Building Resiliency in Children and Adolescents

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Sisyphus metaphore. Silhouette of businessman pushing heavy stone boulder up on hill.

Today’s world is filled with stress and uncertainty.  The recent tsunami in Indonesia.  The terrorist attacks in Israel.  Fires in California.  The Pittsburgh massacre.  And the increasing number of attacks on visibly Jewish Jews.  Is it any wonder that children, adolescents and adults of all ages are riddled with anxiety?

The unfortunate fact is stress is here to stay, especially in the Orthodox Jewish world.  We lead incredibly busy schedules and are always on the go.  The schedules are packed.  Peer pressure abounds for all age groups.  Teens worry about being accepted into the “right” seminaries and yeshivas.  The ever-present striving for perfection.  Let’s not even go near Shidduchim or divorce.

Stress is not going away.  Yet it can be an important tool that can aid in our survival.  Children need to develop muscles in order to navigate life and grow into mentally and emotionally healthy functioning adults who are contributing members of society.

They need resilience.

Resilience is the ability to successfully adapt to stressors.  It means maintaining psychological well-being in the face of adversity.  It is the ability to “bounce back” from challenges and different experiences.

The good news:  Resilient people have learned resilience.  In fact, it’s an ongoing lesson throughout life.  They don’t deny their feelings and whitewash that something is painful.  Rather, they find ways to move forward and to tackle challenges with a positive attitude that’s pregnant with hope.

Kids who are being raised to be resilient are more likely to take healthy risks because they don’t fear falling short of expectations.  Brimming with curiosity and courage, they know (and accept) the outermost boundary of their comfort zones and step over that boundary to grow further.  This helps them to reach for their long-term goals and to solve problems independently.  The more they do this and bounce back from “issues,” the more they internalize the message that they are strong and capable.

How do we cultivate resilience in our children?

Build a strong emotional connection that underscores supportiveness with each child.  There’s no shortcut to this one.  It means spending one-on-one time with your kids as a group and with each one individually.  Children (and others) develop coping skills within the context of caring relationships.  These relationships provide the personalized responsiveness, scaffolding and protection that buffer children from developmental disruption.

Going to the grocery store?  Take along a child.  Neither one of you should use electronic “toys” during the duration of your trip together.  When a child knows he has the unconditional support of Mommy and/or Abba or another family member (or even a teacher or another trusted adult), they feel it’s okay to seek guidance and attempt to work through difficult situations.  Positive connections allow adults to model coping and problem-solving skills to children.  Children thrive when they know there is an adult in their life who believes in them and loves them unconditionally.  It’s empowering.

It is also important that you help your child to build his character because resilience requires character.  Character comes from developing a solid set of morals and values to determine right from wrong.  It means demonstrating a caring attitude towards others.  Help your child to see himself as a caring person.

Allowing the expression of the gamut of emotions will make children feel comfortable in reaching out during difficult times.  It will result in building emotional security in your home.

Your home has differences of opinion and might even have conflict?  That’s normal.  Address conflict openly in the family to resolve problems.  Create a common area where the family can share time:  Think “Shabbos table” and plan it so you maximize the together time so each family has a moment or two to shine.  Fostering healthy relationships will only reinforce positive messages which children need.

In addition to developing a connection with your child, help him to build confidence.  Focus on the best in him so he can see that as well.  Express the best qualities, i.e., fairness, integrity, persistence and kindness.  Recognize what he has done and does well.  Praise honestly about specific achievements.  Please do not push a child to take on more than he can handle realistically.

Teach your children problem-solving skills and to seek help.  Constant, rugged self-reliance is for the movies and theatre stages only.  We all need help at times and that does not make us incompetent.  It’s important for children to recognize when they need help and to know that they can have it.

Don’t hand your children the solutions or give them step-by-step instructions about what to do.  Actively brainstorm solutions with them which then engages them in the process of solving problems.  Eventually, they will use these skills in other situations.  Encourage your child to develop a list of ideas and then weigh the pros and cons of each one.  He will develop the feeling of competence, of knowing that he can handle a situation effectively.

It’s so easy to slip into solving the problems for our children when they come to us with questions.  It’s even easier to lecture or explain.  A better long-term working strategy is to ask questions.  Bounce the questions back at him so he can learn to think in a more expansive way.

Further, help your child to develop an “emotions vocabulary.”  When stress kicks in, emotions heat up like a boiling kettle that whistles (okay, I’ve dated myself).  Teach your child that all feelings are important.  Labelling feelings means he can make sense of what he is experiencing.  It’s alright to feel jealous or anxious or sad, etc.  Reassure him that bad feelings usually pass.

A “hot” moment in your life is a good time to demonstrate coping skills.  Don’t explode, no matter how tempting.  Deep breathing exercises can be used by people of all ages to relax and to calm themselves.  Remaining calm means processing a situation clearly.  It’s big when a person learns to exercise control over his reactions.

What happens if your child makes, gulp, a mistake?  It is not the end of the world.  This is worth repeating.  It is not the end of the world.  We all make mistakes.  Embrace your child and the mistake.  If parents focus on end results only, kids become enmeshed in the pass/fail cycle, the black-and-white of either succeeding or not.  This causes risk avoidance.  Failure avoiders lack resilience and tend to be highly anxious people.  Accepting mistakes – including your own – promotes a growth mindset and gives children and teens the message that mistakes are learning opportunities.  Remember – Only HaShem is perfect.

You made a mistake?  Tell your children about it and how you recovered from it.  Show resiliency by modelling coping skills or speaking through emotions.  Label your emotions and talk through your problem-solving process.

A mindset of resiliency believes:  I am not my mistake(s).  I can try again.  I am not alone.  Yes, there is a positive correlation between resilience and optimism.

This segues to the next point:  Building a positive outlook on life helps to build resilience.  We wake up each morning saying, “Modeh Ani.”  It’s a great place to start.  I am grateful for the ability to wake up and do Mitzvos and Gemilus Chasadim.  Some people write in a daily gratitude journal several things for which they are grateful.  It is called “Hakaras HaTov,” another important Middah to nurture within ourselves and our children.  Grateful children grow up to be grateful adults, not entitled ones.

Promote healthy risk-taking.  A healthy risk is something that pushes a child to go outside of his comfort zone but results in little, if any, harm if they are unsuccessful.  Perhaps it’s initiating a conversation with a shy peer or trying out for concert.  When a child avoids risk, he might internalize the message that he is not strong enough to handle challenges.  That’s nonsense.  Encourage him to embrace risks and he will learn to push himself.

Speaking of health, taking a walk or engaging in some kind of outdoor or any physical activity during times of stress is a great stress reliever.  And it’s healthy.

You, Mommy and Daddy or Ema and Tatty, you have a big role here.  In addition to every point listed above, it’s important that you role model resiliency because you are the best teacher.  Demonstrate the importance of community and healthy relationships.  Encourage your child to develop his spiritual self by focusing on how he has been gifted with, such as good health, a functioning brain, the ability to walk and talk, etc.  Model positive coping strategies on a regular basis and guide your child to develop positive and effective ones for himself.

Unexpectedly, my wife and I encountered resiliency when we recently visited the Kindertransport exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum.  The Kindertransport was an organized series of rescue efforts between 1939 and 1940 which brought 10,000 Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Great Britain.  It is a moving exhibit which resonates with the resilience of these children and their parents as demonstrated by many Kindertransport “alumni” who built meaningful, productive lives after World War II.  Unfortunately, not everyone had that resiliency and this is mentioned in the exhibit.  It’s a worthwhile trip to the Yeshiva University Museum to learn about this extraordinary piece of Jewish history.

The world in which we live is changing rapidly and the pace quickens constantly.  Investing in ourselves and our children to develop resiliency will go a long way to assuring the future of our local and greater communities.

As always, daven.

Dr. Hylton I. Lightman is a senior statesman among pediatricians, an internationally-recognized authority and diagnostician, a public speaker, expert witness and go-to resource for health issues in the Orthodox Jewish community and beyond. Originally from South Africa, he started his current practice, Total Family Care of the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, PC in 1987. Dr. Lightman is a board-certified pediatrician and fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics (FAAP). Dr. Lightman is a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine. In addition, he is actively involved in teaching pediatric and family nurse practitioners through Columbia University, Pace University, Lehmann College, and Molloy College, as well as mentoring physician assistants through Touro College. Read more here.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.