“Kids are resilient” is an oft-repeated phrase of divorcing parents and others observing upset in a child’s life. Is it true? It depends. We asked Dr. Jacob Ham, Director of the Center for Child Trauma and Resilience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to talk about resiliency in kids.
What defines resiliency in a child? Why is it important?
Resiliency is the ability to bend but not break in the face of stress and adversity. It is one of the most important skills that children need to develop to overcome challenges and setbacks and move through the world with confidence and connection with others.
How do you build a resilient child?
You have to reinforce effort, distress tolerance and recovery more than focus on outcomes, though outcomes have to be meaningful too. You can train resilience in big, obvious ways such as entering children into competitions and setting up “reach” goals in various activities, but, more importantly, you can train resilience day to day, moment to moment, by encouraging children to push past fatigue, discouragement and doubt. You can encourage them to do one more lap, one more problem set, or one more scale, and then you celebrate with huge high fives and hugs to show you are with them the whole way through.
We’ve had recent examples of kids going through very public traumas: being separated from their parents at the border, for example, the soccer team trapped in the Thailand cave. What is the difference between an experience that builds resilience and one that is overwhelmingly harmful?
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The border children and the Thai children are perfect examples of traumas that will be resilience-building versus harmful. The Thai boys are being showered with social support. They have the support of the whole world behind them, and they have loving parents and stable homes to go back to. ... They also had their coach and each other, and they were already bonded as a team. And, the SEAL commander [in charge of the rescue] instructs the boys to be a “force for good,” imbuing the ordeal with a grander purpose and setting them up to transform the experience into post-traumatic growth.
The border children’s ordeal could not be more different. Their families are violently taken from them and they don’t even have safe homes or countries to go back to. Their experience is that the world doesn’t want them or care about them. They are not even allowed to touch each other, so cannot provide the most basic expression of physical comfort and support to each other. … They are treated like criminals instead of children. … The message they receive is that the world is a very dangerous place that does not care about them. They are not being set up to be a “force for good.” Instead, they are more likely to grow up caring only about themselves or only those others in their innermost circle.
On the other hand, I do think that even the Thai boys can experience some lasting effects of trauma. Traumatic events can impact different parts of the self: the physical, emotional, social, cognitive and existential selves. I can imagine that the Thai boys may carry trauma in their bodies. … But, in other aspects of the self, I have every confidence they will more than likely become more resilient from the experience.
What happens when kids aren’t taught to be resilient? What kind of adults do they become?
Kids who are not taught to be resilient can still grow up to be quite successful, so long as things go their way. They will likely have a much more narrow window of tolerance for stress and adversity. They may not take as many risks. They may avoid relationships that are too emotionally intense or intimate. Or if they are more traumatized, they may live with emotional volatility, depression, anxiety or anger. ... However, adults are not destined to lives of misery because of childhood trauma. I have seen adults of all ages make peace with their past, move from reliving to remembering, and learn to forgive, accept and love again.