Resiliency Builder

By Garry Thornton

Recently, I was sitting in a meeting with a counselor at my school; we were discussing a number of things regarding the young people we work with and our passion for providing sound direction for them on their journey to adulthood. As we discussed some of the issues we regularly encounter, I found myself thinking how significant resilience is for adults. How do we teach a child to be resilient? I started reflecting on my own home, what in my parenting supports raising resilient adults. 

While in high school my oldest daughter was an active student, earning excellent grades, as well as participating in extracurricular activities including cheerleading, ASB and Speech and Debate. Many of the skills she needed to be successful on the Speech and Debate team came to her naturally; I like to think she may have those skills in her DNA from none other than me.  Her ability to think quickly on her feet, to argue a point from both sides, and to take apart an opponent’s argument without taking apart the opponent led to her success in debate.

Her talents and successes in the debate world made her a strong candidate for president of the Speech and Debate team going into her senior year. But things in life do not always go as we plan or believe they should. One afternoon I received a phone call from her she was upset, she was angry the outcome of the selection was made and her respected coach, her mentor, her biggest advocate in the program chose another student for this role. My daughter decided that because of this she was quitting, it was not fair, she was the best choice and her coach knew it.

After listening to my daughter's impassioned arguments for leaving, I responded to her simply, "No, you are not quitting." Did I think in that moment it was time to teach my daughter how to be resilient? No! I just did not want her to believe that when things do not go your way, you get to quit. In addition to not allowing her to quit, I told her that she needed to have a conversation with her coach. Although addressing a concern with an adult may be intimidating, it is a crucial skill for moving forward from many setbacks. 

According to Random House Dictionary, resilience is the power or ability to return to the original form, position, etc., after being bent, compressed, or stretched; or elasticity, ability to recover readily from illness, depression, adversity, or the like; buoyancy. How do we teach our children to return to the original form after being bent? What form of modeling is necessary for our children to grow up with the tools to readily recover readily from adversity? As parents, we often sit at the kitchen table and commiserate with our children. In our efforts to be supportive we affirm that they are right-- what an awful coach, teacher, principal, or employer. What we do in the name of concern and understanding often leads to our children being handicapped when it comes to resilience. 

Think for a moment about a mother bird, she works diligently to raise her chicks. She protects them but at the same time, she teaches them to protect themselves. She provides for their needs but is training them to survive independently. After she teaches her chicks to fly, she sends them into the world to live on their own.  While the time we spend raising our children is significantly more demanding than what the mother bird does, the tenets of preparing them to soar independently are the same.

I believe one way to build resilience is to say no to quitting. As parents, it is important to commit ourselves to supporting our children as they work through their challenges as opposed to eliminating every obstacle. Resilient young adults have parents and family members involved in their lives who understand when intervention is necessary and appropriate and when it is okay for them to struggle.

Instinctively, children have a desire to be resilient. Remember when they first told you “I know how to do it!” or “I can do it myself!” They were sending you a message that they understood independence and resiliency was a part of life. Give your children the time to practice and build their resiliency muscle, it is necessary for their development to know how to deal with life when it throws challenges in their path.

Sometimes, as parents, we defend our interference in our children’s ability to overcome adversity by saying that is way too much for them to handle. With our wisdom and experience, we can do it faster and better. However, resiliency and independence are interrelated so you are better at dealing with conflicts and challenges because you have had more practice.

Despite not becoming a team captain, in my daughter's senior year on the Speech and Debate team she won in competitions at the state and national level. She actually was awarded a prestigious college scholarship largely because of the skills she honed in speech and debate, being able to present to large groups of people, think on her feet and argue both sides of an argument proved invaluable during the final day of interviews. It may seem like a small thing but sometimes the best thing we can do for young people is to say no to their desire to quit.

For this week's kitchen table talk, a good discussion with your family could begin with what you are doing as a parent that your child believes they should be doing for themselves. Some questions to spark the discussion:

Do you feel like you have faced any challenges or obstacles, this year?
How did I help you deal with adversity during those challenges?
Was the support I offered helpful or is there something I can do differently the next time you find yourself in a challenging situation? 
Do you feel prepared to bounce back from negative experiences?


Be sure to listen with both ears to their responses; and the next time there is a conflict at school with a coach, a teacher, or peer, listen, offer support, but encourage your child to take the first step in resolving the issue. 

We need more adults in the world who understand that life can be hard, but that we can overcome obstacles in life because that is what resilient people do.

Garry Thornton, MA has more than thirty years of experience as a teacher, coach, counselor and administrator in both public and private education and currently serves as Assistant Principal at Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley, San Diego. Utilizing his experience, he coaches teens and young adults on the path to becoming successful, responsible individuals; and offers coaching for parents to steer their kids toward success. To help young people define who they are and the reason for doing the things they do, he uses his keen observations of the world, quick-wit and natural enthusiasm for storytelling. Garry understands that the future rests in the hands of young people, and that the role of parents and leaders is to guide young people to build a powerful sense of self-awareness, a strong ethical mooring, a sense of purpose which will allow them to make their community, nation, and ultimately the world, a better place. You can follow Garry on his website.

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