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Turn ordinary moments of childhood adversity into opportunities to exercise those emotional muscles.

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.
• March 23, 2022

"Is it true what Nietzsche said: "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger?" Research says it's true — to a degree. Psychologists 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.

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 ordinary moments of childhood 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.

Watch how one father shows up for his daughter with simple empathy — without offering her a pep talk or unsolicited advice — during her moment of real adversity (see Empathic Listening). As much as he aches to witness her distress, he resists the urge to reduce her pain and reminds himself that moments like this are the building blocks of true resilience.

 In another video, a mother doesn’t rescue her daughter from the fear of sleeping by herself — a situation of real adversity for the child — and instead conveys confidence in the girl’s ability to learn, with practice, to face the fear (see Facing Fears). Too often, well-intentioned parents move quickly to bulldoze away the adversity in their child’s path, robbing the child of a potentially resilience-building opportunity.  

Aaron Cooper, Ph.D.

During Dr. Cooper’s forty plus years as a psychotherapist, he has been exposed to a great many therapeutic approaches and schools of thought and has assembled his own eclectic framework. How he approaches couples counseling differs in some ways from how he approaches family and individual therapy, but all his work is informed by the belief that our emotions tell us a lot about ourselves and our relationships — and so are critically important to understand.