Some kids are resilient; place them in tough situations and they will (seemingly) do just fine. Resilience is like Bozo the clown, that almost life-sized blow-up creature with sand in its base. Punch him, he rocks, and soon enough, corrects himself, he stands upright again and all is right with the world. So you punch him again. And again. No matter how aggressive you are you can’t knock him over, at least not for long.
Some folks believe Bozo should characterize kids in general. Kids today are too weak, they say, and back in the day were made of sterner stuff. They think kids should take whatever broken glass comes along and keep on moving; stiff upper lip and all that. They think far too much is made of maladjusted children; it seems like so much whining. These folks want life to be simple. Their idea of childhood is stuck in some mythical American past where failure didn’t happen. Just give kids some fresh air, they say, and kids will be fine. Like the nursery rhyme says (almost) leave them alone and they will come home wagging their superior adjustment abilities behind them. But most unhappy kids aren’t resilient. Assuming they should be is just one more indignity the maladjusted child has to deal with.
Too bad its not true. Every kid probably begins life with a capacity for resilience. Many loose it. Spike, the out-of-control ten-year old, lost it. What happened? As with many kids, it isn’t clear what made Spike so unhappy. His parents don’t really know. Spike can’t articulate his feelings nor has he the insight into his own life to be able to tell us. You can’t pinpoint it; there was no single time when somebody beat the crap out of his Bozo. It probably was a series of subtle things that built up. We can guess that life overwhelmed him and he reacted by becoming angrier and angrier.
If Spike were resilient he wouldn’t be Spike. He’d have absorbed the blow(s), whatever they were, righted himself and kept smiling. In order to be resilient, a kid has to maintain a sense of optimism. No one is likely to characterizable Spike as optimistic. In order to maintain a sense of optimism a kid must grab onto someone, probably someone older, as though that person were an anchor. That person can be anyone who is perceived to be strong, reliable, stable and permanent. That person, moreover, really likes the potential Spike, thinks is he is neat, bright, attractive and all the rest. That person is a life preserver that the potential Spikes of this world hang on to while their boat swamps. It allows them to weather all kinds of situations because they know that someone is there for them, no matter what. It can be a grandparent, a neighbor, a teacher, or virtually anyone. They become more than friends. They are a mutual admiration society. They ultimately love one another.
We don’t know but Spike may have tried to reach out when he was just beginning his slide into misery. He may have tried, and no one picked up. He may have tried to find a Mother figure or a father figure. Either one would probably work. The fact that he didn’t find his anchor meant he was at the mercy of events he didn’t understand and could not control. His reactions were instinctive and stereotyped in a way that if he had his anchor, they probably would not have been. So he took control the only way he knew how; by fighting back. It isn’t a fight he can win. His failure to find his anchor probably just made him feel all the more isolated from normal kids. Resilience does not happen by itself. The kid takes an active role in his own rescue. Only those kids who are lucky enough to connect at the right time with someone significant will walk away(more or less) free. He may yet make such a connection. But, he has become so obnoxious and cynical in the meanwhile that he pushes everything away. It makes the outlook for this bit of relief poor. It isn’t too late for members of the extended family or friends of the family to step forward and see if Spike will allow the connection to grow. But they will have to do it in spite of him.
About The Author
Dr. Andrew Gibson was born in Detroit at the close of WWII. He grew up in the midst of farming country in central Michigan. Both parents were teachers. He keeps a picture of his childhood companion, Wags, to this day (you had to see the tail to appreciate the name). After discharge from the Navy after the Viet Name war, he graduated with a BA and MA from San Diego State University and earned his Ph. D from the University of Connecticut. He has taught at Portland State University, n Portland Oregon, at the University of Maine, Presque Isle and at SUNY New Paltz. He resides in Eastern Connecticut, with his wife of 41 years, where he conducts a private practice in parenting seriously difficult children. His book “Got An Angry Kid? Parenting Spike-A Seriously Difficult Child’ is the first of a series examining seriously difficult children at various age and emotional disturbance levels. He invites you to find him on the web at DrAGibson.com.