- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 16, 2005

Alexandra Bowers, 15, went through a tough breakup with her first boyfriend last fall. Her 10-year-old twin brothers, Timothy and Kyle, had a series of setbacks of their own, including losing a church-organized model-car competition, being teased and getting a C in art.

“I was pretty upset. I cried a lot,” says Alexandra, who lives in Springfield with her family. “It was probably the most traumatic thing I’ve ever gone through.”

Everyday adversities such as these, as well as more traumatic ones, bounce off some children, while others are so devastated they have a difficult time landing on their feet. The ability to bounce back from adversity, often referred to as resilience, is an essential life skill for children to develop, says psychologist Sam Goldstein, co-author of “Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child.”

“If you can learn from setbacks — instead of trying to avoid mistakes altogether — you will be able to handle future challenges better,” says Mr. Goldstein, who holds a doctorate in psychology.

This can be easier said than done, says Dr. Bruce Pfeffer, a pediatrician at Inova Fairfax Children’s Hospital.

“Many parents don’t teach their children to deal with adversity,” Dr. Pfeffer says. “We don’t let them fail, and so we don’t let them solve problems on their own, either.”

Problem-solving is a big part of being able to rebound after setbacks, he says. If children can figure out why something didn’t go their way and then think of ways to improve their chances of future success — whether in relationships, sports or academics — it will give them more confidence in tackling challenges, he says.

Mr. Goldstein agrees.

“We have a tendency to jump in. There are parents who even do their children’s homework because they want their children to succeed at all costs,” he says. “But at some point, you have to step back and say, ‘I will provide guidance and support, but I have to allow them to fail.’ ”

When children make mistakes, it is an opportunity for parents to share ideas with them about how to do better in the future.

“It creates a relationship where you are mutually problem-solving,” he says. “It encourages conversation.”

When Kyle got a C in art last year, he and his mother, Ingrid Bowers, sat down and talked about what he could do to improve his grade.

“I was surprised when I got a C,” Kyle says. He says he felt he deserved better and was angry at the teacher for not giving him a higher grade.

“We talked about it and decided that we needed to talk to the art teacher,” Mrs. Bowers says.

To her surprise and delight, Kyle asked to talk with the teacher by himself.

“It was a little scary, but it felt good afterward,” he says.

He got some tips from the art teacher, and the next quarter he got a B.

Realistic expectations

Aside from problem-solving, parents can help their children learn how to deal with adversity in several other ways, Dr. Pfeffer says. One way is setting realistic expectations, he adds.

“Expectations are set so high that many kids feel as if they can never please their parents,” Dr. Pfeffer says.

He says parents can help by telling their children that mistakes not only are acceptable, but expected, admitting their own mistakes and trying to drive home the concept that mistakes are something to be learned from, not avoided.

Mr. Goldstein agrees and says parents’ expectations often are revealed in negative comments made to a child who has made a mistake.

“We need to respond in a way that encourages problem-solving,” he says. Blaming only leads to a fear of future failures, he adds.

Sports is an arena where parents can play a very positive role in teaching children how to deal with setbacks, says Rob Miller, spokesman for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

“But instead, a lot of parents and coaches subscribe to the win-at-all-costs idea,” Mr. Miller says. “And when that’s the case, kids don’t know where to turn when they lose.”

Instead, Mr. Miller calls for parents and coaches to teach children about other aspects of team sports from which they can draw lessons, including respect, work habits and sportsmanship.

He says if children know they showed good sportsmanship, were good team players and worked hard, they have a reason to be proud even if they lose a game.

Another important aspect of parents’ involvement in sports is modeling good behavior, he says.

“If a kid has a mom and dad who aren’t poised during a game, the kid says to himself, ‘If they can’t handle it, why should I?’ ”

Mr. Goldstein agrees that modeling is important.

“When parents say, ‘Do what I say, not what I do,’ it usually doesn’t work,” he says. If parents back away at the first sign of failure, chances are their children will follow suit, he says.

Parents and other adults also can help children deal with setbacks, particularly in relationships with other children, through role-playing, Dr. Pfeffer says.

“Walk through an event that was upsetting to the child and try to come up with some different scenarios,” Dr. Pfeffer says. “This usually doesn’t work right away when they’re upset, but a little later, maybe in the car.”

Role-playing can help children figure out what they can do and say to be less hurtful to their friends and also help them recognize and respond to the hurtful behavior of others, he says.

Joan Packer, a physical education and peer mediation teacher at Longfellow Middle School in Falls Church, says schools also play a role in teaching resilience.

“Students in sixth through ninth grade really have a need to fit in and to feel competent,” she says. “In peer mediation, we talk about how to solve conflicts. We talk about the options children have when facing adversity, we give anti-bullying lessons, but we don’t do their problem-solving to get to a solution, or it won’t be their solution.”

Acceptance, no matter what

Parents and other adults also can help by sharing their own experiences of failure and setback and just by being there in a supportive, nonjudgmental role when the child has a setback, Dr. Pfeffer says.

“Sometimes children just a need a shoulder, not a lecture,” he says.

But while being empathetic is important, it’s generally not a good idea for a parent to say “I understand what you’re going through,” he says.

“A child or adolescent is going to think, ‘No, you don’t understand.’ It’s better to say something like, ‘You seem really sad, and that makes me sad, and I want to make it better,’ ” he says.

When Alexandra and her boyfriend broke up, Mrs. Bowers says she told her daughter about her own experience with breakups.

“I told her that I know it hurts, and then I just tried to be there for her,” she says while her 15-year-old daughter nods.

“They helped me a lot by just listening,” she says. “And my faith helped me too.”

Ideally, parents shouldn’t withhold love and affection because their children fail in school and sports, but in reality, they sometimes do, Mr. Goldstein says.

“Dreams and wishes for children are very closely tied to the cultural stereotype for success,” he says. “Parents want their children to do better than them, and [they] get very upset if their children don’t get into the best schools and get the best grades.”

Mrs. Bowers says it’s tempting at times not to let her children fail. In the end, though, failing is just part of life and her children are better off learning to be resilient now, as opposed to when they’re adults, she says.

“We’re here for them now and can support and guide them,” she says.

When Tim lost a model race-car competition at Emanuel Bible Church in Springfield a little more than a year ago, he was devastated until his parents helped him put the whole thing in perspective.

“I know my parents don’t care whether I’m a winner or a loser,” he says. “They love me no matter what.”

This year, his car won a prize.

More info:

Books —

• “Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child,” by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, NTC Publishing Group, 2002. This book gives parents ideas on how to help their children face and overcome obstacles. It outlines 10 steps for nurturing resilience — a sense of hopefulness and self-worth — in children.

• “Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime,” by Edward R. Christophersen and Susan L. Mortweet, American Psychological Association, 2003. This book offers coping skills for parents and children of different ages who are facing setbacks, whether it’s losing a soccer game or experiencing a divorce.

Associations —

• American Psychological Association, 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Phone: 800/374-2721. Web site: www.apa.org. This nonprofit organization is the largest association of psychologists worldwide. It offers brochures, articles and books on parenting. Its Web site offers information on ways in which children can develop resilience.

• The American Academy of Pediatrics, 141 Northwest Point Blvd., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007. Phone: 847/434-4000. Web site: www.aap.org. This nonprofit group aims to attain optimal physical, mental and social health and well-being for all children. Its Web site has several articles on resilience.

Online —

• Familynetwork.com (www.familynetwork.com) is a New York City-based company that provides online parenting tips. It offers various ideas on how to help children deal with frustration.

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