Tag Archives: Resilience


She is kind of family in a far-fetched way, this little girl I have known since she was one. At that age, she was hanging on her extremely obese mother, crying out loud when she saw new faces. Her life was chaotic with no structure and the social services were already engaged.

At two I got to see a little more of her because she stayed with her grandmother in a house beside our summer house. Still anxious around new people, she spoke only a few words. Nevertheless, once she got used to us, she was happy to participate in family life: played with pots on the floor, slept in her pushchair on our walks, and sat in our knees.

Of course I worried: is it fair to give her all this love and attention for a few weeks and then disappear from her life once again? But I convinced myself that it’s better with as much love and attention as possible, than indifference. Maybe she would store it somewhere and use it when most needed.

By the third summer her life had become even more chaotic: her parents had divorced, she experienced poverty, moves, and moves again. But preschool had done wonders to her development and I was no longer that worried about her cognitive abilities. She was not afraid of us anymore and for many long summer mornings – when her grandmother was not well enough to get out of bed – she was with us. Our children treated her as a little sister. They told her stories, painted her nails, and took her on discovery walks. More love for her to store for worse times.

The beauty of being able to give, what you yourself have gotten, struck me as I watched my children engage with her. I remembered the Hungarian story of the old woman who found a kid (as in baby deer) with a broken leg and took it home to cure it. Her dog and cat befriended the little animal, just as they themselves once had been taken to heart by the old woman.

Those worse times came for the little girl soon after that third summer. Her mother had committed suicide – luckily on the week when she was with her father. Although the little girl didn’t have to find her mother dead she was taken to the morgue to see her. She was prepared by her hand being put to the porcelain sink in the bathroom to show her how cold her mother would feel like.

With no mother and a father with cognitive difficulties I was sure the social services would opt for out-of-home placement. We would then have some big decisions to make. But rather than doing so, massive supports were planned and put into place, albeit pretty half-heartedly. There was also some family back-up, but most of all, the wondrous preschool personnel, who brushed her teeth, treated her eczema, and had extra clean clothes and breakfast prepared for her.

On this fourth summer she recognised us right away. Apparently she told her grandmother that I had missed her and marched right over to our house. She is now here as much as she can. Says yes to everything: water colouring, swimming, even brushing her teeth. She remembers our bicycle adventure from last year and asks to go again and again. She has all her twenty nails painted by my daughters and chatters on all day long.

She eats anything I put in front of her; we bake berry pies, prepare meat balls, and cut fruit sallads. My son is duly jealous of someone taking on the role of the youngest, but is gentle and kind with her and tries to show off his reading skills.

But the one thing she can’t really do is actually to focus when being read to. Already at four she knows Daddy cannot read so well so of course there is no regular reading at bed-time. But wise as she is she knows that learning is valued in our house. So she asks to be taught to write her name and makes me read out loud all the numbers on the jetty, marking the places for the boats. We find her own number there: “4”. She follows it carefully with her finger.


I watch her with amazement; where does she get it from? This appetite for life, this sucking in of love and whatever good things life pleases to give her. The odds are terrible: early attachment disorder, poverty, parental loss, intellectual disability in her genes, inadequate home environment in her epigenome.

And yet, something tells me she will make it. Her resilience leaves me in awe and makes me wonder if we as a society are not underutilizing children’s ability to overcome challenges in our efforts to keep them happy and safe.

Knowing when to let go

“He climbed up there, he’ll get down”, the mother shouted from the bottom of the stairs in the Children’s Hospital. She turned back to her friend and the member of the hospital staff in the stairs and I looked at each other. I offered the child my finger to help him down, but he gave me a terrified look so I just lingered around to catch him in case he fell. The stairs were way too high for a child his age, made of white stone, hard and edgy. The little boy had huge curls surrounding his face and dark brown eyes, conveying no trust in this world. When he had landed safely I continued up the stairs. The staff member rolled her eyes: “Interesting parenting you see around here sometimes”. The scene made me depressed for the rest of the morning.

Teaching a child to learn the consequences of its actions is a core task in parenting. It is a fine line parents need to walk – when to support individuation and let the child experience the consequences of their choices and when to shield them from their own immaturity. It takes sensitivity, afterthought, and a lot of trial and error to know when to let go, when the child is ready to understand the concept of consequences.

Logical consequences is a specific strategy in the Positive Parenting Program, Triple P, but several parenting programs have similar tools. Its purpose is to help children experience consequences of their behaviour in a predictable way. So if two children fight over a toy or device despite the parents asking them to start sharing instead or the toy will go away, the object indeed goes away for five minutes. Logical consequences make sense to the child and are closely related in time to the inadequate behaviour, helping the child make the link. A logical consequence can also be shorter time for play because of time spent whining instead of getting ready or not being able to go shopping with a friend because of missed homework that has to be done.

A logical consequence for the little boy in the stairs for not listening should have been to sit in the pram. In fact, given that he was only about 18 months the best choice would probably have been to distract him with something else or why not walk with him a couple of times, telling him that mommy will be busy later on and he can be a good boy playing with some toys after the walks in the stairs. There was no logic to the consequence of possibly letting him fall.

At times, however, children will and should fall. A book that provoked a lot of debate in Sweden problematized the consequences of what was termed “curling parenting”, a Swedish version of alleged overprotective parenting where the path is cleared for children, as the ice is swept clean in the sport of Curling by the Sweepers for the granite stone to glide as smoothly as possible. The authors Carl Lindgren and Frank Lindblad argued that in parents’ efforts to protect their offspring from injuries and negative experiences, the children were left without resilience for the normal challenges of life.

Given the links between overprotective parenting and fearfulness and anxiety in children (Rapee, 2009), they seem to have a point. Of course children who are temperamentally inhibited, less sociable and more fearful of new situations, might elicit this type of parenting when they are toddlers. So the causal pathway could go either way, but being overprotective certainly does not improve these children’s bravery or resilience.

To be honest, I tend to be pretty protective of the children. Helmets, sunscreen, and life vests are non-negotiable and they are all tired of hearing me talk about never going anywhere with strangers. But I like to exercise “controlled risk”, as in letting them walk on their own to the store and back, secretly checking on them or biking behind the bus when they are riding it on their own for the first time to school. I hate letting them go to camp or downtown with friends, but I do, because I figure that is part of being a good parent. And because my husband tells me not to be such a mother hen…

But I have to stop myself from making up all kinds of terrible scenarios in my head and something in me will not settle until the kids are all back and sound asleep in their beds so I can peep in and listen to their even breathing. That will, of course not be like that forever, because we have to let go of our children: the question is only  when and how.