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On Resilience

November 01, 2011

"Is it true what Nietzsche said: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger?" Research says it's true — to a degree. Psychologist have found that people who encountered a moderate amount of early life adversity showed lower overall distress and higher life satisfaction than people who experienced lots of adversity or no adversity at all (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in press).

What's beneficial about moderate adversity? The "practice" of encountering it builds the emotional muscle we call resilience, the ability to bounce back after slipping into one of life's potholes. Parents everywhere want their kids to develop resilience, but there's evidence that young people today are less resilient than ever. Maybe it's the protective cushion countless parents have installed in their children's lives, softening the sting of adversity and preventing that essential "practice"?

To develop resilience, youngsters must encounter the ordinary adversities of everyday life: failing to make the team (and being allowed to feel disappointed); scoring poorly on a test (and sitting with the subsequent upset); losing a new sweater (and not having it replaced); Christmas morning without every material wish fulfilled; missing a friend's party to attend Grandpa's birthday bash; wearing last year's boots instead of what's hot and trendy today. All are moments of adversity, opportunities to linger in minutes of sadness or disappointment or frustration — exercising those emotional muscles.

So don't be quick to cheer kids up when they've taken an emotional tumble. Let them sit — for hours, if need be — with disappointment, sadness, and upset when things haven't gone their way. Acknowledge their feelings ("I see how disappointed you are...") and talk about what happened without trying to change their feelings with an ice cream sundae or a Feel Better Fast pep-talk. This is how children learn that painful feelings don't have to be feared and will run their course when given time, and that we can come out just fine on the other side.