A sure sign of Fall…students wearing brightly colored backpacks. While these backpacks may look like the backpacks we remember carrying, many not only hold the requisite pencils and notebooks but also serve as body armor for kids. Bullet proof backpacks are one of the best selling backpacks this fall. In colors like bubblegum pink and teal, they are no longer the bailiwick of survivalists or militia-focused fringe groups. These bulletproof backpacks are being purchased by parents by the thousands fearful for the safety of their children as they send them off to school. As understandable as this fear is, I can’t help but wonder what message we are sending by outfitting children as young as five years old with bulletproof backpacks? Will our best intentions to keep our children safe actually have the unintended consequences? Research tells us yes. Anything that increases their fear and anxiety may hinder the development of their resilience when difficult times come again in their lives.
Resilience is defined as an ability to recover from or adjust to adversity or change. One sign of stress is a heightened reaction to fear. This amplified reaction decreases the ability to see choices or options in situations and the ability to develop resilience.
A parent of a first grader recently told me the story of her daughter riding the school bus for the first time. After watching her daughter tentatively getting on the bus, the mom spent the day fearful that her daughter had been upset and anxious about this new experience all day at school. However much to her surprise when the bus arrived back home, the jubilant first grader hopped off the bus and proudly said “Mom! I did it I rode the bus by myself…I was really scared but I did it”. One of the characteristics of resilient or stress hardy people is their ability to work with fear differently. They experience fear, but also understand that they are not alone in feeling this emotion and feel a sense of challenge. This is responsive fear and it can connect us with others by recognizing our shared experience. Reactive fear isolates and separates us from community. How do we help children shift from being more responsive and less reactive when considering how they deal with fear? Here are some simple ways to begin:
Develop routines — Kids and adults under stress respond positively to knowing what to expect. Establishing weekday rituals at an early age will allow children to anticipate and feel a sense of security and internal control. Routines can be also foster a sense of connection and community with others involved with the same routine—at home and at school. Post a simple calendar and involve your child in adding to it or establish a daily check in asking, “What made you laugh, scared, grateful…”
Help others — Responsive fear can be a driver of community and connection. Fred Rogers once said, “When I was a boy and I saw scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers, you will always find people who are helping’.” As you look for the helpers, also be one of the helpers. Resilience is built by navigating challenging situations. Finding ways to control a situation by being a helper is powerful for children and adults. How can you and your child help others in a tangible way? Volunteer with your child at a food pantry. Plant bulbs to bloom in spring – a sure sign of resilience. Provide pet food, towels and toys at an animal shelter.
Tell, read and listen to stories of resilience together— Sharing stories of adversity, fear, courage, failure and successes are part of many cultures. Storytelling is a way of passing on skills of resilience to the next generation. What stories can you tell of a time you met with adversity? Consider books that have small, or unlikely heroes that persevere through adversity, such as The Little Engine that Could for younger children, or series such as Redwall by Brian Jacques for tweens.
As we begin a new school year, let’s acknowledge our very real fear for our children’s safety, but instead of equipping our children with bulletproof backpacks, let’s work toward increasing and supporting resilience in our kids and ourselves.