”
The same principle applies to bigger life decisions. College is good, but technical training may be better. If a young adult wants to pursue a dream of being a movie star, by all means they should take classes and pursue auditions. They also should learn how to wait tables, sell insurance, or remodel houses while they are chasing their dream. They always need to have a way to find meaning and success if their first plan does not work out.
Knowing how to pursue a goal is an important virtue. We need to help our children understand, however, that not reaching a goal right away, or even changing goals, is not a bad thing. As Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Our children, too, need to know that they can find another route to success if their initial plans do not work. It is one of the essential ways that we can help them be resilient when life happens.