How Do We Help Kids Experience “Post-traumatic Growth?” Asset 3, Bravery

(A re-posting by popular request)heart house

In a blog several weeks ago, I shared Dr. Marti Seligman’s research on post-traumatic stress, a project which called attention to the fact that many soldiers return from combat better than before. At the other end of the Bell Curve from post-traumatic stress, these folks actually experience what Seligman terms, “post-traumatic growth.” Enduring very difficult times, they come to know they are stronger than they’d thought; that they can be cool under fire; that they can help others survive. In short, hardship helps them to grow.

Wouldn’t we ALL want that for our kids (and ourselves)?

Returning again to Seligman’s study, we find that his team has identified 5 factors which are common to folks who experience post-traumatic growth:

■A sense of hope

■Gratitude

■Bravery

■Kindness

■Religious belief

Giving each of the components some attention could lead us to thinking of ways to encourage our kids during life’s challenging times. In the previous blogs, we began by considering HOPE and GRATITUDE.  In this blog, let’s focus on BRAVERY.

The word “bravery” has taken on such an enormous weight that it might take a bit of effort to imagine that an average middle school kid is called on to exhibit bravery. Let’s unpack the concept a bit. Bravery, according to Mark Twain, is the “mastery of fear, not the absence of fear.” Of course, fear has a million faces: fear of financial ruin, fear of unpopularity, fear of failure, fear of going to camp, fear of death, fear of a tiger, fear of not having friends. But notice that what each has in common is fear. It turns out that fear is essential to being brave. If one is fearless, trying out for the school play is not courageous. BUT, if one recognizes the scary part of trying out, to try out IS courageous.

Fear has three components: a feeling of apprehension; a physical response to fear (racing heart, sweating palms, increased breathing rate); and a behavioral response to fear (what we actually DO in the presence of fear). It is possible to have only one or two of these components…and to elect the third one in many cases. So, yes, I’m afraid when confronted by that big guy who bullies everyone on my gym class; and yes, my heart is racing and my throat is dry; now I have to decide what action I’ll take. I might run; I might duck; I might make a joke…..

Aristotle recommends that to develop courage, we begin by doing courageous acts. Sort of “fake it ’til you make it.” It turns out that he was correct; as we do one (even tiny) courageous act, we gain confidence in future successes.

How do we apply all this with our kids? Let’s assume that we’d like our kids to be among those who enjoy “post-traumatic growth” so we want to help them grow in bravery or courage. And since one cannot experience bravery in the absence of fear, we might begin by helping our kids list things they’re afraid of; then put those items in order from smallest (afraid I’m going to miss the bus and be late to school) to largest (I’m going to that party and NO ONE will speak to me, I will be totally awkward, left out). Then talk over with them what a tiny bit of bravery might look like…we’re not talking about walking into play try-outs without ever having taken a theater class, but a tiny step, e.g. finding out when play tryouts are going to be or asking someone what they’re planning to do to try out for the play. In other words, we break down the fearful experience into bite-sized pieces. Doing even one or two equals progress in the bravery department. If our kid can’t quite muster up courage to tryout for the play but DID sign up for theater class and DID go sit with a friend who was trying out, our kid has made genuine, concrete steps of bravery, something she/he can take real confidence from. Movement = progress!

It’s helpful for parents to remember that bravery is not really about just trying out for the play or going to the party or taking the hard class. Talking at dinner of what each family member fears helps kids to realize that they are not alone, that they are not wimps. Thinking of the long haul, our child’s life a decade or two from now, we’d do well to remember C. S. Lewis’ remark that bravery is “not simply one of the virtues, but the form of EVERY virtue at the testing point.” *

* To promote a family discussion on this, how about offering this quote to talk about at dinner. What does it mean? Do you agree with it? What is a “virtue” (do you need to list some?) and what do they look like at the testing point?

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