We can’t protect our kids from the world. Their lives are going to throw them plenty of stress and adversity, conflict and struggle, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent that.

We can, however, help give them the tools and the confidence they need to withstand all that pressure and to emerge with their optimism, and their self-esteem, intact.

Dr. Robert Brooks, a psychologist on the staff of Harvard Medical School, calls this bounce-back ability “resilience.” He has helped scores of parents build their children’s ability to rebound from adversity, and – along with his colleague, Sam Goldstein – he has written several books about developing resilience in children and adults.

Resilience, Brooks says, is “one of the most important things we can help children develop in this day and age.” He wants to teach parents what they can do, even from their child’s birth, to foster a resilient mind-set.

“Do children who are more hopeful and optimistic and resilient see the world in a different way?” Brooks asks. “They do. In what ways do they see it differently?”

That’s the question. If you want your kids to be strong, you have to see the world through their eyes – and then give them the support they need to feel competent and strong, well-loved and appreciated.

So how do you raise children who are the picture of spirit and moxie, confidence and cool capability? Well, it’s a lot easier for some parents than for others, Brooks says.

“There are some children whose temperaments are such that they’ll have an easier time being resilient,” he says. These kids will make friends easily and probably do well in school. Other kids, though, are born with less-resilient temperaments, Brooks says. “They’re much more difficult to please, they’re moodier, they’re not satisfied as easily.”

But while children have temperaments at birth, Brooks contends that parents can still have a lot of influence.

A parent’s influence “may only account for 10 or 15 percent of a child’s personality,” he says. “But to me, that 10 or 15 percent may make the difference whether kids lead optimistic, successful lives or not.”

Brooks and Goldstein’s 2001 book, “Raising Resilient Children,” discusses 10 parenting practices that foster a resilient mind-set. Here’s a glimpse at a few of the techniques that make a difference in everyday parent-child interactions.

Develop empathy

Brooks calls empathy, the ability to see the world through another’s eyes, “a basic foundation.” If you can’t see things from your child’s point of view, it’s easier to say and do things that will hurt his confidence, Brooks says. It’s also easier to misinterpret the things your child does.

Think about this, Brooks recommends: How would I feel if someone said or did to me what I just said or did to my child? If your son is struggling in school and you tell him to simply “try harder,” think about how you would feel if your boss told you to “try harder.” Would you find it helpful?

And if your child is shy, it doesn’t help to simply admonish her to “speak up.” It also doesn’t help to warn her that if she doesn’t overcome her shyness, she won’t have any friends. What does help? Think about how it must feel to be shy, then offer help instead of criticism. A couple of parents in “Raising Resilient Children” told their daughter, “Many kids who have trouble saying hello when they’re young find it easier as they get older.” This gave the child understanding and hope, the things she needed to develop resilience.

Accept them for who they are

“Before you become a parent, everyone has expectations,” Brooks says. “Not every child is going to live up to those expectations. You have to accept them for who they are and not what you want them to be.”

Here’s what he means. In the book, Brooks and Goldstein discuss a 10-year-old boy named Carl who dawdled so much in the morning that he often missed the school bus. Eventually, his parents stopped driving him to school, but Carl continued to run late, even though it made him unhappy to miss school. Yelling and punishing him, it turns out, didn’t solve the problem.

After treatment, Carl’s parents realized that he wasn’t irresponsible; he simply didn’t move quickly, and he was easily distracted. Instead of punishing him, it would have been better to talk to Carl about what made him miss the school bus – and to give him some responsibility that made him feel important and needed, such as serving as the school’s “tardy monitor.”

Nurture their strengths

Every kid needs to feel capable and good about herself. That means she needs to know that she has strengths that are valued; and if you don’t value her strengths, neither will she.

Brooks treated a 13-year-old boy who had learning problems and struggled to fit in at school. When Brooks asked his parents what their son’s strengths were, they seemed embarrassed.

“They were almost hesitant to tell me,” Brooks says. “They said, ‘We don’t know if it’s right for a 13-year-old boy to be doing this. He likes to plant vegetables and garden and take care of plants.”

The teen-ager was talented, but he didn’t believe it because his parents didn’t recognize or value his skills.

There are plenty of kids, Brooks says, who don’t think they have any strengths, what he calls “islands of competence.” Sometimes they’ve let parents, teachers and peers lead them to believe they’re not good at anything. Other times, they just haven’t looked hard enough.

Brooks remembers treating a girl several years ago who discovered her own “island of competence.” She had learning disabilities and a growth hormone problem that made her look years younger than other kids her age and that required her to take regular growth-hormone shots.

When Brooks met her, she was getting bullied at school and feeling defeated. When he asked her what she was good at, she told him she wasn’t good at anything.

“As I was struggling to think about what to say,” Brooks says, “she said, ‘Wait. I just thought of something I do better than anybody in the whole school: I take shots better than anybody.’ “

So how was that going to help?

“I called her teacher,” Brooks says. “Her teacher laughed and said, ‘I can really use that.’ “

The girl’s teacher sat down with her and said, “Dr. Brooks told me what a great shot expert you are. Most kids at some point have to take shots, but there’s not one book about it in the school library.”

Before long, the girl had written a book about getting shots. Full of advice for her classmates, it was made available in the school library. It made the girl feel proud, useful and good at things, which increased her resilience to teasing and bullying. She has gone on, Brooks says, to earn a master’s degree in special education.

– Give kids opportunities to contribute.

Here’s the best way to make your kids feel useful, loved and needed: Say, “I need your help.”

There’s no better way, Brooks says, to encourage an attitude of helpfulness, responsibility and compassion.

Try this: Instead of saying, “Remember to do your chores,” tell your child, “We need your help.”

Helping out at school bolsters self-esteem, too, Brooks says.

“When 1,500 adults were asked, ‘What is your favorite positive memory of school?’ ” Brooks says, “The No. 1 positive memory was when they were asked to help out.”

An elementary-school troublemaker was told that the custodian needed help cleaning the cafeteria, Brooks says. His outbursts stopped immediately, and the custodian became a friend and role model.

“Even when I was in charge of a locked-door inpatient (psychiatric) unit,” Brooks says, “I could put down anger by saying to these kids, ‘I need your help.’ “

Feeling as though they can make a positive difference, he says, makes kids more confident, more hopeful and more resilient.

Brooks’ and Goldstein’s book offers many more guidelines and a wealth of examples from their years of working with families.

“The more we understand how resilient children see the world, all our interactions – as parents, teachers, coaches – could be geared toward that,” Brooks says.

By offering lots of examples and a few key suggestions for developing resilience in kids, Brooks hopes to give parents something they can really use in those daily interactions.

“I want people to be able to walk away and be able to say, ‘I have a new idea,’ ” he says – a new idea for helping kids grow strong, resilient, and able to handle anything.

ONLINE:

Brooks’ Web site, www.drrobertbrooks.com, offers about 60 articles about parenting and building resilience in children. It also provides a complete list of his books, along with purchasing information.


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