What Makes a Good Parent Part 2:
Building Resilience

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

What parents do matters. We have overwhelming evidence from research that both positive and negative interactions affect children in three important ways. As we just discussed, first, interaction with mom and dad affects the development of children's’ brains, and second, both positive and negative interactions affect a child’s ability to relate to other people. Now lets take a look at the third way our interactions affect our children; their ability to cope with life. This is often referred to as resilience.

It goes without saying that most parents want what’s best for their children. It makes sense to provide our children with optimal experiences while their brains are developing so they can grow into their potential as persons. So how can you as a parent make sure you have the best influence on your child’s developing brain?

If sharing emotion creates meaningful connections, then positive emotions are obviously important to your child’s development. We know that optimism is the best way to build positive emotion and that positive emotion builds resilience and happiness. Resilience is the ability to bounce back when bad things happen in our lives. As parents, this is an important quality to have ourselves, especially if we’re to develop it in our children.

What does research tell us are the benefits to positive emotion, and to feeling happy? This is where the link to resilience comes in. Beyond feeling good, the benefits of positive emotion help us bounce back when the inevitable bad stuff happens.

People often ask, “Don’t happiness and resiliency just come naturally? Aren’t these traits some are just born with?” At one time, psychologists did believe resiliency and the level of happiness a person could experience were something we were born with. We know now that these traits can be learned, and importantly, they can be learned at any age. And, this is important; with mindsight, happiness traits like optimism can be taught to our children. Even if you weren’t born with these traits or didn’t learn them in your family, you can choose to learn them now. Our brains are wonderfully malleable. We can use our rational minds located in the prefrontal cortex of our brain to change our thinking habits no matter how old we are. This part of the brain continues to grow and change into our 90’s.

We’ve learned there are specific habits we can develop using this rational thinking part of our brain that will make us happier. We know that optimists are happier than pessimists and that optimism can be built if we choose to spend the time learning new thinking habits. Thinking habits that promote optimism and positive emotion in general, are important because they buffer us against depression. This is especially important for parents because we know from many years of research that depressed parents aren’t able to parent as well and have a negative impact on their child’s development.

We want more positive emotion for ourselves and our children because it jolts us into a more functional, useful mode of thought and builds our personal resources. We can bounce back from negative emotions, those that are more difficult to manage and don’t feel good, because we can recruit positive emotions. Positive emotion broadens and builds resources we can draw on later in life. No one is exempt from life’s challenges. We need these coping resources as parents. How can we influence our children if we don’t have coping mechanisms ourselves?

Positive emotions aren’t the opposite of negative emotions. They are what we feel at an emotional level when life is worth living; joy, love, peace, and so on. To put positive emotions in context, it will help to discuss emotions in general. Emotions serve a purpose, both positively and negatively. Developing positive emotions does not imply we should replace negative emotions, the one’s that don’t feel good, with positive emotions. We need all of our emotions.

Negative emotions help us see what’s wrong and have a strong survival purpose. For example, anger is protective, telling us a boundary has been crossed. We experience fear and sadness when something’s wrong or when there’s danger out there. We may need to fight or flee at some level. It’s vitally important that we appropriately mirror the less pleasant emotions for our children. This is how children learn to manage their emotions, by learning how to first label them and then, with our help, know how to express them appropriately.

Sadly, the negative emotions tend to trump positive emotions because of their strong survival purpose. Fortunately, however, we know we can create a better balance of positive to negative emotion once we’re aware of the benefits and purpose of the positive emotions. Research tells us that for every negative emotion we need a minimum of at least three 3 positive emotions to help us manage the effects of negative emotion. This is especially helpful to remember when interacting with children... and spouses... and coworkers.

Happy people are the ones who experience more positive emotion and are more optimistic. Resilient people are more optimistic. Optimism means having a strong expectation that, in general, things will turn out all right in life, despite setbacks and frustrations. Research tells us there are four main advantages to being an optimist: One, optimism fights depression. Two, optimists have more success in school and sports, and at work. Thirdly, optimists have better physical health and stronger immune systems; they take better care of themselves. And fourth, optimists have better social relationships, make more friends and have better marriages. These are all traits we want for our children.

Fortunately, we know enough about the specific differences between optimists and pessimists to teach pessimistic thinkers to become optimistic thinkers. If you believe you’re worthwhile and deserve to be happy, your view of yourself and the world will be positive. This core belief will affect what you feel and how you behave in reaction to good and bad events in your life. As Henry David Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” And it matters how you tell the story about what you see.

Human beings are storytellers. The stories we tell about our past reveal what we think about our past. When we tell our stories we have freedom to change the story depending on our perspective, our interpretation of events. The past doesn’t determine our future, but the way we remember it and tell the story of the past can make a difference. We can make a heaven out of hell or vice versa.

Our explanatory style is central to the story we tell about who we are. The reason it’s essential that we change a negative or pessimistic explanatory style goes back to what we’ve learned about mindsight and secure attachments with our children. When a parent can sift through the dross of his or her life and focus on the gold with a positive outlook on the future, they are making sense of their life with a positive perspective. We live a more vital and enriched life when we’ve integrated our past experiences into a coherent ongoing life story.

Through research, we’ve made the amazing discovery that the most powerful predictor of a child’s ability to have healthy attachments is the coherence of the parent’s life story. When we make sense of our own lives, our children benefit.
Making positive sense of our life stories enables us to have deeper connections with our children, and to live a more joyful life.

Remember, it’s through the sharing of feelings that we create meaningful connections. Don’t misunderstand the emphasis on optimism to mean that we pretend we don’t have negative emotions or that we don’t teach our children to cope with negative emotions. Appropriate expression of negative emotions is essential to healthy emotional communication. At the same time, we want to deliberately focus on and build positive emotions to create a balanced, resilient, healthy life.

We have the freedom as adults to let go of a focus on survival and suffering and rewrite our stories from another perspective. One way we can accomplish this is by amplifying positive emotion about the past. Gratitude is a powerful tool for amplifying positive memories about the past. Fortunately, this is a quality that can be cultivated and deliberately chosen. Gratitude is a basic emotional response to life, an enduring sense of thankfulness. The grateful person has a warm sense of appreciation. The positive emotion of gratitude connects us to the kindness of others.

There are many good reasons to expand the ability to feel gratitude. People with a grateful disposition are more optimistic, have fewer physical symptoms, have higher positive state of alertness, lower levels of depression, are interconnected with others, are more altruistic, and are less materialistic. There are ways to get in touch with your own gratitude. This can be as simple as a sincere “thank-you” said to someone who holds the door open for you, or as elaborate as writing a letter of gratitude.

William Penn eloquently said, “The secret to happiness is to count your blessings while others are adding up their troubles.”There’s a simple but powerful exercise for building optimism and positive emotion: The Three Blessings Exercise. This exercise has been researched by the University of Pennsylvania. One of the wonderful benefits the research on this exercise revealed is that in addition to building gratitude and optimism about the future, it also helps decrease depression. This exercise will sound familiar to you as it’s based on a long tradition of gratitude found across cultures.

The Three Blessings Exercise was designed by researchers for a purpose. Noticing and analyzing what goes well in our lives builds the skills of remembering good events and not taking them for granted. It builds gratitude as well. You can do this exercise alone and with your family.

These are the directions given by Martin Seligman, the father of the positive psychology movement, for doing the Three Blessings Exercise. “Every night for the next week, right before you go to bed, write down three things that went really well that day. These things can be ordinary and small in importance (‘My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today.’) or relatively large in importance (‘My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy.’) Next to each positive event in your list, answer the question, ‘Why did this good thing happen?’

Asking why is really important because it helps us see that we have some control over good things in our life. For example, when asking why, someone might speculate that her husband picked up the ice cream “because my husband is really thoughtful sometimes” or ‘because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.’ When asked why her sister gave birth to a healthy baby boy, someone might speculate that “God was looking out for her” or ‘She did everything right during her pregnancy.’

Take stock of the good events in your life daily. You may or may not choose to write them down, but in the beginning it seems to help make it a habit you’ll continue.”

This is a great dinner time or bedtime activity to do with your kids either as a family or with each child individually. Be sure you share three blessings from your day with them. The greatest gift you can give your child is a mentally healthy, happy, optimistic, resilient parent.

Jacque Ristau, MS, LPC

Copyright 2011, Jacque Ristau

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