Teaching kids to cope

December 12, 2003|by KATE COLEMAN

There is war. There is disease. Terrorism hit home in America.

And there are the things children face every day: change, growth, teasing.

Although most are not life-threatening, daily life presents daily challenges.

"The world is a big scary place," says Jo Ann Shaffer Dooley, a licensed clinical social worker in practice in Hagerstown.

Some children cope better than others. Resilience - the ability to bounce back, to recover strength, spirits, good humor - varies from person to person, child to child.


Are some kids naturally resilient? Are they born with a greater ability to handle stressful situations?

Heredity is a part of resilience, says Milton F. Shore, a clinical psychologist in practice in Silver Spring, Md.

There are individual differences. Everybody has limits - some higher, some lower.

Sybil Schiffman, a licensed professional counselor in practice in Jefferson County, W.Va., has worked with kids who would be considered resilient by almost any measure. Kids who, because of a parent's absence or inability, take responsibility for household duties kids wouldn't normally have to think about - making sure the house is warm in the morning, making sure the hot water heater is working, getting younger siblings up and ready for school and getting themselves to the school bus by 6:30 a.m.

"It has to get done," Schiffman says, and the children rise to the task. The kids go on "automatic pilot" - survival mode - to get through the day.

But resilience is not just functioning and being good, Shore says. Being overly good is not good, he adds.

Some kids who look very resilient - well-behaved socially, well-behaved in school - may be suffering great distress when you look beneath the surface, Shore says. Depressed people are not always identified. It's the "squeaky wheel" that gets the grease - the one who may act out or make trouble - who gets help, he adds.

Schiffman says she sees kids who have problems making the transition from elementary to middle school. Changing classes, having several teachers instead of just one, can throw some kids.

Moving to a new home - to a new sterile bedroom from the comfort of a familiar room - can be devastating to some children, Schiffman says.

Dooley agrees that some kids are more resilient, more able to cope than others.

"The key is to provide consistency, predictability and structure," Dooley says.

Children may not always like that, but they will be strong enough to handle situations that come their way, she adds.

Modeling - demonstrating good coping skills as a parent, involved adult or older child - is always important, Schiffman says. That's how kids "get it," Schiffman says.

Model behavior that conveys optimism and confidence, Dooley advises.

Kids need to know that they are lovable, she says. They need to be able to like themselves and trust themselves.

So much of resilience is about how a child sees himself, Schiffman agrees. It's about "ego strength," self-esteem, and parents can build that up or tear it down, she says.

But parents are not alone.

There needs to be a balance between the individual's abilities and community support, Shore says.

Schiffman's parent survival manual includes "parenting by committee." Be aware and take advantage of family and community resources.

Dooley has seen a difference when kids have even one person in their lives who has been there consistently - encouraging, stabilizing. That can be someone other than a parent.

Shore wants people to be careful when talking about the issue of resilience. He's concerned that asking if kids are resilient puts too much responsibility on the kid and removes responsibility from society.

"All of us are responsible," he says.

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