This Grandma Now Thinks We can Build Resilience in Our Grandchildren

resilienceThis Grandmother is a child of Holocaust survivors. As adolescents and young adults, my parents survived horrors that are unbelievable even today. I also consider myself a survivor. I survived my parents’ nightmares and daymares, learning too young the evils of man.

I consider myself resilient and as an educator and professional dealing with children and families for forty years, I look for resilience in children as a sign of their survival when confronted with the hardships of life. I look for resilience in my grandchildren for the same purpose. It was not until I read an article in the New York Times and the abstract of the study upon which it reported did I come to the conclusion, that like much of what we are learning about child development, that resilience, as well as other traits, is probably a combination of nature and nurture, genetics and environment.

This Grandma comes from strong survivor stock. My mother was the only survivor of her entire village. My father survived the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Treblinka uprising. I survived their survival of those horrific experiences. Nurture can be survival of those who bring you up, not necessarily the “warm and fuzzy” kind of nurture. Sometimes it is hard to hug the one you love who has just had a psychotic episode writhing on the floor yelling about killings of children and begging out loud, “don’t kill me,” when you are four years old.

None of us want our grandchildren to have tough childhood experiences that seem to breed resilience. So, then, how did I come to believe we Grandmas can instill resilience without attendant tough childhood experiences?

First, yes, I think there is something to genetic resilience. There seems to be a base line we may not be able to control. We can see it as early as the newborn who can sleep peacefully anywhere with any amount of noise and commotion versus the high strung crier. But, can we assist genetics? I think yes. My reading of a study of people of an average age of 69 leads to me to this conclusion.

September 12, 2014, in the on line New York Times, in “Tougher Than They Look,” author Paula Span gives us information on a new study measuring resilience, their definition of resilience, and said:

Resilience, the subject of a large-scale study published recently in The Gerontologist, reminds me of what a Supreme Court justice once said of pornography: It’s hard to define, but we know it when we see it. . . .

When I spoke with the new study’s lead author, Lydia Manning, a gerontologist at Concordia University Chicago, she took a stab at a simple definition of resilience: “How people manage adversity and hardship over the life course.” Often, she said, they talk about learning this trait, this sense of themselves as people who can negotiate obstacles, from tough experiences earlier in life.

Scientists have been writing and thinking about resilience for several decades. Now, in Dr. Manning’s study of 10,753 people (average age: almost 69) drawn from three waves of the national Health and Retirement Study, “we’re starting to measure it,” Dr. Manning said – “as squishy and fuzzy a concept as it is.”

To do that, the team devised and validated a simplified scale of 12 items, based on how strongly subjects agreed or disagreed with statements like: “When I really want to do something, I usually find a way to succeed at it,” and “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life.” Also included were statements like, “If something can go wrong for me, it will,” and “There is really no way I can solve the problems I have.”

Over two years, 11 percent of this sample developed a new chronic condition: heart or lung disease, stroke, psychiatric problems, cancer. These can be devastating. Yet the higher people scored on the resilience scale, the less likely this new obstacle was to disable them.

Then, this Grandma went to the actual abstract of the study in The Generontologist, published July 25, 2014, “Do Higher Levels of Resilience Buffer the Deleterious Impact of Chronic Illness on Disability in Later Life?,” by Lydia K. Manning, PhD, of the Department of Gerontology, Concordia University-Chicago, Illinois; Dawn C. Carr, PhD, Stanford Center on Longevity, California; and Ben Lennox Kail, PhD, Department of Sociology, Gerontology Institute at Georgia State University, Atlanta.

The purpose of the study was to examine “the ability of resilience, or the ability to navigate adversity in a manner that protects well-being, to buffer the impact of chronic disease onset on disability in later life, the authors tested 2 hypotheses: (a) People with greater levels of resilience will have lower levels of disability and (b) resilience will moderate the association between the onset of a new chronic condition and subsequent disability.”

The researchers “used a sample of 10,753 Americans between the ages of 51 and 98, . . . .over a 2-year period using a simplified resilience score.” The results showed that “resilience protects against increases in ADL and IADL limitations that are often associated with aging. Resilience mitigates a considerable amount of the deleterious consequences related to the onset of chronic illness and subsequent disability.” They concluded: “Our results support our hypotheses and are consistent with claims that high levels of resilience can protect against the negative impact of disability in later life.”

Okay, the implications of the study give us a reason to know resilience is a good thing, but the questions they asked are the real clue to what researchers and journalists think they cannot define– building resilience.

Without any intentional awareness, by review of this study, I think my survivor parents built up my resilience with the vocabulary they used and how they spoke to us when we faced adversities, small and large. I built resilience in our children and continue to do so in our grandchildren, without the attendant difficult childhood experiences. I just did not realize it until now.

Reflecting on vocabulary and conversation with children and grandchildren, that comes from my survivor parents, I remember specific confidence building statements they made and their refusal to accept adversity as a barrier to success. When my oldest was two and said she could not do something, I said, “you are capable, yes, you can do it.” Yes, I used the word, “capable.” To a two year old, as a word I remember clearly from my childhood. And I continue to do so with the youngest grandchild who a few weeks ago said he could not put on his own shoes. I told him, “you are capable, yes, you can do it.” Yes, I used the word, “capable.” To a three year old. My parents’ vocabulary to me instilled that I could overcome any adversity. There was no doubt in their voice, tone or body language. There is no doubt in my voice, tone, or body language.

Have I been unintentionally building resilience? I now think so. “When I really want to do something, I usually find a way to succeed at it,” and “I have a sense of direction and purpose in life,” are the questions the researchers in the study asked of the subjects. The answers reflected how well the subjects could overcome adversity. The positive I-can-do attitude, focus, direction and purpose in life we CAN pass on to our grandchildren. We need to emphasize, “you can,” “you will,” “you are able,” “you are capable,” with our grandchildren. . . that they can, they will, they are able, they are capable–they shall have the resilience to overcome the adversities of life. And mean it with all of our heart and soul.

To this Grandma how resilient our grandchildren are, how they manage adversity and hardship over the life course, their ability to navigate adversity in a manner that protects their well-being, is a combination of genetics enhanced by environment. We can build resilience in our grandchildren. The benefits are clear–into old age even.

 

Joy,

 

Mema

 

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