Dr. Jeff Von Kohorn, Ph.D. On Learning Resilience

Your son comes home from school and sadly reports he failed a test.  Other kids laughed about it, and he felt even worse.  He acknowledges that he hadn’t studied enough for it and says that he asked the teacher for a make-up opportunity.  He said he was going to his room to study some more.  You feel proud of his inner sense of strength in admitting his part of the problem and of his resolve to improve his performance.

Or…After dinner your crying son says he was bullied at school.  He says that he failed a test and other kids bullied him with their laughter.  He says he feels like giving up because the work is too hard and wants to take the rest of the week to get away from school.  You feel worried that your son is being overwhelmed by the academic and social demands of school.

If you are the parent of the boy in the second scenario, increasing your son’s resilience should be a priority.  While you don’t want your son to fail and test, and while it is never okay to be laughed at; your son may need to develop better resilience.  As Jon Kabat-Zinn said: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”

I think of resilience as an inner quality of striving to learn and grow from challenging experiences.  Too often, however, our sons find a situation overwhelming and don’t seem to be able to “bounce back”.  Rather than “learn and grow”, they recoil and avoid dealing with it.

You can't learn to be resilient if nothing goes wrong. And if you don't learn resilience, you're more likely to be depressed, achieve less in school, and have worse physical health.  Conversely, high levels of resilience lead to high self-esteem, a realistic self-image, and improved relationships. 

Whether the challenging situation is a failing grade, an athletic blunder, or a social attack, resiliency requires that your son distinguishes between what he can control and what he cannot.

What turns challenging events into overwhelmingly negative events for boys is how they process the bad event.  Bad events happen; they always will.  It is how the event is understood that determines its severity.  We all develop explanatory styles to understand our experience.  The explanatory style needs to be recognized and addressed.  Initially, these explanatory styles are unconscious and automatic.  If you were to ask your child about them, they would most likely be unaware of them and deny them.  These unconsciously repeated, negative thoughts have been characterized by Daniel Amen, M.D. as ANTs: Automatic, Negative Thoughts.  They are real and motivating, but function in the background as a kind of default program in your son’s brain.  Nevertheless, they are what make challenging events overwhelmingly negative.

Explanatory styles typically incorporate any of three dimensions.  The ANT might be permanent expressed as “I'm not good enough and I'll never be good enough” or as “My mom is the crabbiest mom ever.”  A permanent ANT implies no potential for change and feels hopeless.  The ANT might also be pervasive and expressed as “My bad grade means I'm just not smart enough” or as “nobody likes me.”  A pervasive ANT implies no resources for change and feels weak and powerless.  Finally, an ANT might be personal and expressed as “I got picked last again; no one likes me” or as “I got grounded because I'm bad.”  Personalizing implies being totally at fault and feeling guilty.

At the extreme when your child has any of these explanatory styles, bad events become overwhelming.  Your son’s experience might be some version of “I'm bad, in every way, all the time and it's my fault!  Therefore, I can have no hope for things going better and have no responsibility to make it better.  I'm weak and ineffective, and powerless and at fault.” Without even knowing it, your son has been affected by an ANT infestation!

When you see your son suffering, you naturally want to sooth, comfort, and protect your son.  In addition to those efforts, consider adding a priority of developing resiliency.  Encourage them to explore what they are thinking how that might be contributing to feeling overwhelmed.  While they might reasonably feel badly about a situation, what about it makes it overwhelming?  What kind of thoughts are they having and are they automatic negative thoughts?

The most important tool for increasing resiliency is a parental mindset that, after soothing and comforting, increasing resiliency is a priority.  In order to build resiliency, ANTs have to be challenged and re-challenged.  Conversations about ANTs won't be initiated by your child so it is up to you to persist in finding times to have the ANTs conversation. 

Ask, but don't expect your child to know, what they are thinking about the situation.  Then offer and mutually explore a menu of possibilities.  Look for pervasive, permanent and personal explanatory styles.  Mutually determine if your son’s thoughts are true or partially true. 

Gently challenge permanency.  For example, is it true that “I'm not good enough and never will be” or is it more likely that “I just didn’t do well today.”  Ask which is more true: “My mom is the crabbiest mom ever” or “She is in the crabbiest mood ever?”  These efforts may increase a sense of hopefulness for the future.

Gently challenge pervasiveness: “My bad grade means I'm not smart” or “I struggle with long division and will get some help with that.” Or “No one likes me” versus “They didn't like my joke.” These efforts may help focus resources to solve a specific problem.
Gently challenge over-personalizing.   “I got picked last. No one likes me” versus “They really wanted to win the game and baseball isn't my best sport.”  Or “I got grounded because I'm a bad kid” versus “I got grounded for hitting my sister after she hit me.”  These efforts may spur an appropriate sense of shared responsibility.

To reduce ANTs we need to recognize them, evaluate them (are they true and complete), and mutually develop alternative explanations.  Given all other experiences, how true is the ANT?  How likely is the alternative to be true?
If your son is in upper school, he will have likely participated in two internos meetings about resiliency combining didactic material, a TED talk video and role-play opportunities.  Ask him how it went and what he learned.  Then let me know what you discovered!


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