Is it possible for our tiny humans to be resilient kids? Are our expectations irrational?
My neighbor’s three-year-old thinks that “war,” is a level on his iPad game.My daughter’s friend in church thought that Afghanistan was around the corner from Narnia.
When filling out a questionnaire for school, I asked my little girl what her biggest fear was. She replied with, “That the bad guys will catch my dad.”
For the longest time my baby had never been rocked in the strong arms of his father. Despite these truths, I have happy, strong, thriving, resilient kids…for the most part.
Resiliency is a term we attach to our kids in the public sphere, and rightfully so. Military kids have an uncanny ability to adapt to difficult situations and do hard things. We pride them in their strengths to overcome trials that other children will never come close to knowing. Yet, in all praise and fanfare for some reason we have been less vocal about the fact that our children are indeed different. Those trials that they overcome on a regular basis are often the same trials that provoke tantrums at family reunions, meltdowns in Target, and hard days full of tears. I’m not talking about the normal terrible 2’s, 3’s, 4’s—-17’s, rather I’m talking about the hardships aggravated by our lifestyle.
I vividly remember one occasion when my children and I met up with some family members at the local swimming pool. My three-year-old son, who had been taking swimming lessons, had a class 1,000 melt down about thirty minutes into our “joyful,” afternoon. After watching the thrashing and gnawing of teeth, a cousin remarked to my little boy that he needed to “knock it off,” or that she would be taking him home to teach him how to behave. I didn’t stand up for him, and since then my heart has been occupied with a corner of guilt. At swimming lessons the week prior, my little boy sat on the stairs watching a dad play “motor boat,” with his son. Though he couldn’t verbalize his heartache, I watched with a painful gaze as I saw my little boy long for a similar father-son experience. In the days that followed that swimming lesson, his demeanor changed; he wouldn’t talk to my husband when he called, he was quick to anger, and his spirit was visibly dulled. His bad behavior did not go without punishment at home, however. I did my best to explain that hard situations did not excuse bad behavior. I expected resilient kids…resiliency from a three year-old. Humbly I proclaim to a group full of potentially judgy readers, that I was wrong, so so so so wrong to adopt this way of thinking. I don’t regret enforcing consequences, but I do regret the lack of validation I gave him for his very real and painful feelings.
As parents we are our children’s advocates. It is our responsibility to be their voice in the midst of things they don’t understand as well as their translators. The number one thing we can do is VALIDATE their feelings of fear, sadness, frustration, and lack of understanding as well as EDUCATE our circles that may not understand these same attributes (concerning our children). Resiliency in kids is not something that is merely inherited simply because a child’s parent vows to serve our country. It is something that is taught and mirrored. If our hearts are heavy, there’s a good chance that our children, though to a different degree, may be feeling the same way. If we can allow ourselves a few bad days, then we must do the same for our resilient kids. Patience during wartime can be difficult especially when we are fatigued and our emotions are on the brink of an adult version of the terrible 2’s. This is where we put ourselves in time out. If we cannot effectively deal with stress, then it is illogical to expect that our children should master that same devil.
So, how do we teach our children to combat stress, and which characteristics do we need to exhibit ourselves in order to carry out the the task of raising resilient kids?
Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D. suggests several guidelines to building resilient children:
Do we allow our children to make decisions or does our desire to protect them portray a lack of confidence in our children’s ability to make a correct choice? We must identify individual strengths each child has, but in contrast we must also gently identify weaknesses and suggestions of strengthening those weaknesses. By making weak things strong, we are able to build confident, resilient kids, who are capable and comfortable with making decisions especially when trying to decipher which path to choose in reacting to hard situations.
FRG groups sometimes get a bad rap for being breeding grounds for drama and gossip but in reality the good things can out-weigh the bad. By forming connections in a community full of similar circumstances, we create a safe environment for our children to be expressive and receive positive feedback. Consistency in family time can also help reinforce a reliable connection. If conflicts cannot be expressed openly and fairly, for the betterment of our resilient kids, these relationships are probably best to distance from during fragile times like deployment.
It is ever important to relay to our children the fact that their presence in our families, communities, and even the world is valued and important. Service is a great teaching lesson that will allow our children to directly see positive consequences from their generosity and very existence. No matter how small the reaction we must use this positivity to further build confidence and resilience in our children’s character.
We cannot expect our children to cope with stress if we have not modeled a set of positive coping strategies. Simply saying, “stop freaking out,” is not going to be effective, especially in the check out line at Target. Rather, we need to validate fears, concerns, and lack of understanding and suggest ways in which our children can respond positively.
As adults in the military community we have a number of different hats we must wear. We need to be advocates, support systems, fosters of loving relationships, confidence builders, and above all positive examples. Our ability to cope with stress will help build confident, competent, and resilient kids. If we can be successful in this sphere we will, just as many like us have in the past, build a generation of leaders and builders of nations.