The Importance Of Resilience

Why do some children bounce back from adversity better than others--and can that quality be taught?

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LOOK WITHIN Some things clearly are out of a child's control. But believing that everything--from passing a class to getting into a fight to becoming pregnant--is basically a question of luck tends to compound the problems. Fortunately, attitudes can change for the better. "Part of resilience is learning some skills, some tools to stay safe," says Jerry Moe, who works with children of alcoholics at the Betty Ford Centers in California and Texas. One technique Moe uses a lot is playing a game he calls wheel of misfortune, in which kids brainstorm on ways to handle situations like being yelled at by a drunken father or a mom's wanting to drive them somewhere when she's had three too many.

BE YOUR OWN RECRUITER "Get help" may be the most obvious piece of advice anyone can give a kid heading for trouble. But studies show that the most resilient kids have a way of drawing in other people to help them. Usually those boys and girls are open and engaging, not reserved and sullen. Perhaps they have a winning smile or have learned to develop a quick sense of humor. In other words, they make you want to help them and have become good enough judges of character that they know whom to tap to get the help they need. If one person lets them down, they find another. Some preschool programs pair a child who is adept at asking for help with one who isn't, so the second one can learn by imitation.

HELP OTHERS Another common thread among adults who rebound from adversity is that as children they were required to help others. Selfless acts that have no apparent reward--like giving up a seat on a bus to an older person or participating in a service project--seem to give children some perspective on their lives and troubles. It's another way of not being alone, not being the only person with a problem.

MAKE BETTER PARENTS This insight is central to the approach of the federally funded Child-Parent Centers, a Head Start-- like program in Chicago. It goes way beyond persuading parents to volunteer at bake sales or help chaperone a field trip. Consider, for example, the Lorraine Hansberry Child-Parent Center in the city's North Lawndale section, where most of the families are poor and unemployment runs high. In addition to its preschool and elementary programs, the center offers parents and other caregivers classes designed to enhance parenting skills, including sessions on child development, how to talk with their kids, deal constructively with conflicts and the right way to help with homework. "Especially with the parents who spend a lot of time here, you can see them growing as they try to make themselves a better life," says Shelly Bailey, who is responsible for many of the parent classes. "We encourage them to go back to school, to strive for better things."

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