Nurturing Your Family

Promoting family resilience.

“Increasing attention has been paid to promoting resilience in children and families. Notably, the Search Institute has promoted 40 developmental assets critical to the well-being of children, regardless of race or ethnicity. These assets have been adopted by school districts around the country and social service organizations such as the YMCA. Even Dr. Phil has entered the foray, with books on families and relationships.

As a father of a child with special needs and sibling to an adult person with an autism spectrum disorder, I know first-hand the impact resiliency can have in mastering life’s challenges. Recognizing and building resilience can help families cope with any challenge— whether it is difficulty paying bills, marital difficulties or a move to another community.

What is resilience? Resilience has generally been described as an ability to bounce back from setbacks or challenges. Kathy Marshall, executive director of the National Resiliency Resource Center at the University of Minnesota, describes it as a natural power to navigate life well. It is something we are all born with. It is our birthright as human beings.

Another aspect of resilience is seeing people at-promise rather than at-risk. In the 1960s, a psychiatrist recommended that my brother be placed in the state mental institution. My brother must have been 2 or 3 at the time. At this age, he was non-verbal and extremely active. At times, he could be violent.

My parents did not agree with this recommendation and provided extensive early intervention supports. He was placed in a private preschool that specialized in children with special needs. For five years, he took Thorazine, a powerful antipsychotic, to help manage his behavior. My father also took him to see a psychiatric social worker every Saturday for seven years.

My brother, Craig, entered 1st grade two years behind his peers and had special education support until 3rd grade. He graduated high school without special education support, went on to Indiana University and graduated with a bachelor of science degree after ten years of sheer persistence. Today, he lives independently and has been consistently employed. If my parents had viewed Craig as at-risk rather than at-promise, he would in all likelihood still be institutionalized.

How then can families recognize and nurture resiliency? Marshall suggests focusing on positive feelings. If your family had an especially good time at the park, or at a party, recall these feelings at the dinner table, or by looking through pictures. Your children will learn to use the memories of these good times as a tool for coping during challenges. These memories can also be used as a focus before bedtime to prevent nightmares.

Another aspect of resilience is being open to what life has to offer, and trusting that this power will naturally unfold to carry you and your family through the tough times. While it can certainly be scary, everyone has the ability to navigate life well. If we are not open to what life has to offer, we miss many wonderful things.

Our thoughts can prevent us from living in the moment. How many thoughts do we have in a day? Probably thousands. Often, it’s the negative thoughts that get the most attention. We may start with a benign question like whether or not our child remembered to give their picture money to their teacher. This may evoke anxiety. Perhaps we begin to wonder if we’re going to have enough money at the end of the month, or if we’re saving enough for college. Before we know it, this thought can keep us absorbed for most of the day as we continually question ourselves. Marshall says that a key factor to resilience is recognizing when these “hooks” take hold, and focusing instead on something positive.

This past week, my son demonstrated resilience and, in turn, nurtured mine. Joe learned how to ride a bike without training wheels— sort of. He has not yet figured out how to stop. It was quite a memorable sight to see him armored with a helmet, knee pads, elbow pads and gloves riding around our cul-de-sac. Since he couldn’t stop, he bumped into our neighbor’s car, the mailbox, various curbs and bushes. Each time he crashed, he immediately yelled, “I’m okay!” brushed himself off and got back on the bike again.

Watching him reminded me that often as parents, we can provide our children with a valuable lesson by putting on the appropriate armor, and taking on life head on. If we fall, we’ll be okay. Eventually, we’ll learn from our mistakes and be able to tackle life’s challenges with more grace. It does take practice.