The Resilient Child: When to Help and When to Hold Back

When psychologists invented the concept of the resilient child, they were talking about kids from poor neighborhoods who overcame adversity.


But if you grow up on the North Shore, adversity of that kind is hard to come by.

Many of us help our kids so much that they never learn how tough, how determined and how resourceful they can be on their own.

It took me a long time to learn when to help and when to hold back,” says Marilyn (a patient’s mom), talking about her son Mark. But it’s clear she has the proportions right: Mark is truly a resilient child.

Most of the kids who attend Winnetka schools perform well above the national average. Mark, who is developmentally delayed with multiple learning challenges, doesn’t. In most subjects he is among the lowest 25 percent, unless he’s being tested in language skills when he’s among the lowest 10 percent.  Many children, confronted with the overwhelming superiority of other children’s skills, would simply give up. Instead Mark works to achieve his personal best.

“We have expectations for Mark that challenge his abilities but don’t overwhelm them,” Marilyn says. “We remind him of what he does well.”

Mark sees that he’s always the one getting special help inside and outside of school—but with his family’s encouragement he’s great about it. He feels good about doing what’s hard for him, and he’s living up to his potential in a way that only a handful of students—of any ability—ever do.

“Sometimes Mark says, ‘I wish I were with kids who know what I’m going through,’” says Marilyn. “He has a lot of friends who probably have no idea of how hard he has to work. But because Mark’s comfortable with himself, it’s easy to be with him.”

The measure of Mark’s resiliency is that he wakes up every morning ready for the fight.

“Think of the qualities of character that develop when nothing comes easily,” Marilyn says. “If they tested social skills the way they do academic ones, he’d be in the 99th percentile. And for tenacity and determination he’s off the charts. I look at my kid and think, ‘Nothing he encounters later in life is going to stop him.”

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