The Power of One Person to Build "Bounce-Back" Kids
"What can I do, I'm just a mom (or a grandma...or an uncle...or one teacher)?" is a common lament. Fortunately, the resiliency research strongly challenges the mistaken belief that any single person can't have much impact in a young person's life in the face of the negative forces of media and peer pressure, or even in the face of child abuse, neglect, or other trauma.
I, too, used to think I didn't have much power to make a difference when I was working as a social worker in the 1980s. I was leading "support groups" for middle school and high school students experiencing a wide variety of stressors. Due to budgetary and other limitations, the groups lasted only one school term, and met only one time a week. I used to ask myself most weeks, "What good can one hour in a group do when those kids have to go back to their environments of negative peer pressure, family dysfunction and abuse, other adults in their lives that label and judge them, or back to neighborhoods of poverty and crime?" What I didn't understand then, but do understand now, is the potent power of protective conditions that can be provided by any and all caring adults. Looking back, I realized I instinctively filled those groups with the six primary protective conditions I have since synthesized from resiliency research. (See chapter two of Part One of my book for a detailed list of protective conditions, and a diagram of The Resiliency Wheel.) Those six protective conditions are:
o Provide caring and support;
o Provide high (but realistic) expectations for success;
o Provide opportunities for meaning participation;
o Provide pro-social bonding (to positive activities, people, organizations, etc.)
o Provide clear and consistent boundaries; and
o Provide life skills training (such things as healthy conflict resolution, setting and achieving a goal, healthy refusal and other communication skills, study skills, etc.)
One Person Can Foster Resiliency Even In the Face of Adversity
The truth about the power of protective factors is this: Even though we as caring adults cannot eliminate all the "risk factors" in a child's life, we can-in whatever time we have-fill that child's life with protective conditions. Protective factors buffer and mitigate the impact of the "negatives" in a child's life, and propel children towards resilient, healthy outcomes. This is the power that every parent, extended family member, educator, counselor, neighbor, or caring adult has in the life of a young person. We are "agents of protective factors in their lives". Many researchers have documented the power of even one such agent to turn a child's life towards a resilient outcome, even in the face of enormous adversity (Benard, 2004, Werner & Smith, 1992, Wolin & Wolin, 1993, Wolin & Wolin, 1994).
In my own life, that one person was an extended family member, my grandmother. Werner (2003) also notes that in her research, "Teachers and school were among the most frequently encountered protective factors for children...From grade school through high school and community college, resilient youngsters encountered a favorite teacher who became a positive role model for them." She adds, "Even among child survivors of concentration camps, a special teacher had a potent influence on their lives, provided them with warmth and caring, and taught them 'to behave compassionately'"(p.vii).
I had the opportunity a few years ago to talk with Emmy Werner about my personal resiliency and my recognition that I might not have had such a resilient outcome from a childhood filled with great pain and adversity had it not been for my grandmother, Mary Sue Iverson. Interestingly, she was both my grandmother and, for 50 years, a public school teacher. At the time Emmy and I talked about my grandmother, we were driving through the rust-colored Native American lands of New Mexico, exploring the ancient cultures there which, unlike many modern cultures, understood and honored the power of grandparents and the extended tribe or clan.
Perhaps more forcefully than she has written about in her research reports, Emmy offered her opinion that grandmothers (and grandfathers) are significant contributors to resilient outcomes for many, and she was very interested in the information I shared about my own grandmother.
Born in 1900, my grandmother was the strongest person I have known, yet also the most consistently nurturing person I have ever known. I am certain her career as a public school teacher, which began at age 19 in a one-room schoolhouse in Arizona, contributed to the resiliency of many students. Even after she retired at age 69, for years she was the volunteer neighborhood tutor and mentor for dozens of neighbor children. But all I knew as I child was that every week-end, I could hardly wait to get "to grandma's." She was the one that made sure I had the necessary clothing and school supplies, help with schoolwork, appropriate discipline, money, encouragement, belief that I could do whatever I set my mind to do, and-later-college tuition, which enabled me to become the person I am today. She was that "one caring person" that, in Emmy Werner's words, told my brothers and I "we mattered." She did this not so much with her words but through providing bedtime stories each night at her house, countless hours of playing games, regular meals, camping trips, hand-made Halloween costumes, science project tutoring, the safety of her ordered life. Along the way, not in one-time lectures, but in how she lived, she instilled in us the values of what was right and what was wrong. She didn't say it every day, but my brothers and I knew by her daily actions that we were deeply loved-the most powerful protective factor of all.
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