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How can parents nurture resilience in their children?

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By Robert Brooks, Ph.D.

Domains that contribute to resilience

Researchers have noted three major domains that influence the development of resilience. They are:

  • Internal resources: Resilient children have often been found to possess a so-called "easy" temperament, eliciting positive responses from adults. This facilitates the emergence of more advanced problem-solving skills and coping strategies, a higher level of self-esteem, and a realistic sense of personal control.
  • Family climate: Not unexpectedly, resilient children are more likely to come from home environments characterized by warmth, affection, emotional support, and clear-cut and reasonable structure and limits.
  • Social environment outside the home: Extended family members, friends, and community groups can also provide needed support. Schools have been highlighted as institutions that are very important in fostering a child's sense of hope and a resilient mindset. Given the failure situations many children with learning problems experience in school, it is especially important for educators to implement strategies that foster realistic achievement and minimize possible humiliation.

The importance of a "charismatic adult"

A common theme in these three domains is the presence of a supportive adult. We must never underestimate the influence of one caregiver to help children with learning and attention problems to become increasingly hopeful and successful. Emmy Werner, an eminent researcher in the field of resilience, noted, "Most of all, self-esteem and self-efficacy were promoted through supportive relationships. The resilient youngsters in our study all had at least one person in their lives who accepted them unconditionally."

The late Julius Segal called that one person, a "charismatic adult." In a review of numerous studies, he observed that one factor helping at-risk children beat the heavy odds against them was "the presence in their lives of a charismatic adult — a person with whom they identify and from whom they gather strength." Segal went on to say, "And in a surprising number of cases that person turns out to be a teacher."

Supporting Segal's observations was a statement in a Massachusetts Department of Education report that emphasized, "Possibly the most critical element to success within school is a student developing a close and nurturing relationship with at least one caring adult. Students need to feel that there is someone within school whom they know, to whom they can turn, and who will act as an advocate for them."

I believe parents, teachers, coaches, and other caregivers have the capacity to become the charismatic adult in the lives of youngsters with learning difficulties. If one is to serve in this role, an important question that emerges is how best to do so and what interventions are most effective. Frameworks for self-esteem, such as attribution theory, as well as an understanding of the components of a resilient mindset can serve as guideposts to answer this question.

Next week, I will address how adults must change their own "negative scripts" and "negative mindsets" if children with learning problems are to change theirs. My final two articles will focus on what parents and teachers can do to foster self-esteem, motivation, hope, and resilience in these youngsters.

Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is on the Faculty at Harvard Medical School and former Director of the Department of Psychology at McLean Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

Comments from readers

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