Increasing resilience in our children

Resilience refers to one’s capacity to cope effectively or "bounce back" when faced with changes, trauma or adversity.

A variety of intrinsic factors (those innate to the individual) as well as extrinsic factors (those nurtured by the environment) contribute to an individual’s ability to be resilient.

Some of the attributes that have been associated with greater resilience include inherent optimism, capacity to see things from another person’s perspective (empathy), sense of humor, competence, capacity to both connect and contribute to others, and self-discipline.

Unfortunately, there has been a significant paradigm shift in aspects of how we parent and educate our children that may contribute to lower resilience. Within the educational system, there is a growing movement to foster self-esteem by recognizing participation – regardless of outcome – rather than performance. For example, some communities have moved from a traditional grading system to one that is intended to shield students from knowing how they performed in relation to others, and many athletic teams and extra-curricular clubs reward everyone with a trophy.

A cartoon, published a number of years ago portrays this shift: a child sits with his parent and a teacher to examine a poor report card.

The cartoon compares how this was handled in the past and currently.

In the past, the parent asks the child, "How are you going to improve this?" In present time the parent asks the teacher, "How are you going to improve this?"

Dr. Martin Seligman has spent many years researching and writing about resilience. In his book, The Optimistic Child, he writes "America has seen 30 years of a concerted effort to bolster the self-esteem of its kids.

This movement would be justified if it worked and self-esteem were on the rise. But something striking has happened to the self-esteem of American children during the era of raising our children to feel good. They have never been more depressed."

There has been a steady increase in the number of college students who report anxiety and depression.

In an article in The Atlantic titled "The Coddling of the American Mind" from September 2015, the authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt state "Students seem to be reporting more emotional crisis; many seem fragile, and this has surely changed the way university faculty and administrators interact with them.

The question is whether some of those changes might be doing more harm than good."

One of the growing trends, as reported in this article, is the accommodation that many college professors feel they must make to address the possible topics that could trigger a student.

Students are protesting reading materials or viewing films due to the possibility of being upset by content. "A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense."

Poor resilience leaves an individual vulnerable to developing mental health issues. If one’s capacity to cope with challenges is compromised, life becomes more difficult and individuals are at higher risk to develop depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental health problems.

New Hampshire has one of the highest rates of opiate-related problems in the nation.

As a community, we have experienced the loss of many people to drug overdoses.

Just in New Hampshire alone, over 400 individuals, many of whom are young adults, died in 2016. In search of solutions for this crisis, it is important to consider those factors, beyond biological predisposition, that may increase an individual’s vulnerability to addiction. These same factors may increase the risk for developing other serious issues such as eating disorders, alcohol dependence/alcoholism or cutting, as examples. Fostering the resilience of our children at an early age may decrease the vulnerability to all of the above.

Parents want their children to be happy, well-adjusted and working toward their potential. There is significant evidence that our children are struggling more with anxiety, depression, and overall psychological issues. It is hoped that parents and educators will explore the concept of resilience and consider how nurturing resilience may benefit our children. Development of programs to foster the growth of resilience could be an extremely important pathway to help decrease the vulnerability of our youth. This will work most effectively with the collaborative efforts of individuals from many disciplines; parents, teachers, counselors, guidance counselors, coaches and all adults who interact with children on a regular basis.

Carolyn Morgan, a licensed psychologist practicing in New Hampshire for more than 25 years, currently works at Healthy Perspectives, Innovative Mental Health Services in Nashua.