Last month, an article in the Boston Globe reported on the resiliency of adults. Primarily based on the longitudinal studies by George Vallient from Harvard, who has been following the lives of children born in the 1930s, it is clear that some people show a remarkable capacity to turn their lives around at any age. The tentative conclusions are of great significance to parents.
A part of this resiliency seems to be genetic. Some children are able to maintain a positive outlook even through the most negative of experiences. No matter what trouble they might get into at different stages of their lives, they have a natural capacity to shrug off the bad and keep trying to make their lives work. They don’t develop self-condemnation (“I hate myself”) or view the world as the enemy (“Life is not fair; it’s too dangerous out there.”)
Another factor that dramatically changed some lives around was finding a supporting, loving spouse. I have seen many examples of this — a number of second, even third marriages where the relationship really worked and it enabled a struggling partner to finally get over the hump and break free of some unhealthy attitudes that kept them trapped in negative cycles. I particularly think of an aunt of mine who went through two marriages to men who treated her terribly and had very negative, rather mean temperments. She was not one of my favorites! Then, at the age of sixty, she married a most wonderful man and her personality underwent an incredible transformation into a more positive, outgoing woman.
These points underscore some of the issues I frequently discuss with parents. Life is not linear. Personality is not finalized in the first five years and you are not the only significant influence in the lives of your children. Temperament is a critical factor in life; something you are born with which may modify over time or may prove resistant to experience. There is a contradictory message here: parents are very influential; parents are not THAT influential. Both are true. It actually varies with each child. Some are more influenced by their experiences growing up; others much less so.
But there is a piece from Vallient’s work that very much ties in with my own experience as a therapist and is very central to the art of good parenting. Many of the adults who come for help are trapped by attitudes of self-dislike that grew out of experiences with parents who were overly critical of them or were characterized by very negative views of life. Parents who are so anxious about their children turning out right that they constantly try to “fix them” too often leave their children with a deep sense of not being lovable or competent enough to please their parents. This heavy yoke, carried like a never-ending tape in their brain playing self-critical messages, is often the key factor that must be changed for these adults to turn their lives around.
Parents need to lighten up. Especially in these times of high stress — humor, empathy, positive expectations go a long way toward creating the kind of outlook that helps children view themselves and the world in a more positive way. Focus on your child’s strengths. The inconsistent grades or the difficult behaviors should not be the primary issue for a child who isn’t particularly organized or somewhat impulsive. But that same child may draw great pictures, create wonderful stories, build complex Lego structures, or be very caring. The challenge to parents is to build their relationship around those strengths rather than the child’s weaknesses. This may provide the self-love that is the resiliency that child will need as an adult.