Stress Builds Resilience

Thank goodness, the word is out: “A little properly handled stress… may be necessary to turn children into well-adjusted adults,” according to a study out of the University of California, Irvine. It’s a very interesting revelation in light of the propensity for parents in today’s society to try to control the stressors in their children’s lives.

Ironically, it is the very issue of control that seems to influence a person’s resilience, which in turn affects how they handle stress. A recent experiment with rats just might shed some insight on how we might be limiting rather than enhancing our children’s growing-up experiences by controlling their surroundings.

It’s that “snowplow parent” syndrome, our instinctive response to ensure a clear path, that might actually preclude their ability to bounce back in the face of adversity. Consider this: scientists put two rats in a cage with a running wheel. One rat could exercise whenever he wanted; the other was tethered to the first – forced to run when the other guy did. While Rat #1 blossomed, #2 lost brain cells. The explanation: “He was doing something that should have been good for his brain, but he lacked one crucial factor – control. He could not determine his own workout schedule, so he didn’t perceive it as exercise. Instead, he experienced it as a literal rat race.”

Don’t confuse this skill with letting children make all the decisions, many of which should be guided by adult leadership. In fact, that is our role as parents, and it is very important that we provide boundaries. Decision-making occurs within pre-set parameters. To use the animal example, the rats were confined to a safe area and the thriving one utilized his control within those appropriate boundaries. I like to refer to it as freedom within limits.

Of course, that’s what is so special about a camp experience – the environment is built to enable children to explore, invent, and re-invent themselves within the construct of a so-called “envelope of safety.” As staff trainer Michael Brandwein likes to say, “At camp, we build better brains.” That’s because suitable decision-making options are intentional and because we encourage children to figure things out on their own.

My suggestion is to take the snowplow off the car, while of course still keeping your eyes on the road! It reminds me of when my children were learning to drive – my hand was hovering over the emergency brake that straddled the two front seats, and I had created an imaginary hole in the car floor by incessant “virtual braking” from the passenger seat.

If you could use a little bolstering for this course alteration, check out WebMD’s quiz, “How Resilient Are You?” Answer the quiz twice: once to assess your own resilience and then again to reflect on your child’s degree of mastery to date.

“Corduroy” by Don Freeman endearingly tells the story of a teddy bear who endures life’s challenges – everything from losing a button to getting stuck on an elevator and falling off the bed. Coping with some of the struggles of life, he ultimately triumphs when a little girl finds him just perfect in her eyes and takes him home, sews on a new button, and puts him in his own little bed right next to hers.

A rule of thumb, reported in a Newsweek article, “Who Says Stress is Bad for You?”: “If we feel we’re in control, we cope. If we don’t, we collapse.” This axiom explains why we want so desperately to keep the plow handy, yet it also underscores our responsibility as parents.

You could think of it as Driver Ed for life!

Tuck-in Tips

  • Do you think Corduroy made good choices about his situation? Why or why not? What might you have done?
  • Why did the little girl think Corduroy was perfect even though he was missing a button?
  • Talk about a time when you made a decision that made you feel good; about a time when you made a decision that you would change if you could do it again