My son has been experiencing quite a few life changes the past couple of months.  On the Holmes and Rahe stress scale he’s not quite off the scale, but he’s certainly in the ‘risk of illness’ range.  A change of schools, an unprovoked physical attack, a new second home with his dad that includes a new second family, and then an unexpected and tragic death in the extended family.

It’s no wonder he was down with an illness last week and was a bit emotionally unstable this week.

My son has a pretty good capacity for resilience, but we still go through some tough times when there’s transitions to navigate.

I spoke with Alyson Jones about transitions and resilience this week, and this is what she had to say on the subject:

Alyson:  Resiliency is one of my favourite topics.  In both my parenting and in my practice, I’m always looking at building resiliency.  Transitions are always an opportunity to adapt, to accept losses, to adapt to the new.   Transition is always an end and a beginning and resiliency is about accepting the ending.

I think it’s one of the foundations of maturity.

Laura:  That makes a lot of sense to me.   But what I’m wondering is how some people seem to have a natural resilience, and others resist.  ….and I’m wondering why?

Alyson:  I can tell you why.  There are people who have a natural ability to bounce back, but those who are more sensitive tend to struggle more.  Sensitivity can bring in a lot of capacity, but it can also bring in a lot of distress.  I’m not just talking emotional sensitivity either, I’m also referring to physical sensitivity.  If you feel pain more, you’ll protect yourself more.  Sometimes you don’t develop the resiliency as quickly.  It’s not to say that others are insensitive, it’s just that some people are highly sensitive.  For them, and for parenting children who are sensitive, there needs to be awareness that developing resiliency is going to be a struggle, but it’s so important.

One of the things I’ve observed is that parents often try to protect their children during transitions and in some way try to take on the pain to protect the child.  The parent sees the child’s vulnerability or senses it, or feels guilt, or badly about the transition but sometimes they actually rob the child of developing the ability to bounce back.

I call it the ‘bounce back factor’.    Resiliency is the bounce back factor.

Life is sometimes difficult.  Sometimes life is hard.  But developing resiliency can help children and teens get through both the small transitions, and the larger ones like changing schools, a family divorce or a family death.

All of these things are opportunities and we as parents need to allow our children, in a supportive environment, to feel what they need to feel, to grieve what they need to grieve, and then to move forward and adapt.

Laura:  So what are some of the tools that we as parents can place in our children’s path to assist them in developing resiliency at various stages in their growth?  I’ve loved and cared for children, family members and the children of friends, who were so overly sensitive as small children that they were hysterical with any shift that took place.  How do you support children when they are that sensitive, to adapt, without just giving in and staying home all of the time?

Alyson:  Once you’ve identified that level of sensitivity, it’s critical to constantly be giving the child the message that they can do this, they can handle it.  In fact, anytime they do bounce back, it needs to be pointed out to them.  We need to be aware of this, we don’t want to throw them into constant distress by putting them into new situations every day, but we do need to choose some things that we help them get through.

Unfortunately what all to often happens is that parents are aware of this vulnerability, so they have their own anxiety around it, so they may unconsciously, or even consciously be giving their children the message that they can’t handle transitions.

Laura:  I’ve witnessed this, even experienced this when caring for highly sensitive children that a sort of adult contraction takes place in anticipation of the meltdown.

Alyson: You have to be prepared to the meltdown, hold your own, have good sea legs, and give the message to the child, “I know you can do this, I know you can get through this”.

If you’re giving the child the message that they can’t handle transitions, or you set up a life that avoids them, they aren’t going to develop the resiliency they need.

An example from my own parenting experience is:  my son is a very sensitive child and my husband and I knew that he was going to have to have some of these experiences to learn how to handle challenging situations and transitions.  One we chose to guide him into was skiing.  And oh boy, he didn’t really want to go, the first time we went he just wanted to play in the snowbank.  Skiing is a risky sport, but resiliency doesn’t come without risk.

Parents can’t always take every risk for their children, sometimes they have to let them fall.  So literally, when I think about the skiing, my son fell a lot of times, but now he knows he can handle it.

Now I can use the example of skiing throughout his entire life.

We believe in you, in your ability, even when things don’t always turn out well.  That’s the message parents need to be giving their children.

The earlier we start these messages the better.  And the higher the sensitivity the higher the defense mechanism, because it really does hurt more.  These are the children that deeply need their resiliency.

Sometimes we make things a little too easy for our children, and then they don’t feel that they’ve earned the reward of coming through a challenge.

Laura:  So how do we support our kids when we see them going into avoidance.  It’s one of the things I observe with my son, is that sometimes he’ll just hunker down in his cave and it’s obvious he doesn’t want to deal with one more thing.

Alyson:  This is where the concept of Parenting As Leadership really comes in.  There are times when we have to lead them, and we don’t allow them the exits.

Now in saying that, we also need to make sure we give them some reflective, emergent time.  But if we decide that there’s something that’s really important, and we know it’s in their best interest, then we do have to, as parents, take the lead.

Increasingly kids are becoming school avoidant.  This is one of the areas where parents have to support their children in acknowledging the sense of overwhelm they may be experiencing, but helping them through the issues that they are avoiding.

I can handle it, is a good mantra to teach our kids.

Laura:  So that makes sense to me in some areas, but then there’s those situations, particularly when you’re dealing with teens when they just dig in their resistance and don’t want to budge.  Then what?

Alyson:  I know, it’s incredibly challenging.  It’s one thing when the kids are younger, but when they’re teenagers you can’t pick them up and carry them into the school.  It’s a dilemma.   You don’t want to get caught up in just consequences.  Sometimes you need help to work out aspects of the relationship to bring the parent back into the leadership position, particularly if it’s a pattern where the teen is exhibiting that they have taken all the power in the relationship.

Laura:  When the parent/teen relationship is deteriorating to the point where the teen is losing their resiliency and the parent has lost power in the relationship – then what?

Alyson:  Well, that’s a pretty discouraged teen and a discouraged parent.  This is a situation that requires intervention.  A kid that is that discouraged and dug in won’t care if they receive consequences.  It’s not a quick fix.  But if a teen can get back in touch with their resiliency they can shift, learn to manage their emotions and re-engage.