Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Children Learn To Bounce Back

January 19, 1998

In 1989, Dr. Werner reported on 31 years of observation of children growing up in chronic poverty, highlighting the qualities of survivors of dysfunctional families and neighborhoods. He found that one out of three high risk children grew into competent young adults who loved well, worked well and played well. He describes this skill among survivor children as resiliency.

Resilient. Don't you love that word? Resilient. It is one of the words in the English language that gives a feel for its meaning just in the way it trips off the tongue. There is a bounce in the word as in the actions it represents.

Resilient: the ability to bounce back after being pressed; recovering in strength, humor and spirit after difficulty.

According to Werner, "None [of the 1/3] developed serious learning or behavior problems in childhood or adolescence . . . they succeeded in school, managed home and social life well and set realistic educational and vocational goals and expectations for themselves . . . We found a number of protective factors [describing 'survivor' children] in the families, outside of the family circle and within the resilient children themselves that enabled them to resist stress."

Werner felt the children tended to ". . . be sociable, be active, be affectionate, be easygoing, be highly active yet not distressed, try new experiences and ask for help when needed. As the child got older, he or she became particularly adept at recruiting attention from 'surrogate parents' when biological parents were not available."

What do resilient people do? They:

- have an active approach toward solving life's problems

- perceive their experiences constructively

- Can gain others' positive attention

- Can maintain a positive vision of a meaningful life.

Resiliency isn't just about coping. It is about excelling. Other studies by Bloom and Csikszentmihalyi have shown these same processes are responsible for the development of great talent or outstanding performance - a formula for success.

Psychologists Dennis Embry, Valerie Rauluk and Michael Krupnick of Heartsprings Inc. in Tucson, AZ have expanded the definition of resiliency to include the following:

- Inner meaning - Being aware of and developing significance inside of yourself that provides for intrinsic learning and motivation.

- Self-regulation - Controlling your approach to learning by thinking about how you are thinking . . .

- Feeling of competence - Knowing you have the ability to do a particular thing. A lack of this tool results in laziness and other avoidance behaviors; presence of this tool often results in feeling confident and motivated to learn.

- Goal-directed behavior - Taking initiative in setting, seeking, and reaching objectives on a consistent basis.

- Self development - Being aware of your uniqueness as an individual and working toward becoming all you can be.

- Sharing behavior - Communicating thoughts to yourself and others in a manner that make underlying assumptions known.

- Feeling of challenge - Being aware of the effect emotions have on novel, complex and consequently difficult tasks; knowing how to deal with challenge.

- Awareness of self-change - Knowing that change happens throughout life and learning to expect, nurture and benefit from it.

That is a remarkable list of qualities that a child from a high risk environment obtains by his or her ability to seek and enlist the aid of a least one functional parent, relative or caring adult mentor. This experience with a meaningful adult provides guidance, excitement attention, encouragement, and a model for coping with challenges. The child feels valued and loved.

All children from every background benefit from exposure to caring adults that intersect their lives in some way. People like teachers, coaches, church youth leaders, Scout and 4-H volunteers, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and ‘grandparent volunteers in the classroom cross generational boundaries to provide a motivational force in a child's life.

Youth also need to learn to give service and take social responsibility for others. They can do this through involvement with projects and groups that are doing good - with a generous dose of adult guidance and contact.

We are an age-segregated society. These cross-generational contacts used to happen naturally within the context of small town living and readily available grandparents and relatives. Now the grandparents live far away and children’s lives are peer dominated. Positive peer relationships can provide a boost but do not substitute for the skill fundamental to childhood resiliency - recruiting adult attention.

Resilient - the ability to bounce back after being pressed; recovering in strength, humor and spirit after difficulty. Life certainly has its difficulties and losses. What we need is resilience.