Trauma Vs. Setbacks

Resiliency is one of the most popular "buzz words" in today's psychological discourse, and there's no doubt why: We're finding that resilient children make resilient adults -- and resilient adults can cope better with life's disappointments (which, lets's face it, are many).

As a therapist in Honolulu, I'm asked by parents how they can create more resilient children, especially since more resilient children tend to be less at risk of anxiety and depression, two disorders which have spiked in children and teens in the past ten or so years.

So, I try to talk with them about setbacks vs. trauma -- and why one can be constructive and one can be destructive.

Trauma would be considered a life-altering event or series of events...those that cause an intense biological and psychological response. Surviving a destructive earthquake may be considered trauma, as well as repeated childhood abuse.

What's confusing is that some children rebound just fine from either or both, but other children show a propensity for lifelong psychological disorders due to the spike in stress chemicals and/or repeated distress (we still don't know exactly why some are OK and other's aren't).

As a clinician, I never recommend exposing children to trauma, if it can be avoided.

However, setbacks are different. Setbacks are less intense events that cause a manageable amount of distress. Maybe doing poorly on a math test would qualify. Or not making the high school football team. Nearly all children SHOULD be exposed to these as much as possible because these are resiliency-makers. The more setbacks you survive, the more confidence you'll have that future disappointments won't be a big deal.

By the way, setbacks are good for grown-ups, too!

So, when parents ask me how to shield their children from anxiety and depression, I actually advise them to make sure they're exposed to as many disappointments as possible! And, yes, I get quite a few looks assuming I'm a bit crazy.

But, we know from research that setbacks are good for us. So good, in fact, that if you want to raise children who can withstand distress, it's important to make sure they're exposed to it as much as possible in small doses.


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