Updated: Nov 4
Photo credit: Pexels
Most of us have heard the phrase time and again. “Don’t worry, children are resilient. They’ll bounce back from this.” When idioms are repeated, they tend to become accepted knowledge that everyone else regurgitates. In some fairness, there does appear to be a degree of truth to the notion that children are resilient. They tend to adapt to difficult situations more quickly than most grownups can.
The more important question is not “Are children coping?” but “How are they coping?” Children ARE resilient-but not in the way that we think. Resiliency is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and the ability to spring back into shape.” Synonyms of “resilience” include “elastic, durability, strength, and pliability.” Are children who suffer from trauma truly resilient? Here are some essential truths that take apart this often-repeated misnomer.
Survival is not Resiliency
Our primary animal instinct is to survive physically and emotionally. When trauma strikes, we will do whatever needs to be done to avoid pain and wade through the mess.
Because a child’s brain is still developing, he/she doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to look logically at a situation and put it into perspective. If a child’s mother is an abusive alcoholic, the child won’t understand that his mother’s alcoholism has nothing to do with him. He will not understand that alcoholism is a disease, that his mother is sick, that she is not equipped to care for him.
The child will subconsciously accept lies that help him to survive and cope with the situation. “’l need to keep my room clean because mom will get mad.” “Mom is sleeping on the couch all day, she must be sick. I’ll go play by myself.” “Mom is acting funny, but all adults probably act like this.”
The boy will find unhealthy ways to cope with the chaos around him. Don’t make waves. Be good. Take care of my mom. Lie for mom. He won’t be able to look at the situation in perspective until he is a teenager. At that point, the boy will be angry with his mother. Unfortunately, he has already learned negative coping mechanisms to deal with his mother’s alcoholism. These coping mechanisms are engrained in his psyche unless he gets help from a therapist.
At 35 years old, he may find himself with an alcoholic wife, getting her aspirin while she lays on the couch all day. He is repeating the same caretaking, enabling behaviors he performed as a child. So yes, he has coped, but not healthily. He was unable to look at the situation for its true nature as a child. He survived, but survival is not resiliency.
There is a Solution
Not all children cope in the way this boy did with his alcoholic mother. Some find other ways to survive. They may have a kind relative who showed them affection and love. They may have had a teacher who influenced them. Or perhaps the child was intuitive enough to do everything he could to avoid becoming dysfunctional. Growing up in a negative environment, or suffering from trauma does not mean that the child is doomed to suffer internally.
The purpose of taking apart the resiliency myth is not to paint a gloomy picture. It’s to help understand the fragility of a child’s brain and how important it is to show him/her healthy coping mechanisms.
We can’t live in a constant state of fear that everything we do will affect our child for the worse. Life is about pain and trauma. Some traumas are unavoidable. Everyone makes mistakes. We cannot protect our children from all pain or harm. If we try, our children will grow up insulated and afraid of the world.
Instead, we must instill a healthy set of coping mechanisms in our children. When trauma hits, they will be able to handle it healthily. True resiliency is about using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the difficult aspects of life. It’s about picking yourself up when everything has fallen apart-patting yourself on the back, and saying “I’m worth another shot.”
Those who use unhealthy coping mechanisms to survive are apt to have some sort of breakdown later in life. Holding in pain and fear for years can wreak havoc on our physical, emotional, and spiritual health. The point is not to find ways to avoid pain but to sit through it and recognize it, knowing that it will pass. It’s about using healthy coping mechanisms to sift through the difficult aspects of life.
We can’t avoid pain. We can’t avoid trauma. But we can learn healthy ways to cope with it. Through therapy, positive self-talk, self-care, and in some cases, medication, there is hope for all of us to become truly resilient.
Has your child struggled with a traumatic event? Do they suffer from anxiety or depression? If so, please contact Straight Talk Counseling at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkcounseling.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.