By Lillian Henricks, PsyD.
At the recent Colorado Association of Gifted and Talented conference Drs. Amy Graefe and Jenny Ritchotte from UNC spoke on how families can contribute to the resilience of their gifted children. This resonates deeply with an understanding of resilience as a strength that develops and is sustained in relationships rather than in isolation. It is encouraging that supporting children to access their own resources and strengthening our relationship with our children can work in tandem.
Teaching resilience within the context of relationships emerges in What Parents Need to Know About Children, by Stan Ferguson. He highlights how affirming but non-evaluative presence and attention respects and elicits a child’s inborn self-agency. What children really need is “to be simply noticed, appreciated for who they are right now.” Our attention communicates to them their worth and value; their perception of our delight, interest and enjoyment bolsters their sense of self.
Practically speaking this means taking time to just notice what your child is doing. Ferguson describes a twelve year old boy, reluctant to talk, who is playing video games. After some time of quietly observing nearby, Ferguson began commenting on the boy’s strategy. Ferguson did not praise, criticize, question or give advice; he did note moves, developments, challenges, efforts and outcomes. The boy eventually started to open up and interact with Ferguson.
Deliberately refraining from praise, criticism, or questions can also enhance how we listen to our children. We cannot enact this all the time, of course, but we can sometimes be more intentional about observing and commenting on our children’s experiences as they unfold. This unobtrusive focus can help deepen and extend the child’s experience, whereas telling the child that something is good or bad can truncate that experience. Alternatively, we can unwittingly shape a child’s experience if the child changes courses to please us based on our positive or negative reinforcement.
Another opportunity to refrain at times is when a child asks for help in doing something that he or she could conceivably do independently with practice, effort or perseverance. Ferguson describes how hard it was for him to do this the first time with his own daughter. She was trying to get a plastic dart gun to work. Painfully, Ferguson did not show her how to work it, but rather “puzzled” with her, wondering aloud how it works. Over time he was able to rejoice with her after she figured it out all by herself.
It’s a balancing act to know when to intervene with our children and when to let things develop naturally with the support of our presence and non-evaluative attention. We certainly don’t want to increase unhealthy frustration. However, we can persevere in trying to strike a healthy balance, knowing that we and our children are both growing through the process.