A parent wrote the following letter to the Department of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Institute of Technology.
“Dear Sir or Madam,
My second grader has decided on a career in electrical engineering. He is leaning towards MIT, but I do not find them helpful and would prefer a Southern culture. Would you please tell me how to prepare him for admission? He will be an Eagle Scout by then and wants to go to the best school. Please advise.”
The letter was referenced in a recent episode of This American Life by Rick Clark, the Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Georgia Tech, who was discussing some of the misguided steps that parents take to give their kids a leg-up on life. Most of us can probably acknowledge the ludicrousness of this letter, although we may also recognize it as one parent’s misguided attempt to help his/her child. As parents, we all struggle with how best to navigate the blurred boundaries between helping our children and hurting their competence. Is it possible to do too much? Does research help elucidate that question?
Since having children, my husband and I have routinely grappled with that question. Is it possible to help our children too much? Should we help them with homework, or should we let them struggle, and possibly fail, while they work it out themselves? And does the answer depend on the child? Our daughter has had her future plans mapped out since 4th grade (Princeton for undergrad then FIT for graduate school and afterwards a career of fashion design) and has the perseverance of a bull-dog. Our son, on the other hand, usually wilts at the first sign of pressure and would seemingly be content playing video games in our basement until he reached retirement. He has the prototypical Fixed Mindet and believes that you shouldn’t have to try if you’re good at something. Should we be pushing him to challenge himself? Or should we let him pave his own path in life?
I’m a big proponent of setting a high bar academically for our kids, and letting them know that we expect them to reach it. I think they should be challenged in everything that they do because I believe that it’s when you’re uncomfortable that you’re learning and advancing. But other than the muscle-building reference (in which building muscle means tearing it down and enduring soreness) and small number of publications pointing to the benefits of the coaching parent (referenced in a previous blog post), I haven’t been able to find conclusive data.
And then I heard an “On Being” podcast featuring Brene Brown. Brene Brown is a Research Professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She said, “hope is a function of struggle” and referenced studies that say we grow the most through moments of struggle. She commented on how infrequently we allow our kids to endure these moments of struggle. And it hit me. Without struggle, you can’t learn that you can make it through the struggle and prevail. You can’t learn resilience without adversity. You can’t become hopeful and optimistic unless you know that you can overcome struggles. And without hope, you’re not an engaged and happy person. As a parent, our job is not to raise happy kids (because happiness is fleeting) but to raise joyful, optimistic and hopeful kids, right? And optimism is based on resilience and mental toughness. So how are we teaching them resilience, optimism and toughness if we’re solving their problems for them?
It all made sense in my mind. But I wondered if research supported that the link between struggle and resilience. It makes sense intuitively, but does science back it up? So I dug a little deeper.
What the research says:
The Theory Linking Adversity to Positive Outcomes
Psychologists have been exploring the consequences of adversity for years, but they’ve often explored it from the standpoint of Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, child abuse, or other psychological traumas. What they’ve concluded is that “people sometimes emerge from disruptive and even traumatic events with newly developed skills. To get through the experience successfully, they were forced to learn something they hadn’t had to know how to do before” . So trauma and adversity can, in some instances, lead to triumph and learning new skills.
But psychologists acknowledge that people respond differently to adversity, noting “those high in mastery cope with adverse circumstances through instrumental activities. They tend to master the situation effectively, appraise their experience as beneficial, and increase the sense of mastery with which they approach subsequent situations”. Conversely, “those who begin with a lower sense of mastery cope by avoidance and escapism. They fare more poorly, appraise their experience as detrimental, and suffer further depletion in the sense of mastery” . So people need “high levels of mastery”, or the ability to deal with adversity in order to cope with struggles well.
The types of trauma and adversity mentioned in these studies are not those that we want to emulate or re-create in our children’s lives. However, the fact remains that people learn through dealing with problems, and that overcoming those problems often leads to learning new skills.
Adversity can also lead to resilience. “Along with having gotten through a difficult or painful experience can come a sense of confidence about the future (“I survived this, I can deal with other hard things too”). Having this confidence can in turn make a subsequent experience easier to approach and deal with” .
So there is a theoretical link between adversity and resilience. But is that relevant to parenting? Are there publications out there that deal specifically with parenting?
Several studies have been done to examine the long-term effects of moderate trauma (simulated by separating young monkeys from their parent) on socialness and confidence in animals. In these studies, 17-week old squirrel monkeys were separated from their mothers for a brief period of time (one hour) once a week for ten weeks. They were then separated from their mothers and siblings and were housed with their peers. Researchers assessed the monkeys’ cognitive control of behavior and exploratory behavior at 1.5 years and 2.5 years of age, and compared them to control monkeys of the same group and age .
The results were interesting. At 1.5 years of age, the separated monkeys exhibited “diminished subsequent stress-levels of cortisol, increased exploration of novel situations, and enhanced prefrontal-dependent cognitive control of behavior” . In other words, the monkeys that were separated from their mothers were more inquisitive, more exploratory, more playful, better able to control their behavior, and less stressed out in stressful situations [6,10].
There were also long-term effects. “Later in life, monkeys exposed to intermittent separations show fewer behavioral indications of anxiety, increased exploration of novel situations, and diminished stress levels of cortisol compared to age-matched monkeys not exposed to prior separations” . So manageable levels of stress during childhood can lead to less stress, less anxiety, and more confidence in mature monkeys.
The scientists also scanned the brains of the monkeys in these experiments, and found that the volume was increased in the “ventromedial prefrontal cortical volumes in peripubertal monkeys” . What the heck does that mean? Well, it means, “the process of coping with early life stress actually re-wires the brain” . So these differences are not just emotional but may actually be hard-wired.
Just a recap. So far we know that a) stress-inoculation is thought to enhance the resilience of adults theoretically, and b) animal studies demonstrate the positive effects of low levels of stress in childhood, including less stress, less anxiety, and more confidence in adults. But does this apply in real life?
It does. In fact, there is something called resilience training that is used in certain professions to lessen the severity of stress-related mental disorders and attain peak performance under pressure . “Controlled exposure to stress-related cues is a key feature of resiliency training for people that work in conditions where performance in the face of adversity is required, e.g., medical and military personnel, aviators, police, firefighters, and rescue workers” . Resilience training is used for certain professions, including the military  and medical fields  and the results seem to support its continuation.
But is there any evidence that enduring stressful events can lead to resilience in children?
Anecdotal results would say yes, that enduring stressful events can lead to resilience in children. “In children and adolescents, prior stressful events are associated with diminished emotional distress associated with hospital admission, attenuated fearfulness in a day-care setting, and decreased cardiovascular responses to psychologically stressful laboratory tests (e.g., mental arithmetic, video game performance, and hand submersion in ice water)” .
“Older children’s experience of coping successfully with family poverty seemed, in the Californian studies of the Great Depression, to lead to greater psychological strengths later” .
You may be wondering if these benefits are long lasting? Well, they appear to be. Adults have been shown to “cope better with spousal loss, illness, and accidents if they have previously experienced and coped with stress in childhood” .
Wait a minute, I thought stress was bad?
Researchers previously looked at the impact of Adverse Childhood Events (ACEs) on children, and found that experiencing ACEs had a negative effect on children. In fact, a previous blog pointed to the negative effects of adverse experiences on children. However, more updated research has clarified the relationship between stress during childhood and life quality.
The ACE study examined the effects of abuse and household dysfunction during childhood, and concluded that experiencing abuse and dysfunction as a child lead to poor health, emotional difficulties, and addiction later in life. However, researchers now know that there is “a more complex relationship between lifetime adversity and outcomes than previously supposed. Indeed people with a history of some lifetime adversity (low adversity group) reported better mental health and well-being outcomes than not only people with a high history of adversity but also than people with no history of adversity. Actually people with some prior lifetime adversity were the least affected by recent adverse events.” .
Why? Researchers hypothesize that “stressful experiences that are challenging but not overwhelming appear to promote the development of subsequent resilience in children” . So large amounts of trauma or dysfunction have negative effects (obviously). But manageably small amounts of stress had a beneficial effect.
How does this work? Researchers believe that resilience is promoted when manageably small amounts of stress are endured. “Experiencing low-to-moderate levels of adversity may contribute to development of subsequent propensity for resilience in the face of difficulties, be they major life events or relatively mundane hassles. This could be the case due to a variety of mechanisms, including generating individual toughness, creating a sense of mastery over past adversity, fostering perceived control and belief in ability to cope successfully, teaching coping skills, establishing effective social-support networks, and promoting cell growth in brain areas relevant for coping. Without any adversity exposure, these resources may have little opportunity to develop; comparably, higher levels of adversity could prove overwhelming and disrupt them (e.g., fostering perceived helplessness, lack of toughness)” . So living through stressful moments teaches kids and adults that they can no only cope, but can master and thrive after facing adversity. And with that knowledge comes a sense of control and belief in their ability to succeed. Overcoming adversity creates resilience.
What does this all mean?
My take-home is that, not only is there is such a thing as too much adversity, but there may also be such a thing as too little when talking about children. And research supports the fact that children need to face some levels of stress and some adversity to learn resilience. But how much? And what types of adversity specifically?
This is one time when I think we can confidently say no one knows. Especially when talking about the level of struggle your child needs specifically. So this blog doesn’t hold a precise prescription based on a review of the research.
What we do know, however, is that we need to reassess the way we view adversity and stress when it comes to our kids. We shouldn’t shy away from letting them experience stress and adversity. We shouldn’t engineer their lives so that they’re comfortable at all times. And we may actually be parenting them best when we let them learn through hardship and struggle.
I’m not advocating for starving your child or dropping them off miles away from home and telling them to find their own way home. But perhaps you should re-think that conversation you were going to have with your son’s friend’s parents because the friend hurt your son’s feelings. Or that conversation you were going to have with your daughter’s math teacher because you thought she was getting too much homework (even though your daughter hadn’t complained). Or that letter we were going to right to Georgia Tech for our second grader.
At every decision-making point that we face, we have two options, both of which will cause some stress on our child. Based on the research, we should probably assess the choices for which will best enable our child to learn from the stressful situation, and not choose the one that will cause him or her the least stress.
For example, should we sign our son up for Algebra B (which will be a challenging class for him) or should we allow him to take an easier math course? He would choose the easier math, but what is best for him based on this new paradigm? Our choice would be signing him up for Algebra B and providing him with the support that he needs to do well. Although this will create a challenging year for him, and will consequently increase the level of screaming and tantrums we’ll probably face in the coming months, this is the best way to teach him that he should push himself academically.
But your decision in that situation may be completely different. And that’s o.k. Because only you know your child. And because your decision will be based in fact, forethought and sound science.
1. This American Life, Episode #504 titled “How I Got Into College”.
2. “Resilience and Thriving: Issues, Models, and Linkages”. Charles S. Carver. Journal of Social Issues, Volume 54, Issue 2, pages 245–266, Summer 1998.
3. “Psychobiological mechanisms of resilience and vulnerability: implications for successful adaptation to extreme stress”.Charney DS. Am J Psychiatry. 2004 Feb;161(2):195-216.
4. “A Developmental Psychopathology and Resilience Perspective on 21st Century Competencies”. Hewlett Foundation report by J. Douglas Coatsworth, Research on 21st Century Competencies, National Research Council
5. “Arousal and Physiological Toughness: Implications for Mental and Physical Health”. Richard A. Dienstbier. Psychological Review 96:1 (1989), pp. 84–100
6. Prefrontal plasticity and stress inoculation-induced resilience. Katz M, Liu C, Schaer M, Parker KJ, Ottet MC, Epps A, Buckmaster CL, Bammer R, Moseley ME, Schatzberg AF, Eliez S, Lyons DM. Dev Neurosci. 2009;31(4):293-9.
7. Animal models of early life stress: Implications for understanding resilience. Lyons DM, Parker KJ, Schatzberg AF. Dev Psychobiol. 2010 Jul;52(5):402-10.
8. Developmental cascades linking stress inoculation, arousal regulation, and resilience. Lyons DM, Parker KJ, Katz M, Schatzberg AF. Front Behav Neurosci. 2009;3:32.
9. Stress inoculation-induced indications of resilience in monkeys. Lyons DM, Parker KJ. J Trauma Stress. 2007 Aug;20(4):423-33.
10. Prospective investigation of stress inoculation in young monkeys. Parker KJ, Buckmaster CL, Schatzberg AF, Lyons DM. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2004 Sep;61(9):933-41.
11. Implications of resilience concepts for scientific understanding. Rutter M. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2006 Dec;1094:1-12.
12. Measuring resilience in adult women using the 10-items Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). Role of trauma exposure and anxiety disorders. Scali J, Gandubert C, Ritchie K, Soulier M, Ancelin ML, Chaudieu I. PLoS One. 2012;7(6).
13. Resilience: A Silver Lining to Experiencing Adverse Life Events? Mark Seery. Current Directions in Psychological Science December 2011 20: 390-394.
15. Master resilience training in the U.S. Army. Reivich KJ, Seligman ME, McBride S. Am Psychol. 2011 Jan;66(1):25-34.
16. The importance of teaching and learning resilience in the health disciplines: a critical review of the literature. McAllister M, McKinnon J. Nurse Educ Today. 2009 May;29(4):371-9.