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Valley Parents: Raising Resilient Kids

  • Dr. Lou DiNicola has practiced pediatrics at Gifford Medical Center for nearly 42 years and is now Gifford's medical director for primary care and medical director for Federally Qualified Health Centers. DiNicola takes an approach to preventive care that emphasizes resiliency - making sure children have adult support from within and outside their families, and that they recognize in themselves some skill in which they excel. DiNicola remembers playing basketball with an adult neighbor as a child. "He made me feel like I was the best basketball player in the world," said DiNicola. Though he didn't make the team in high school, that neighbor gave him confidence through their positive relationship. DiNicola was photographed in Gifford Medical Center's pediatric offices in Randolph, Vt., Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Pediatrician Dr. Lou DiNicola is Gifford Medical Center's medical director for primary care and medical director for Federally Qualified Health Centers. DiNicola was photographed in Gifford Medical Center's pediatric offices in Randolph, Vt., Tuesday, May 1, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Melissa Hamel, pre-k and kindergarten head teacher talks to her students at Newport Montesorri School in Newport, N.H., on May 2, 2018. The students were getting ready to finish up a year-long project about oceans. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • From left, Newport Montesorri School students Piper Marsden, 5, Dorothy Stetson, 5, listen to Amanda Bevilacqua, an assistant teacher, talk about the weather forecast at Newport Montesorri School in Newport, N.H., on May 2, 2018. At the school. children are taught to resolve their own problems from an early age. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley Parents Correspondent
Friday, May 04, 2018

When Louis DiNicola first started practicing as a pediatrician in the 1970s, he usually saw his patients for what he now terms “problem-oriented visits” — something was wrong, whether it was a nasty flu or a broken bone.

That held true for the first two decades of his practice. In the 1990s, however, a colleague, Paula Duncan, approached DiNicola about taking a new approach to providing preventive health care for children and teenagers, focusing on resiliency.

“That was the first time I had heard the word incorporated medically,” DiNicola said.

In recent years, “resiliency” has become a parenting buzzword. Practitioners from pediatricians to psychologists talk about the importance of raising resilient kids. School officials and parents have become more mindful of making sure that kids can overcome challenges.

“I think (educators are) becoming more and more aware of the importance of resiliency,” said James Collins, principal of Mascoma Valley Regional High School in Canaan. “We define that as being socially and emotionally prepared to deal with the situations you encounter in life.”

Courtney Parizo, a mother of four and long-time foster parent from Claremont, often thinks about making sure her kids, ages 6, 11, 16 and 17, are ready for anything life might hand them.

“I think it’s imperative that we raise our children to be confident, successful, self-sufficient adults who know how to set goals and who don’t give up when the road gets rocky or they stumble,” she said.

But parents often don’t know how to raise resilient kids.

The Fundamentals of Resiliency

Although people have always faced challenges, the focus on building resiliency in kids is relatively new, DiNicola said. And he has come to discover that it’s possible to foster resiliency without having to expose kids to any major stressors or trauma, DiNicola said.

Until Duncan approached him in the 1990s, he focused on identifying kids’ needs. She urged him to instead focus on supporting areas of their lives where kids are thriving.

“(Duncan’s) idea was, ‘why don’t we look at kids and early adolescents and find where each individual kid has strengths, and build those strengths,’ ” he said.

Duncan went on to write about resiliency for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and DiNicola’s practice was one of the first to adopt her approach. Today, resiliency has become something that DiNicola, who is now the medical director of primary care at Gifford Health Care in Randolph, thinks about frequently.

“Resiliency, in my mind, means the ability to succeed when faced with stress or adversity,” DiNicola said.

Following Duncan’s work and subsequent research into resiliency, DiNicola identifies three factors that are instrumental in helping kids overcome adversity: connectedness, mastery and having a mentor.

“If we could identify these key factors in the pre-adolescents, they were more likely to succeed,” DiNicola explained. He noted that doctors often look for physical health issues like diabetes that are relatively rare in kids. In reality, social and emotional qualities like resiliency affect the long-term health of more kids, so it made sense to DiNicola that pediatricians should focus on helping kids identify and strengthen the qualities that contribute to resiliency. Over the years he has seen many children from high-risk circumstances thrive because of these tools.

“When I go back and look at those, what I know is they had good family contact and something they’re good at,” he said.

The importance of connectedness seems obvious. Kids who are connected to their peer groups, families and communities know that they have a variety of people who they can rely on when they encounter difficulties.

Mastery is important because it helps to build self-confidence and a strong sense of identity. As a pediatrician, DiNicola often asked young patients to name one thing they were good at. This might be sports, school or something much more nuanced. Once, a patient who was living in poverty told DiNicola that he was very good at finding food for his family.

“That’s an incredible asset,” DiNicola said. If he hadn’t asked about the boy’s strengths, he said, he probably would have spent the rest of the visit feeling bad for him, rather than focusing on his abilities.

Finally, a mentor outside the family is essential as teens naturally turn away from family connections. DiNicola still remembers being a teen himself and playing basketball regularly with an older neighbor who modeled what it meant to be a young man.

“I felt so connected to him when I was not connected in other areas,” DiNicola said. “He was the adult who helped me get through high school.”

Resiliency at School

Collins, the principal at Mascoma, said that kids who are connected to their communities have more belief in themselves, something that is essential for resiliency.

“I think it’s all about creating a sense of confidence in the child,” he said. Part of that is connecting with peers who have overcome similar challenges.

“When a group gets together and finds common purpose, the student doesn’t feel all alone,” he said. “(They realize) even though I’m unique, there are other people like me. That confidence will make them strong decision-makers and better able to get along with other people.”

Being able to work with and communicate with others is often critical to overcoming challenges.

Christy Whipple, the head of school at Newport Montessori and mother of two teenagers, emphasizes the importance of empathy, communication and empowerment for raising resilient kids.

“These are keys to helping kids become what the world would define as resilient,” she said. “It’s a combination of empathy, being good communicators and being conscious of being a global citizen.”

At Newport Montessori, which has students in preschool through eighth grade, children are taught to resolve their own problems from an early age. For the youngest students this might be as simple trying to zip their coats or tie their own shoes before asking for help.

“We’re creating opportunities for them to have ownership over things and developing their sense of confidence and self-worth,” Whipple said. “We do offer to help, but that’s not the first go-to.”

Beginning in first grade, class meetings as well as school assemblies give students a chance to voice any concerns they might have. If a student presents a problem — whether it’s a negative interaction with a peer or something they believe is unsafe at the school — they then ask classmates for suggested solutions. The student who presented the problem is responsible for choosing the solution and evaluating how it works.

“It isn’t just the person bringing the problem up and other people solving it for them,” Whipple said. “The person then owns the solution.”

This approach to problem-solving gives kids agency and ultimately empowers them.

“I don’t think it’s ill-intentioned on any adult’s part, but sometimes kids are dismissed because they’re kids,” Whipple said. “We try to value their opinion and their thoughts, and also give them the time to have their thoughts voiced and heard.”

In the Home

Both Whipple and DiNicola believe that resiliency starts at home. Although parents who are focused on the day-to-day details of raising children might not think much about fostering resiliency, the family culture has a huge impact on how children perceive their ability to overcome challenges.

“My dad was in law enforcement and my mom was a nurse, so when things happened — and things will always happen — I watched my parents go in to help versus panicking or not knowing what to do,” Whipple said. In turn, she has taught her own children and her students to always look for ways to help.

In addition to modeling resiliency, parents need to give kids space to struggle, explore and sometimes get hurt.

“I do believe that by overprotecting, or helicopter parenting, we may not allow kids to build resiliency,” DiNicola said. “I don’t want kids falling down stairs, but they can get a few bumps and bruises.”

When parents — particularly those from higher socio-economic classes — insulate their kids too much from stress or danger, they can actually cause damage in the long run. Research indicates that kids who are overprotected, over-cared for and over-indulged can struggle when faced with difficulties, DiNicola said.

“As soon as something happens in their life, they don’t have the resiliency to get through it.”

Parizo, the Claremont mom, said that she was always open with her kids about her own health issues and other challenges.

“I know they saw me struggle but they always saw me stand back up,” she said. “I want them to know that it’s OK to fall, as long as you get back up and keep trying.”

Of course, no parent wants to watch a child struggle fruitlessly, so creating realistic expectations is important. That way, children learn that they can achieve their goals. If a child does something new or praiseworthy, point that out, but don’t overdo it, DiNicola said.

“If you see something that is unique, rewarding them is great, but the next 14 times it’s not necessary,” he said.

Kids should also experience the natural consequences of their actions.

Rather than driving a middle schooler’s gym clothes to school when she forgets them, parents should let her face the consequences from the teacher, for example.

Sometimes, the natural consequence, especially for older teens, might be losing some of the trust they had gained from their parents, something Whipple has talked about with her own kids.

“Certainly there have been times where they made a less than desirable choice, but those consequences that came were natural consequences,” she said. “Disciplining in that way promotes positive self-worth. It’s not to demoralize. It’s not a power play that I’m the parent and you’re the child.”

Rural Resilience

Many people who live in rural areas like to think of themselves as resilient. After all, they often encounter situations where they must rely on themselves to get out of trouble.

However, DiNicola said that growing up in a rural setting has both benefits and drawbacks for developing resiliency.

In an area like the Upper Valley, it’s easy for kids to develop mastery.

Whether it’s milking cows, learning to ski at a young age or knowing different types of flora and fauna, many kids in Vermont and New Hampshire can confidently name something they’re good at.

It can be more difficult to have strong connections to the community, however.

Recalling his own time playing basketball with the neighbor, DiNicola pointed out that kids and teens in rural areas often feel isolated.

“That’s difficult to do if you live out in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “When kids in (rural areas) are in trouble because they don’t have the supports they need, it’s more difficult for them to have that community that is so important while growing up.”

In these cases, parents can help children intentionally seek out relationships or mentorships that might happen by circumstance in a more densely populated area.

As our society becomes more aware of the importance of fostering resiliency, adults can help children and teens strengthen areas where their connections may be lacking.

In fact, Collins said that teachers in his district have requested more training on the topic of fostering resilience.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that most children are naturally able to navigate challenges and changes quite well, Whipple said.

“In my experience, kids tend to be extremely resilient.”