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One year ago, on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, Dr. Gene Beresin shared advice on how to talk to children about the frightening event. Here, a year later, he and Dr. Paula Rauch, a fellow professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, help parents draw broader lessons about how best to help children face such stresses and even grow through them.
By Drs. Paula K. Rauch and Gene Beresin
For the most affected families, April 15th, 2013 was a life-changing event. For many in our community it produced a lesser, but still significant, set of challenges, and for some facing other family adversity or chronic stresses, it may have seemed like a minor event with little personal impact.
Regardless of how personal or significant the marathon bombing and its aftermath were for you, every one of us will face life challenges within our families and in the larger community. How can we face stressful experiences in ways that support our children’s resilience, and help them grow through those challenges? How do we raise secure, confident children in an uncertain world?
Children develop confidence and competence by facing new experiences, difficult transitions and unavoidable frustrations throughout childhood. Life continually presents a child with developmental challenges, such as falling asleep alone in a crib, saying goodbye at a new preschool, facing the first day of school with a sea of unfamiliar faces, dealing with a relentlessly annoying peer, being cut from the travel team, and, for some teens, making this month’s tough decisions about college.
It is often tempting as a parent to want to smooth over these challenges, alleviate uncertainty and facilitate a child’s comfort and success. But it is important to recognize that these age-appropriate frustrations and disappointments are essential for building lifelong coping skills. Children need to learn how to manage new and difficult situations, and while parents cannot solve the challenges for a child, they can provide appreciation and emotional support for that child’s efforts. Living through a multitude of such experiences makes the normal feelings of distress more familiar and less frightening.
Face serious challenges together
Through the most challenging times, children are looking to the caring adults in their lives for signals that life is safe enough, and the future bright enough, to make it worth forging ahead. It is a myth that everything we live through makes us stronger. A difficult life experience can make a child stronger and more confident, if it occurs in the context of loving connections, shared problem-solving and ongoing communication. Challenges, though unwelcome, can be opportunities to build coping skills that will help a child face future obstacles with confidence. But during times of adversity, some children feel isolated or alone, with unexpressed or unrecognized worries, and perhaps overwhelmed by day-to-day expectations. This can lead to a child feeling fearful, insecure and helpless to face the future.
This can be the difference between a challenge and a trauma. A challenge experienced in the context of love and support from a trusted adult can lead to increased life skills and confidence. However, a challenge experienced alone, leaving a child overwhelmed and increasingly insecure, may become a trauma.
Learning how to make a positive difference in the world is another way that children develop confidence, as well as optimism. Finding even small ways to help others provides a powerful antidote to feeling hopeless in the face of challenges. Helping others also provides a focus for children whose natural tendency is to stay busy when feeling distressed. Remind children who are discouraged at not being able to do more that even the smallest efforts make a real difference to someone.
Uncover worries and increase communication
Ensuring that children are not left to worry alone can be harder than it sounds. Prioritize talking with your child or teen about difficult situations. Start engaging in conversations when your child is young, and enable this coping skill to grow through each stage of development. Listen more than you talk. The same, difficult event is not experienced in the same way by every family member. Your child brings his or her own perspective and individual challenges to the situation, just as you and the other adults in the family do. When adults convey a genuine openness to learning from children about their unique perspectives, children are more likely to engage in meaningful conversations. Unfortunately, not all parents facing difficult situations are skillful in providing this kind of support to their children. But any adult who builds an ongoing connection with a child can make an enormous difference in that child’s life. You may be that person for a child in your life, even if you are not a parent.
Peer support is powerful
You and other adults in your family play a key role in supporting your child’s resilience through hard times, but as your child gets older, friends start to play an ever greater role. Friends can be the lifeline that supports an older child through the toughest times. Conversely, the disruption of important friendships can be the cause of intense loneliness and distress. Try to be sensitive to these key friendships, and support them when they are going well, and your child when they are fractured. Talk with your child or teen about the responsibilities of being a good friend, which include being a good listener, trying not to be judgmental and getting adult guidance when a friend engages in unsafe behavior or expresses hopelessness. Learning when to be independent and when to seek adult assistance is an important resilience-enhancing skill.
Family routines and connection enhance stability
Predictable family routines are comforting during times of stress or uncertainty. Familiar activities, familiar food and familiar daily schedules help your home feel like a safe place to your child. When home feels safe, it is easier to manage the uncertainty of the outside world. Often, regular routines help parents feel less stressed too, and naturally result in times to connect in conversation. Parents usually know the times and places that their child or teen is most likely to talk freely; if possible, those times together can be made a special priority during a stressful time.
Coping through hard times increases confidence
In order to gain confidence about the ability to face future challenges, your child or teen needs to live through the inevitable ups and downs and more significant stresses of life. While it may be tempting to want to bubble-wrap our children so that they are “protected” from the harsh realities of the world, it is far better to face those challenges together.
Resilience is supported by narratives that recognize that tough times are genuinely difficult and sometimes long, but there will be a new normal with yet unknown positive aspects in the future. Remind your child that you, too, have been through hard times, and have come out the other side. If you cannot see that bright future for your child or yourself, it is important to reach out to others — friends, family or professionals—to help you.
Our children need our confidence in them, and in the world in which we live, to develop the life skills and sense of security that will help them grow into the confident, competent adults so needed in our uncertain world.
Dr. Paula K. Rauch is the founding director of the Marjorie E. Korff Parenting At a Challenging Time program at the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. She is also an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Gene Beresin is professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and executive director of The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital. This post is part of their programs' collaboration on a Patriot's Day Project, which includes blog posts, podcasts and a video.
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