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Coping Mechanism

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jan 1, 2013 8:00 AM


A growing body of evidence links the ability to be resilient in the face of life's stresses with success and happiness, and points to the importance of childhood experience in determining our ability to cope in adulthood.

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Illustration by: Scott Menchin.

Intelligence is an undeniably important factor in predicting lifelong success, but it's not the only ingredient in the secret sauce for building a satisfying life. Researchers are increasingly finding that another, less obvious characteristic may be just as important: psychological resilience, generally defined as the ability to cope with and thrive through life's inevitable adversity. "Everyone faces stressors and challenges," explains Dr. Patricia Lester, associate professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences and director of the Nathanson Family Resilience Center at UCLA's Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. "The ability to navigate those challenges and stay on course is a critical skill."

A low level of resilience is associated with poor self-control, lack of focus, an inability to manage the demands of school and work life, and a greater likelihood of engaging in risky and/or unhealthy behaviors, Lester notes. The implications range from poor physical health to increased mental stress and less success in school and the job market. While it may appear that some of us are simply born better-equipped to handle the curveballs life throws our way, the body of evidence points to early childhood experiences as being crucial.

"Resilience is a dynamic process, not just something that's innate to an individual," Lester says. "It's developed in the context of family structures, which can be supported by schools, communities and health-care systems."

Above all else, she adds, a strong caregiving bond is key. "Children need to be taught how to regulate their emotions, let people know how they're feeling, and manage social relationships," Lester explains. "Those are the kids who tend to do well with stress."

The Nathanson Family Resilience Center offers programs for families facing considerable adversity, from military deployment to serious illness. But Lester notes that all families can benefit from simple strategies for developing resilience in their children. Many of them may seem obvious or clichéd, but that's because a) they work, and b) it's easy to forget the basics in our harried, hurried, whirlwind of daily life. Here is a handy guide—or reminder—to the most effective tips for building confident, resilient kids:

"A loving bond is not inconsistent with setting clear limits."

Healthy Habits

By stressing from an early age the importance of a good diet, regular exercise and sleep, parents help their children develop habits that will fortify them both physically and mentally for the inevitable challenges of adulthood. The key to doing it right? Avoid the "do as I say, not as I do" approach. "It's easy to be thinking about everyone else and not attending to oneself in terms of healthy habits, psychological care or rest," says Lester. "Modeling this behavior across the family is the best way to make it work."

Share and Share Alike

A shared sense of identity—both within the family and in the larger community—can also help to build resilience. Ritual holiday celebrations and birthday gatherings foster a sense of meaning, as do activities such as looking at photographs together to reminisce about experiences. Similarly, during stressful times, children by a certain age are likely to benefit when their families discuss what is going on and engage in problem-solving together.

The Ties That Bond

A warm and nurturing relationship between parent and child goes a long way toward developing the child's sense of security. The child should know his needs will be attended to while at the same time understanding that there are certain expectations. "A loving bond is not inconsistent with setting clear limits," Lester says. "You want to encourage the child's sense of mastery and self-confidence."

The Family That Reads Together …

They're oldies but goodies: Reading and discussing books together, as well as adhering to regular mealtimes where family members are encouraged to talk about the day's events, are also ways to teach children how to process and share feelings and experiences.

Building Social Skills

Teach your child how to develop and maintain friendships and show her how you reach out to your own friends in times of need. "We learn coping skills in the context of our relationships with others," Lester says. "Friendships can help to teach children how to manage their emotions, better communicate with others, weather the ups and downs of relationships and be part of a team."

Build Positive Self-Esteem

As adolescents, peer relationships help kids learn how to navigate risk-taking behaviors and make their own choices. Moreover, building a friendship network can be critical to a feeling that one is part of a supportive community—another key resiliency ingredient.

Same as it Ever Was

Establishing and following daily rituals—starting at an early age with something as simple as a bedtime story—fosters a sense of reassurance. "Having an expectable routine, particularly for kids who have had some kind of stressor, helps them feel safer and more able to manage what's happening," Lester says.

Build Positive Self-Esteem

Help your child learn to excel in activities that he or she shows an aptitude toward, whether it's sports or the arts. Equally important, encourage your child to try new things and to persevere through difficult situations—and compliment her when she does. Teach Self-Reflection

By setting an example, parents teach their kids to maintain perspective and solve problems. "It's important for children not to just be on the go all the time, but to be able to step back, think about their experience, try to better understand it and talk about it," Lester explains. "That reflective capacity—which can be enhanced through keeping a journal, making music or drawing a picture, as well as through mindful or other kinds of spiritual practices—can be incredibly helpful."

Find Strength Learn more about the programs in family resilience-building at the Nathanson Family Resilience Center. Visit www.semel.ucla.edu/resilience.

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