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heart house

Recently we 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. Let’s begin by considering HOPE in this blog then the others will follow in future blogs.

Psychologist Rick Snyder at the University of Kansas has worked on a theory of hope which begins when we decide to pursue something we want, a goal (notice this is not about attaining the goal my mom set or my scout master, but something I want myself). Once a person has a goal in mind, a driver’s license, traveling abroad, making the drill team, Snyder says two things kick in, what he calls a “pathway” and “agency.”

The pathway to hope is just what it sounds like: “this is how I can get from A to B;” e.g. this is how I can get a driver’s license, step 1, sign up for Drivers Ed, etc.” At this point in hoping, it’s great to see someone who has actually accomplished what you’re hoping for. That gives you the chance to learn what they did, to see how much effort it took, which steps came first, etc. When our teen sets a goal, a helpful question for parents to ask might be, “Do you know someone who has done this? Can you ask them (or let’s ask them) how they did it.” As parents, sometimes we feel our kid’s hope is unrealistic. Having him talk with someone else about what it takes can provide some reality orientation without our having to be the bad guy! When our teen announces her goal, a useful comment might be, “Wow, that sounds great. What’s your plan to achieve it?” This conveys our approval that she’s set her own goal and implies our expectation that she can figure out how to do it.

Agency refers to the feeling that “I can do this” or “I can do something which will make this happen.” A sense of agency grows over the years. When we’re little, we don’t feel we can do all that much; but as a kid moves through adolescence, his sense of agency is typically growing. . . UNLESS his parent is doing too much for him . . . which may leave him doubting whether he can be an effective agent in his life or not! Teens naturally tend to want to do things for themselves; parents help their kid’s initiative and agency grow by stepping back and allowing the kid to do things. A helpful bonus can be when the kid does have a measure of success, for a parent to comment something like, “Nice work toward your goal! What action did you take which helped you move toward success?”

All of this, hope, pathways, and agency, rest on that first step: setting a goal. Volumes have been written on goal setting but just a note of caution here: like Goldilocks, the goal shouldn’t be too little (video gaming all day) or too big (finding a cure for cancer by age 18), but JUST right. As it turns out, teens often misjudge the appropriate size of their goals. Rather than seeing that as “failure,” help them reframe it as valuable learning. We can do that by asking, “If you had that to plan over again, how might you plan it differently?”

Helping your kid develop a sense of hope is a long process. Begin by becoming aware of goals she is setting for herself (even tiny ones); ways he is figuring out the path to get what he wants; actions she is taking which show she is growing at being an agent in her own life. It turns out that hope is helpful in growth, post-traumatic or otherwise!

As ever, I’d love to hear your comments or applications.