Hurricane Irma brought three different clients into my office with three different traumatic scenarios. In Sarasota, we essentially escaped the eye of the hurricane as it went through the land (east of us) rather than in the Gulf, which would have pushed all of the water toward many of our houses. Still, we had families living by creeks in surrounding counties losing houses due to significant flooding. There was more damage in southern cities like Ft Myers and Naples but the worst damage and most needed recovery has been in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. One thing I've seen as a result of the hurricane is that some relationships fell apart under the extreme pressures. When fear is extreme, and life seems horrifying, it is during these times when the strength of relationships emerge. When things are toughest such as a natural disaster, this is when relationships can endure and persevere because of the invested love capital. It is also true that sometimes, the ugliness of a relationship shows itself under extreme conditions. We've had couples pull away out of fear and come limping into therapy. Relationship crisis can result in a double trauma - the trauma from the natural disaster and the relationship turmoil.
As I have tried to help couples and individuals rebound from hurricane trauma, I have tried to think about some of the keys to preparing youth for relationship growth - bounce-back ability, resilience, and endurance in the face of adversity. One of the interesting aspects of my work with veterans is that some individuals return from combat tours with post-traumatic stress disorder. Others return with what is called post-traumatic growth. There is extensive research on the underlying variables that influence disorder over growth, such as pre-existing trauma, duration and intensity of trauma, maladaptive child events, history of abuse and or neglect, and various other factors. For the purposes of this article [which only touches on the surface of these issues], there are several factors that also precipitate post-traumatic growth. Some of these are intact family systems, strong family support, and the development of personal strengths such as grit and resilience. Another factor is the enhanced ability to shape one's narrative putting language to experience. Post-traumatic growth is measured by a Post-Traumatic Growth Inventory (PTGI) (Journal of Traumatic Stress, 1996). It measures positive responsiveness in such areas as appreciation of life, relationships with others, new possibilities in life, personal strength, and spiritual change. As I reviewed this list of five things that measure growth, it occurred to me that these are great food for thought at family dinners.
Families in Kansas sit down during dinner and discuss tornado plans. Families in Florida sit down during dinner and discuss hurricane plans. Is it the discussions that bring out the best in people when they come face to face with the adversity of life, whether it be a natural disaster, cancer, loss of a loved one, or other heartbreaking disappointments every teenager comes across? Certainly, there is nothing like real life that teaches us, but preparation makes a huge difference.
Of course, most of life is ordinary with the hustle and bustle of school, family events, day-to-day scheduling, and extra-curricular activities. And, we know that slowing down and smelling the roses is key for our lives as parents, because kids grow up so fast. Yet, there is a key question I like to ask of families: how do we prepare our kids to deal with the adversities of life? How do we prepare them to face the hazards of (1) getting rejected by their top college choice, (2) relationship backstabbing, (3) cyberbullying, (4) social media stress, (5) various failures, (6) disappointments in academics, sports, personal set-backs (7) being let down by us - their parents, and the list goes on. What can we learn about our natural disaster dinner talks and apply to our life preparation? As much as we would like to, protecting our kids from life adversity doesn't work. Have you ever taken a plant out of the protections of the green house and planted it in an outdoor setting? Plants subjected to outdoor temperature changes don't do as well. Less concentrated carbon dioxide, increased pest exposure, and other factors make it difficult. Over-protecting our kids from life adversities doesn't work so well. But, we can prepare our teens for the adversity that awaits.
In my up-coming book You Are Your Child's Best Psychologist: 7 Keys to Excellence in Parenting, I provide a number of key steps to develop strengths in kids. One of those sets of steps are the six steps in overcoming fear of embarrassment. Among many reasons, embarrassment is problematic because it causes kids to not take risks (i.e. give a speech in front of the class), experience increased anxiety, and avoid difficult situations. This avoidance makes them vulnerable in the face of adversity because the avoidance actually reinforces the anxiety. Essentially, one of the ways we help kids overcome fear of embarrassment, which is an epidemic, is through exposure of embarrassing stories. By exposing kids to embarrassing stories and discussing how they would tolerate the discomfort, their tolerance and fearlessness can begin to grow. Of course, nothing shapes them like actually being embarrassed and learning how to be unafraid of embarrassment, but PREPARATION makes a difference. This starts at the dinner table.
On a more broad scale, how can our kids flourish in the face of adversity? How can we have a teenager who grows up and their relationships don't break down in the face of a shaky event in life like some of those I'm seeing after the hurricane? How can we help our kids flourish and grow after trauma? How can growth, as opposed to disorder, shine and thrive in the lives of our youth? There is no denying it, our kids will face adversity. How can we prepare them? It starts at the dinner table.
by Dr. Daniel van Ingen
Author of Anxiety Disorders Made Simple: Treatment Approaches to Overcome Fear & Build Resiliency and the upcoming book You Are Your Child's Best Psychologist: 7 Keys to Excellence in Parenting,