Resilience – A Family Affair

When I found myself having to explain to my very-young children that their father wasn’t coming home (he’d been convicted that afternoon, and would spend the next decade in prison), I didn’t have the words, or the emotional strength, if I’m being honest, to explain what was going on. I also knew I couldn’t just pretend everything was OK and “Daddy’s away on a trip”, or any of the other ridiculous (albeit well-meaning) proposals people were slinging my way.

That conversation didn’t happen all at once, and it evolved over the years, but I was open with them, to the best of our shared ability, not just about the situation with their dad BUT also about the ways I needed them to adjust so we could all function.

There was NO WAY I could carry the whole burden of maintaining our world, so I did what I had to (work, paying bills, mowing the yard) and they learned how to help (folding socks, taking out trash, thinking about ways we could get creative with our food budget…). As a result (and with the help of some therapy and more than a few “it’s ok to cry” nights), they came through that experience with incredible empathy, problem-solving skills, and some killer recipes, to boot!

It’s not just these “black swan” experiences that create this knee-jerk drive to “Protect the Children!”  The tendency to protect our kids kicks in in lots of ways that so many people face.

“Don’t tell them Grandpa died. We don’t want them to be upset.”

“They don’t need to worry that you lost your job! Let them believe everything is OK.”

There are endless examples of ways we’re taught and encouraged to shield our children from the negative aspects of the Human Condition. And this, I believe, is a massive mistake.

Obviously you don’t necessarily need to get into the deep dark science of oncology to explain to your three-year-old that Grandpa has cancer, and discussing the psychology behind family dynamics and economic theory probably isn’t helpful to your ten-year-old. Resilience is a lot like a muscle, though. We develop resilience through the practical experiences of running headlong into challenges, and finding ways to overcome them.

I appreciate the sentiment of wanting to allow children to “be children” and not carry the burdens of adulthood. There’s a huge difference between sending your 6-year-old to work in the coal mines because their father died and you need the income, and having honest conversations about family challenges that WILL affect them, one way or other, and I’m not suggesting we convene a Council of Peers where we engage our small children in solution-finding initiatives (although involving your pre-teens and teenagers? Maybe not such a bad idea!). That being said, shielding them from the fact that STUFF HAPPENS robs them of the opportunity to practice, in age-appropriate ways, skills that will serve them extremely well in their adult lives.

I see this happen in parallel streams all the time. I know people who went away to college (or even graduated FROM college) never knowing how to do their own laundry, balance their own bank accounts, or prepare *any* food whatsoever.  None of those people died as a result of their parents’ “helicopter” style of parenting, but they all had incredibly rude surprises waiting for them when the switch finally flipped and WHAM! They had to figure out, with almost no warning and virtually no warm-up, how to Manage Life As An Adult, and the efforts to “make life easier for them” actually wound up making life WAY, way harder, in some pretty weird and sociologically fascinating but empathetically heart-wrenching ways.

Childhood is the time when we figure stuff out while we have our family as a safety net. We practice skills with the “training wheels” of our parents or adult caregivers there as trusted advisors. (I think this is one of the reasons the 21-yr drinking age is also a social nightmare, but I’ll save THAT for another conversation!).

Emotional resilience is a skill set, just like cooking, cleaning, financial management, driving, and all the rest.

Why would we deny our children, our most precious resources, the opportunity to learn resilience with us there at their side?  Why do we expect them to just magically grow up and PRESTO! All the wisdom of the universe to magically appear in their brain?

So what does “age-appropriate” mean? I don’t think there’s an iron-clad rule that you can discuss death at age 5, and job loss at age 9, and infidelity at age 14, or whatever. You know your kids (hopefully…) and where they are on the emotional maturity scale. The good news is we live in an age of insta-access to zillions of resources about this kind of thing.  You can google “How to talk to your kids about…” and get expert suggestions. Check them out, do a gut-check and see which ones feel like they might be useful for your situation, and then have the conversation.

AND – and it’s a big and… if you are co-parenting in a family with “bonus parents”, however, that manifests, of course, this adds a huge layer of complexity to this situation. Parenting by committee is HARD, y’all. And you can’t control how other people will react, of course, and navigating the complexity of even best-case situations where everyone is 100% focused on getting the kids to adulthood whole, healthy and ready to launch their own lives is still HARD – and I encourage you intentionally to have those conversations, as difficult as they may be.

If difficult conversations themselves are the challenge, consider picking up a copy of books like “Crucial Conversations” or “Nonviolent Communication” (there’s even a teen version of that one!) to bolster your own skillset. Don’t let that discomfort rob you and your family of opportunities to come together in the hard times and learn together. Sometimes the fresh eyes of the children who see the world through a very different lens than their parents can offer incredibly valuable insight. I’ve been floored, personally and professionally, at how ideas from “Out of the mouths of babes” can have a massive beneficial impact on how people navigate shared challenges.

And, here’s a little #protip from somebody who both WAS a child and raised a whole slew of them herself… your kids KNOW something’s not right. They might not understand exactly what is off-kilter, but they are programmed to sense when we’re stressed. By not explaining, albeit in age-appropriate and manageable ways, you’re not protecting them. You’re just cutting off a channel of open and honest conversation, which is also a life skill we really, deeply need our kids to have, both in their interactions with us and others!

Rather than hiding reality and hoping things somehow come together with the kids (or your teams! Yes, this has applicability in the workplace, too, leaders…) being none-the-wiser, consider using these as opportunities to come together, harnessing the potential of everyone involved. You’ll all be better for it, and who knows… you might even learn a thing or two along the way!


Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin
Sarah Ratekin, founder and Chief Happiness Officer of Happiness Is Courage Inc., translates the science of happiness and well-being into actionable plans that get radically positive results. An enthusiastic positivity activist, speaker, author, and researcher, she believes we can change the world for the better by being positive, grateful, and kind, and she’s often quoted as saying “Happiness is a gauge, not a goal”. Her current focus is on helping organizations and teams navigate the particularly complex reality of today’s stressors and engagement challenges by nurturing healthier workplace cultures. No stranger to weird working environments, she believes that everyone deserves the opportunity to develop their strengths, find joy in their profession, and engage in the pursuit of happiness in the workplace and beyond. Sarah has a veritable army of garden gnomes keeping watch over her extensive container gardens and is the proud mother of four amazing humans who are making their positive own marks on the world. She and her spouse Kris, both certified Laughter Yoga leaders, also travel extensively bringing the joy and power of laughter and positivity with organizations of all sizes and industries. In their downtime, they enjoy exploring the outdoors (usually by kayak), dancing, and general merry adventuring. Sarah and her family currently reside in Indiana and travel as often as humanly possible.

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  1. I love this post Sarah! My children have seen and experienced some terrible things during the months that led up to my decision to leave their abusive father. And I’ve been pretty honest with them through the entire process. If they didn’t see things, I don’t know if I’d have been as open, but I didn’t want them to hold those things inside. I wanted them to know it was okay to talk about. And okay to feel however they felt about it. And it wasn’t okay to be treated that way. That is not the way we treat people that we love. I know some people didn’t agree with my take on it, but I knew I was right, so I didn’t give their opinions much weight. Thank you for writing this. It reinforces my intuition.

    • JoAnna, I know that I wished I could have chosen different experiences for my kids, too, but while those were not in my control, how we navigated through it was, and shoot…. sometimes that was purely by the seat of my pants. I won’t pretend that I’ve always had my &^%$ together. 😉 But what I DID learn was that together, we, my kids (and my family in general) and I make a darn good team, and that has been a god-send! I’m so glad our paths have crossed. You reinforce my HOPE every time I see something you share. 🙂

  2. What a wonderful article, Sarah! May I also recommend my favorite two parenting books ever: Giving the Love that Heals by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt and How to Listen so Kids will Talk and Talk so Kids will Listen by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.(sp?). Parenting is one of the toughest jobs in the world and educating ourselves about the stages of development-what’s happening emotionally, socially let alone physically for children is invaluable. I appreciate your encouragement to have a rich understanding of your own children (I had two old souls who spoke much profound wisdom at very young ages-I knew both of them had a great deal to teach me about being human. I cherished the pre-school my kids attended because the teachers modeled and gave the young children so many great tools for processing emotional content-I watched and learned a great deal about how I could interact with my two children in healthy ways-“You cannot bite your brother, but you can bite this wash clothe.” “I know you are really Mad! You can rip up the recycling. Discussing death, divorce, etc.. I even learned that I needed to turn off the TV during 911 because my 3 year old became terrified. Children swim in the water of adults emotional worlds-how important to sometimes shield them and also to share in simple ways things about life. I absolutely LOVED (still love!) Mr. Fred Rogers because he did an amazing job at having discussions with his puppets-Daniel Tiger (my favorite) about difficult content including death and divorce. His way of being was gentle and reassuring.

    For children who experienced developmental traumas, the experts now say how important a consistent, emotionally regulated person showing up (often a therapist) in that adult’s life can be. Modeling emotional regulation can be such a gift for our children.

    Thank you so much for this amazing article that resonates with my heart in so many ways!

    • Thanks, Laura! Those are spectacular books, and I am totally on the Fred Rogers FanClub team! He wrote some incredible books for dealing with topics like the death of a baby sibling, divorce, etc… really heavy stuff that NOBODY wants to touch, and I found his material warm, compassionate, and helpful. I’m so glad this resonates! ♥

    • I appreciate that, Wendy! I think we’re seeing a lot of reflexive well-meaning behaviours. I don’t know too many parents who actively go out of their way to screw their kids up. It can be hard when we ourselves are reeling to make good, rational decisions! ♥

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