HEADS-UP FROM ANDREA: THESE APPROACHES WORK FOR ADULTS, TOO.
By SHERYL SANDBERG – APRIL 24, 2017
After my husband’s death, I set out to learn everything I could about how kids persevere through adversity.
Two years ago, in an instant, everything changed for my family and me. While my husband, Dave, and I were on vacation, he died suddenly from a cardiac arrhythmia.
Flying home to tell my 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son that their father had died was the worst experience of my life. During that unimaginable trip, I turned for advice to a friend who counsels grieving children. She said that the most important thing was to tell my kids over and over how much I loved them and that they were not alone.
In the fog of those early and brutal weeks and months, I tried to use the guidance she had given me. My biggest fear was that my children’s happiness would be destroyed by our devastating loss. I needed to know what, if anything, I could do to get them through this.
I also started talking with my friend Adam Grant, a psychologist and professor who studies how people find motivation and meaning. Together, we set out to learn everything we could about how kids persevere through adversity.
As parents, teachers and caregivers, we all want to raise resilient kids — to develop their strength so they can overcome obstacles big and small. Resilience leads to better health, greater happiness and more success. The good news is that resilience isn’t a fixed personality trait; we’re not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build.
And every kid faces challenges. Some stumbles are part of growing up. Forgetting lines in a school play. Failing a test. Losing a big game. Seeing a friendship unravel. Other hardships are far more severe. Two out of 10 children in the United States live in poverty. More than 2.5 million kids have a parent in jail, and many endure serious illness, neglect, abuse or homelessness. We know that the trauma from experiences like these can last a lifetime; extreme harm and deprivation can impede a child’s intellectual, social, emotional and academic progress. As a society, we owe all our children safety, support, opportunity and help finding a way forward.
We can start by showing children that they matter. Sociologists define “mattering” as the belief that other people notice you, care about you and rely on you. It’s the answer to a vital question that all children ask about their place in the world starting as toddlers, and continuing into and beyond adolescence: Do I make a difference to others?
When the answer is no, kids feel rejected and alone. They become more prone to self-destructive (“Hurting myself isn’t a big deal, since I don’t count anyway”) and antisocial behaviors (“I might be doing something bad, but at least I’ve got your attention”). Others withdraw.
Not long ago, a friend picked up her son from a summer day camp and found him beaming with pride that he’d finished the robot he’d spent two days building. The next morning, he returned to find his robot had been destroyed: Bullies had taken only his apart — and then told him that he was worthless. After that day, his mother watched him sink into a spiral of anxiety and depression. Even when he went back to school in the fall, she recalled, “he’d put on his hoodie and sit in the back, in his own world.”
Adolescents (and adults) who feel that they matter are less likely to suffer from depression, low self-esteem and suicidal thoughts. They’re less likely to lash out at their families and engage in rebellious, illegal and harmful behaviors. Once they reach college (or adulthood), they have better mental health.