Yesterday I was interviewed by Craig Oliver for his TV Program Challenges and Change on the topic of Mental Health. One of his questions to me was, “How do you help a child to develop resilience?” I wasn’t especially happy with my answer, but I thought about this question and did some research. I can answer that question better now.
When I think about resilience in childhood, I think of the work of Robert Brooks, a Clinical Psychologist on the Faculty of Harvard Medical School and Sam Goldstein, a Clinical Psychologist from the University of Utah, who are well known for their work on resilience. Their book, Raising Resilient Children, is worth reading for those interested. Some of my thoughts about how to continue to foster resilience in adolescents is drawn from their work.
Using some examples from my practice, let me give you four strategies to help a teen to develop – or continue to develop – resilience.
The first strategy is to try to work with a youth’s strengths. For example, the locked doors of the inpatient unit where I work can be opened with the pass that I carry on a lanyard. It happened once that a youth grabbed my badge and lanyard and was able to leave the unit. From time to time, other youth who’ve been on the unit will remind me of this, and mention that they could do the same thing if they wanted to leave. This is always a good time to acknowledge the excellent observational skills these young people have and that this could be an important strength in their recovery.
Secondly, I try to model that mistakes can be an opportunity for learning. For example, I can point out to the same teens mentioned above that I am much more careful with my badge now and that I often keep it concealed under my jacket or sweater.
At this point in our conversation, I get an opportunity to use my third strategy which to work with them to find solutions to the problems they are facing. In this case, I have told patients, I would like very much to help them to develop enough trust in our program so that they will want to remain with us and work on a treatment plan for their own mental health condition.
My last strategy comes from advice my mother gave me years ago and that I expect most people have gotten from their parents. If not, this is good advice to incorporate and is part of what I like to call The Standard Lecture Series for Parents. The advice is: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. This is a way of reminding parents to use positive feedback only, but I find that parents remember the advice more effectively when reminded of how long they have been hearing about positive reinforcement. It can also help to remind them who likely first provided this counsel.
I wish I could have remembered these strategies in my interview with Mr. Oliver, because I do think that we all play a role in helping each other to be resilient. Haven’t you been able to help someone else to be strong in a situation that, when you faced it, was just too difficult to manage? We can learn to be resilient from many people, including those much younger than us. When my children were small, my three year old son fell from our play structure cutting his head open. There seemed to be a lot of blood and I panicked. My daughter, who was four, called out to me:
“Mom, stay calm! You’re a doctor!”
After that one accident, I never forgot her advice and used it in the future to stay calm when accidents happened. By the same token, she never forgot that she could help others, even though she was young.