The McFadden family had aced a course in Coping 101 when they left their school and neighborhood for a new one a couple years back.
So by the time the real test came—when daddy lost his job as an e-commerce executive last winter—the family felt sure they could suck up, sweeten up or spit out just about whatever lemons life might throw their way.
Max, 9, and Maddie, 12, gaped at their parents with frightened eyes when Christine and Drew delivered the bad news about Dad’s job.
"We approached it very honestly and told them there were going to have to be some cutbacks," Christine says. "At the same time, we let them know we were going to have enough food, and we weren’t going to lose our house."
A sour economy is leaving many families floundering outside their comfort zone of steady jobs, mini-mansions and techno-treats like cell phones, Wiis and iPods. It’s prime time for parents to sharpen their skills at teaching kids what it means to be resilient.
But the sour economy is just one new bummer young people have to bear. There are different degrees of downers. Kids taste little lemons all the time. Maybe they don’t make the baseball team. They don’t land the leading role in the play. They get a D on the math quiz. A best friend blows them off.
Parents’ instincts drive them to try to make the disappointments go away, to fix things. But the experts’ fix is no fix at all. Let kids share their disappointments and do your best to be a good listener, they suggest.
"Disappointment won’t hurt the kids and will build their capacity to face future disappointments successfully," says Aaron Cooper, author of I Just Want my Kids to be Happy and director of FamilyMattersOnline for the Family Institute at Northwestern University. "After all, will any of us—in good times or bad—avoid disappointments?"
Keeping kids happy should never have become the parents’ job, he believes.
"It’s a focus that produced two generations of less resilient and more troubled children," he says. "Long before parents devoted themselves to keeping kids happy, children thrived and succeeded and created happy lives for themselves."
Parenting coach Cathy Cassani Adams of Intentional Parenting in Elmhurst says problems like the McFaddens face present an opportunity to listen to each other without just fixing the kids’ fears and concerns.
The McFaddens first worked with Adams when they moved away from close connections in Elmhurst to a new home in Batavia. She taught Drew and Christine how to validate Max and Maddie’s feelings by letting their kids know it is OK to be sad. It is OK to grieve. It is OK to feel unsure. The kids’ biggest fear was that they wouldn’t be able to make new friends when they moved.
The lessons they learned then helped in their latest challenge.
"We often want to step in and make it all better, but the real lesson comes from accepting what happened and learning from it."
You can connect by sharing your own stories of disappointment; tell them how you dealt with your setbacks. Let them know that what feels like a disappointment sometimes leads to a greater experience down the road.
There are some blows parents can’t brush off. When youngsters suffer a severe setback like the loss of a home, a parent’s job, friendships or a neighborhood, parents can help by acknowledging these very big sadnesses. These are griefs that won’t pass in a day or two, so parents should be prepared to accept and embrace their melancholy children for weeks, or even months.
If kids aren’t smiling about today’s "economic realities," Cooper advises, don’t worry about it. Only if they become clinically depressed do parents need to be alarmed about disappointment. Serious symptoms are if kids seem sluggish, moody, unusually aggressive, inattentive at school and home or uninterested in friends.
In less troubled times, it’s OK to "count our blessings" with the kids and look for the silver lining, Cooper says. But "Cheer up, look at the bright side, it’s not so bad" is not going to cut it amid a devastating crisis.
"Our kids will likely go underground with their feelings if they see that we don’t want to hear about sadness or upset or anger. Underground, difficult feelings tend to increase rather than dissipate," he says.
Grown-ups at the helm
The McFaddens played it perfectly when Drew found himself out of work. They were honest. They didn’t soft-pedal when it came to announcing there were going to be fewer channels in the cable package. Instead of a bag of books, they would choose just one at the school book fair. They would re-discover the library and wait for holidays to get new clothes and gadgets.
At the same time, Drew and Christine made it clear they knew what to do.
"The children need to know that the adults have a handle on the situation. If they don’t, the children will carry the worry and the burden," Adams says.
In the end, experts agree, kids learn to cope with difficulties and bounce back in the same way they learn everything else when they’re young.
"Your children learn by watching how you live, not just by listening to what you say," Adams says. "When times are tough, be as honest as possible—with awareness of their age and developmental level—rather than pretending that things are the same."
It isn’t easy to swallow or taste any sweetness when life throws us a bag of lemons. But once it’s over, the parenting pros say, don’t pass up the chance to talk about how you grew as a family and what everybody learned through the process.
"Communication and connection during a challenge will inevitably focus attention on the most important thing, the relationships within the family," Adams says.
Robyn Monaghan is an award-winning writer and a mom who lives in Plainfield.
4 ways to resilient kids
It’s a fact of life, kids are going to face disappointments growing up. But how they learn to cope determines how they bounce back, says national expert Dr. Robert Brooks, Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of Raising Resilient Children.
For more tips and information, including his Illinois speaking engagements, go online to www.drrobertbrooks.com.
1. Turn problems on their head. Don’t criticize or accuse the kids when things don’t work out the way you or they want.
Turn problems with disappointments into problem solving, he says. "You want kids to feel that these mistakes are going to be experiences to learn from."
2. Build them up. "Kids are more likely to deal effectively with mistakes if they have a higher sense of self-esteem," Brooks says. Identify and reinforce your child’s strengths, or what he calls "islands of competence."
"Kids are going to have problems but if you focus on trying to fix the problems without focusing on what is this child’s beauty or their islands of competence, then too much of the focus is on the problems. You want to build up a kid’s sense of dignity."
3. Let them help. "I think kids are better able to tolerate disappointments in life when they feel they at least have opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of others. It’s like you are inoculating the kid, if you will; you are giving them opportunities to feel good about themselves," he says.
At home, try this: instead of telling kids to pick up, tell them, "I need your help," he says.
4. Look in the mirror. "Our children are exquisite observers of how we handle disappointments and frustrations," Brooks says. "… Kids notice much more what you do than what you say." In his practice, he has often asked kids how their parents behave when something doesn’t go right. Although the answer should be that the parent reflects on how he can handle the problem the next time, the kids’ answers range from screaming profanity to drinking a double martini.