When you hit the ground make sure you bounce

I’ve worked with students, mostly teenagers, for more than a decade now, and I still remember an experience of one of my very first weeks on the job. I was a first time counselor at Pine Springs Camp in the Laurel Highlands, and I was working with a cabin of young campers – most of them something like 6 years old. One morning as we were getting ready for the day’s events, one of our campers ran full speed down the small hill in front of our cabin, across the deck and directly off the steps at the end of the porch. Fortunately there were only 2 or 3 steps, but he landed face-first in a heap of mulch at the bottom of the steps. I remember having a unique sense of panic – “I have absolutely no idea what to do next.” Fortunately, my co-counselor who was a few years older and a few years more experienced ran over to the child, scooped him up in his arms, held him in front of his face, looked him over, and exclaimed, “That. Was. AWESOME!” The child’s tears immediately gave way to laughter and excitement – he was totally fine.

So why the tears in the first place? And why my panic?

Simply – he didn’t know he was fine and neither did I. It’s a good thing the other counselor got there first. I would have only made the situation worse. Imagine (this will hit very close to home for some of you) if I had run to the child, “Oh my goodness, are you okay, that looked really bad, let me check you for injuries.” How would the child react now? We all know the answer.

Maybe it was in this moment that I first gained an appreciated for resilience – our ability to bounce back. My reaction would have actually stopped him from bouncing back; it would have encouraged him to stay in the pain and the fear, likely making it worse.

My favorite component of resilience is its ability to be developed in our lives. What this means for parents is that you can help your children to develop skills and resources that will actually increase their ability to work through difficulty. Let me touch on just one of these resources for now.

It should come as no surprise that one of the most widely understood methods to develop resilience in a child is a strong family connection, but let’s expand on that idea. Remember the experience with my camper? In that instance my co-counselor modeled care (‘I’m here for you’) as well as strength and resilience (‘You did something awesome, and you are okay’). My reaction would have modeled distress, (‘Oh my goodness!’) doubt, and fear (‘Are you sure you’re okay?’). Even the most closely connected families can sometimes model behaviors that actually encourage pain and struggle instead of alleviating it.

As parents we need to be sure that what we model to our children (of any age) models an ability to recover. Each of us will spend periods of life in times of pain and struggle, which necessitates a following period of recovery – periods of return to equilibrium. A relatively insightful person can begin to gauge how resilient they are by simply asking the questions, “How long does it take me to bounce back?” and “What keeps me from bouncing back?” The strength of family patterns is undeniable. As you go, it is often the case that your children too will go.

Next week we’ll look more at family patterns and what this means for our role as parents.

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