Tips and Strategies to Cultivate, Nurture and Sustain Resilience in Children

Phyllis Fagell believes the concept of resilience is not always clearly understood.

“I think a lot of people when they think about resilience, assume it means that you are so strong, that you never stumble,” says the licensed clinical professional counsellor, certified professional school counsellor, author, and journalist.

“It’s not about being stoic, and pulling yourself up from the bootstraps,” Fagell continues. “In fact, that’s another thing that’s often misunderstood about resilience. You can’t pull yourself up from the bootstraps, if you don’t have boots,” she says.

A mother of three teenagers, 19, 17 and 13 years old, Fagell works as a school counsellor at an elementary school in Washington, DC. She is also in private practice as a therapist with a clientele of children, adolescents and adults.

Phyllis Fagell - Lianne Castelino - building resilience in children interview

Phyllis Fagell, mom, school counsellor, therapist and author discusses resilience and more with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk 

During an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk, Fagell put her multi-lens perspective on resilience — offering strategies for parents to help them cultivate, build and grow resilience in children — whether during a global pandemic or not.

“I think what is different right now is that it’s so organic,” she says referring to how resilience education appears to be unfolding during a worldwide public health emergency.

“In pre-pandemic times. I think a lot of social emotional programs would have taught skills like focusing on agency, what can you do in a situation, problem-solving skills, focusing on helping kids manage disappointment — but not in the way that we have to do it right now,” says Fagell.

In her role as a school counsellor, Fagell says she’s made several observations about how resilience skills can often manifest in students, and especially during a historic time.

“What I’ve really noticed is that kids are taking their cues from their parents,” she says. “The level of distress they’re in doesn’t necessarily correlate with how difficult their home life is, or with the trauma they’ve experienced in the past. In fact, kids who have had to deal with struggles, maybe a learning challenge, maybe a move or frequent moves, if their family is in the military, or something along those lines, actually, in many ways are doing better, because they have had to work on some of these skills in the past. Meanwhile, kids who were straight A students might suddenly find that this is the first time that they’re struggling in school.”

Middle School Matters BookOn the subject of ‘loss’ during this pandemic, Fagell, a frequent contributor to The Washington Post, holds an opinion that goes against the grain. She believes that while children may have fallen behind in certain scholastic areas, learning has continued in different and sometimes even more profound ways.

“The whole narrative of learning loss actually is counterproductive to our end goal,” she says. “They’ll catch up eventually. I am not saying that they haven’t missed school or they haven’t missed content. If our goal is for them to reacquire or to acquire that information, we need to do what we can to set them up for success. I think kids are learning that you can go through hard times and come out on the other side, changed but maybe even still stronger for your struggles. ”

During her video interview with Where Parents Talk, Phyllis Fagell also discusses:

  • Mindful parenting and its value
  • Life skills children have learned during the pandemic
  • Moral courage
  • Her own pandemic parenting experience at home
  • The importance of role-modelling
  • Why critical thinking is a key life skill to teach children
  • “Realistic optimism”
  • Her book: “Middle School Matters: The 10 Key Skills Kids Need to Thrive in Middle School and Beyond, and How Parents Can Help”

Click for video transcription


Welcome to Where Parents Talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a mother of three teens, a licensed clinical professional counsellor, certified professional school counsellor, author, and journalist.
Phyllis Fagell is currently a full time counsellor at an elementary school in Washington, DC. And she is also in private practice as a therapist for children, adolescents, and adults.
She joins us from her school in Washington. Thank you so much for being here today.

Thanks for having me.

There’s so many things that we could talk about with your very broad lens on parenting topics. But I really wanted to focus today on resilience. Why is it that you believe that resilience is often misunderstood?

I think a lot of people when they think about resilience, assume it means that you are so strong that you never stumble. But actually what resilience is, is having the ability to put one foot in front of the other, even when you do fall apart. And such a huge part of that is being able to ask for help. And so it’s not about being stoic, and you know, pulling yourself up from the bootstraps. In fact, that’s another thing that’s often misunderstood about resilience. You can’t be resilient, if you don’t have you can’t pull yourself up from the bootstraps if you don’t have boots. So the most resilient child in the world is going to struggle if they don’t have safe housing if they don’t have food. So I think those are some of the more common misperceptions about resilience.

So in a nutshell, how would you go about defining resilience?

To me, all of us, and I love the research that shows that everyone, adults kids goes through three to five, what the author Bruce feiler, calls life quakes over the course of their lifetime. And those life quakes, which are these traumas or major disruptions that last for three to five years, maybe even more happened to all of us several times in our life, we’re spending 15 to 25 years of our life in transition. And actually what’s happening now as awful as traumatic as upsetting. As, despite all of the loss that’s occurring because of the pandemic. What’s really different about it isn’t that it’s this life quake, it’s that we’re all experiencing it at the same time. And so when I think about resilience, I think about it as helping kids maintain what I would call it realistic optimism, no, really validating that this is hard, helping them get through something that’s hard, not trying to be toxically positive or to dismiss it, but also really help them develop the skills to deal with this kind of a transition in their life, because we know it will serve them much, much later as well.

It’s interesting, have you would you say observed any marked differences in how resilience is taught prior to the pandemic? And now as it is, you know, as we are in this pandemic, and into the 14th month of it, are there any marked differences in how it’s taught?

I think that what is different right now is that it’s so organic, you can’t not teach these skills, you can’t not go through this time period. We are all in it right now. And by the very definition, we’re working on transition skills simply because we are all in transition. We’re all dealing with this change. We’re all dealing with the uncertainty and just the constant flux in kids lives and adults lives. In pre-pandemic times. I think a lot of social emotional programs would have taught skills like focusing on agency, what can you do in a situation problem solving skills, focusing on helping kids manage disappointment, but not in the way that we have to do it right now, it’s a lot easier to work with kids on managing disappointment when they actually are facing it, they can’t have that problem, or they can’t have that end of school graduation or that sleep over or whatever it is. And then there are also those much bigger losses that they’re experiencing. So it’s an opportunity to really hone in on them in a relevant way. Yeah.

As a mother of three teenagers yourself, how do you go about teaching resilience in your own home? And how has that looked different?

Potentially, it’s since this pandemic started. So it’s been really hard, I think, on everybody to have their lives turned inside out and upside down overnight. I would say it’s probably hardest to on my 13 year old. And my theory is that when you’re 13, and he was 11, actually, he just turned 13. So he was 11, when he was first home when the school shutdown when we went into lockdown, and he had never even used a phone, you know, a cell phone. He was not used to talking to kids on social media. He barely knew how to have a face to face conversation that was insightful in person. You know, he was used to roughhousing and playing and his social groups while they had great friends, they were still very much in flux because that’s what’s happening in middle school. Whereas my older teens, they had more independence, they could drive. They had a more firmly established peer group. It was easier for them to make the transition to Online Learning, they were also more independent when it came to learning. That’s not to say that they didn’t struggle. But I did definitely see differences in the age groups. And so for me, I found that to help my kids really, it was kind of a paradox because it was my youngest who needed me the most and who needed the most support. But he was also at an age when he most needed developmentally to pull away and feel independent. And so that was a challenge for me, how could I support him and give him the help that he did need during this time, while not overstepping? Given the fact that the last thing he probably wanted was to spend 24, seven at home with his parents.

And then you have the added perspective of seeing this play out as a school counselor in an elementary school where you are, I’m wondering if you could share some of your, you know, top tips and strategies for parents and how they can build, nurture and sustain resilience in their children.

So I mean, the K through eight, and it’s really interesting to see that the differences among kids in different age groups. And what I’ve really noticed is that kids are taking their cues from their parents, the level of distress they’re in doesn’t necessarily correlate with how difficult their home life is, or with the trauma they’ve experienced in the past. In fact, kids who have had to deal with struggles, maybe a learning challenge, maybe a move or frequent moves, if their family is in the military, or something along those lines, actually, in many ways are doing better, because they have had to work on some of these skills in the past. Meanwhile, kids who were straight A students might suddenly find that this is the first time that they’re struggling in school. And what I have been telling parents to do with their kids is a couple of things. One is to model how you’re managing it. And if you have COVID, brain fog, which is something a lot of kids have as well, or if you are more wiggly, or your attention is off, and maybe you forgot to do something at work, you might come home and you want to be authentic. And you can say I’m really nervous, I blew it, I was supposed to fax this document. And I know my mind can spiral and I can go straight to the worst case scenario. But here’s what I’m going to do. Instead, I’m going to take a deep breath, I’m going to listen to music, or I’m going to go for a run. And tomorrow, I’m going to talk to my boss, I’m going to apologize and see if it’s not too late to send that fax. And so it’s not about hiding our distress or hiding the fact that we’re going through something difficult. It’s about taking them all the way through the journey to the other side, showing them how we’re loving them, making our thinking visible, but also letting them see how we regroup how we recover from that setback. And one of the other things parents can do right now is teach what I would call anticipatory decision making skills. And when you’re facing endless disappointments, I think it’s particularly important that kids have a plan B, or Plan C. So you can say to your child, you’re running for student council, or you are interested in trying out for that travel sports team. What do you want to do if it doesn’t work out? What’s Plan B? What’s Plan C? And what’s something good about Plan B and something good about plansee? Okay, so you didn’t win the election. Alright, so maybe you can join the young activist club, or maybe there’s a cause that you can raise money for. And the goal isn’t to dismiss that disappointment, but it’s to help them get in the habit of developing that cognitive flexibility of figuring out what they need to do to regroup. And to really normalize that this happens over and over again in our lives. And it’s, you know, failure isn’t final, you just, you can regroup and figure out what you need to do to help yourself recover from that setback.

It’s so interesting when you talk about resilience, education that it’s organic, at the fact is is, you know, that looks different in different families. But I’m wondering, do you think that any part of resilience education in the pandemic was long overdue?

Yes, and actually, this may not seem totally intuitive. But I have been thinking a lot about the importance of teaching kids moral courage, as a big component of resilience, and that we all can see in the news that there have been so many distressing events. It’s not that we don’t want kids to be morally courageous and be an upstander and do the right thing all of the time. But what I have found with my students in particular is that the kids who are strong enough to do the right thing, to stand up to somebody who’s being mean to someone else to stand up to bullying, whatever it might be somebody who’s making fun of someone’s culture or background. A few things happen. If they’re able to do that, because they’re so sure that they know the difference between right and wrong. They’re also much less likely to be targeted themselves. And especially as kids are growing up, being able to stand your ground, being able to own your identity, being able to figure out how to respond if someone says something to you. upsetting is a really critical skill. And it’s a it’s a muscle you have to develop. And actually, one of the other strategies I have been talking to parents about is teaching kids how to tell the difference between right and wrong.

I’m actually going to grab a little prop I have here, that is from a, from a, an activity I do, it’s called the values card sort. So if somebody is googling online, you can find a list of values. by googling values card sort, you can then ignore the rest of the instructions that come with it. Because all I do with it is I have a child may have, I don’t know if you can see it, it has a word on it that represents a value might be kindness, respect, solitude, purpose, creativity. And underneath, it has a little description of what it is. And you can sit with your child and have them choose their top 10 values. And once and you can do it alongside them. It’s a really great way without lecturing to share your values too. And once they have those 10 values, have them rank them from one to 10. And think about them, maybe even put them on the wall, put them in a binder somewhere where they can revisit them, they’re going to change over time, and it doesn’t matter what they choose. But the reason I have kids do that exercise is because they have no life experience. And they have no perspective. And they’re going to be faced with a barrage of decision-making, problem-solving choices, ethical dilemmas, and they’re not going to know what to do. And so what I explained to them is that in those situations, someone wants you to give them your homework, someone wants you to skip school, someone wants you to shoplift, someone wants you to lie to your parents, so that you can hang out with them when you were told you couldn’t, when they’re in those situations, and they’re not 100% sure what to do, because they have conflicting needs, they can go back to those core values and say which of these decisions most aligns with my core values. And what I have found is that it gives kids more confidence in their ability to make a good choice. And when they do get it wrong, which is far less frequently, when they have that framework, they can live with that decision, because they understand why they made it.

That is such a wonderful example. And certainly something that most parents could easily do and certainly relate to. You talked earlier about loss. And you know, it This has been described as you know, a year of loss for children and students, the Lost Generation, you are of a different opinion, you don’t see this as loss in that way. Why is that?

When you think about learning loss, you think about this idea that kids are irreparably behind and we should drill and kill them, we should put them in summer school, we should make sure that they catch up. And I think there are two problems with that. The first is that even the kids who seem to be doing very, very well, they’re getting all A’s, they’re handing in all of their work. Even their brains are bathed in stress hormones right now. And I really don’t think that they’re going to retain a ton of what they’ve learned this year. Even if they’ve been super diligent. And from the outside, it looks like they have grasped the material, which means really, that everybody is has the same so called learning loss. Number two is that after a year of toxic stress, kids need to recover. And if we want them to re-engage in learning, if we want them to learn period in the fall, we need to give them a chance to recalibrate, to reset to have their grandparents that they haven’t been able to hug now that they’re vaccinated to play outside with their friends, to do fun things and anticipate things that are exciting in the future. That flatness that I’m seeing, I believe in so many kids is really due to the fact that it’s hard for them to anticipate with excitement, future activities. And that leaks into everything, including school. And so the antidote to that isn’t to drill and kill isn’t to force content on to them right now. It’s to get them back to that state where they are more relaxed, their bodies are relaxed, their minds are relaxed, and they can actually take in that new content. And everybody’s in the same boat. So I think that the whole narrative of the last year or the whole narrative of learning loss actually is counterproductive to our end goal, they’ll catch up eventually, I am not saying that they haven’t missed school or they haven’t missed content, I am just means to an end on this, you know, the, if our goal is for them to reacquire or to acquire that information, we need to do what we can to set them up for success. So on that note, what would you say that they have learned valuable skills that they have learned in this last year? Let’s say it’s not reading, writing and arithmetic, but what has it been instead? Things like sitting with this comfort, things like the importance of asking for help. That is not intuitive for kids, recognizing who makes them happy. As a friend, everybody is so sensitive, and everybody is so needy. And it’s a time when I’ve really been encouraging kids to prune and curate their social network and make sure they’re surrounded by people who lift them up, whatever that might be for them. And it’s going to be different things for different people, they may need to take a break from that friend who is chronically complaining or who sometimes puts them down because they’re vulnerable themselves right now and they need to be really careful about their social environment. So that’s a lesson two, I think kids are learning that you can go through hard times and come out on the other side, changed but maybe even still longer for your struggles. That’s the hero’s journey narrative, which I really love to use with kids anyway, books like wonder movies like Harry Potter books like Harry Potter. Another thing that’s come out of this is perspective. I had a student tell me that this is the first time she realized that relaxing isn’t the same as being less busy. I had another student tell me that this was really the first time she recognized that she was burned out. She had been so stressed and scheduled and structured, working to create a resume that was going to get her she had no idea where she didn’t have any kind of golden mind. And it didn’t make any sense to her. So it was a chance to recover, to reset and to think about what is important to her. Same goes for activities. I’m hoping that when kids go back to some semblance of normalcy, instead of just piling on a million activities, and having every day accounted for and every afternoon failed to pause and think, what is it that’s going to fill my bucket? What is it that I really actually enjoy doing? And do those things?

You know, it’s great to hear you say that, because it’s all very optimistic, and in a sea of negativity, I think, you know, there’s a lot of parents in the thrust of pandemic parenting right now that can certainly use those very hopeful words and strategies for sure. Mindful parenting. Now, that’s something that you are also, you know, an expert on in terms of talking to parents about it. What is mindful parenting and how does one go about that?

So a really interesting question right now. And the pandemic, because mindfulness isn’t, in and of itself is a great set of strategies that you can use with kids to help them sit with that discomfort, which we now recognize is so important. But it doesn’t work for everybody. And for kids who are dealing with significant trauma sitting with their thoughts, which is essentially what mindfulness often is, might be too difficult for them. So we do want to make sure that we’re using mindfulness strategies with the right customers. The other misconception about mindfulness is that it’s all you know, sitting and deep breathing and meditating. And when I do mindfulness with kids, it’s often movement oriented, it might be walking the halls and counting their footsteps, it might be playing catch and counting as you throw the ball back and forth. And seeing if you can get to 101 of the great things about that particular activity is that it turns on the language center of your brain, which turns off that fight, flight or freeze center of your brain. So if you have a kid who’s really explosive at home, sometimes throwing them a ball and having them count as you throw it back and forth, can actually get them to settle down. It’s also fun in relationship building. And I think the best mindfulness strategies incorporate a little bit of a lot of different things, including connecting with the parent. Another way to do that ball activity is with a balloon, you can, if you’re in a smaller space or an apartment, you can try to bat a balloon up in the air. And you can even use the balloon as a metaphor and say that is the thought that’s distressing. You’re batting it away, it will come back and you can bat it away. Again, another set of strategies, though, that I’ve been leaning on more than ever, right now, it is to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. So rather than starting top down and working on their thoughts, which a lot of kids can’t do right now, they’re just so taxed, to really go bottom up or body up and try to calm their body in order to calm their racing brain. One way to do that is to have them take the thumb of one hand and press it underneath the that fleshy part of the thumb on the other. Another way I’ve had students give themselves an eight second hug, at home hugging your child actually can relax their body, because you can do that at home, and they’re so touchstar, I think that’s really important. At school, if they’re having a moment, they can splash water on their face to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. And mindfulness can work at school as well, if they’re in a classroom, and they can’t move, because of all of the restrictions, they can close their eyes for a minute and just focus on all the sounds in the room. Or they can find an object in the room and come up with three adjectives to describe it. That’s another way to turn on that language center of the brain. The key thing is when you’re using mindfulness with your kid, not in a reactive way, but when you’re trying to teach them skills, you want to be explaining to them why they work and what it is because kids are much more responsive if you talk to them as if they’re a little bit older, a little bit more mature than they are. And if you give them the underpinning, if you explain the brain science to them, then they will also feel more in control of it.

It’s so interesting, because something else that has come to the fore in terms of this pandemic, and parenting is the whole idea of critical thinking. You know, in education circles, critical thinking is often associated with the skills that we need to be teaching kids for tomorrow for tomorrow’s jobs in the future. That’s uncertain. But what would you have to say about parents on what is important in critical thinking that they should be teaching their kids and why is this an important skill at home?

You know, the first thing that comes to mind because of the pandemic is that kids are spending so much more time online and they need to know how to separate fact from fiction, they need to know the difference between some guy doing a podcast from his mother’s basement and a peer reviewed journal, and really understand what they’re taking in, because that is going to form their identity, their opinion, their beliefs. And so teaching kids those critical thinking skills are important. I think another way that critical thinking comes into play right now is because everybody is socially more sensitive. And we want them to pause and think about their interactions with their peers right now. So maybe somebody doesn’t invite you over. And it’s somebody in your immediate friend group, and it’s really hurtful. I’ve been having kids come up with five alternative explanations other than that person hates you, and doesn’t want to be your friend for why they didn’t invite you. And it could be that maybe they did send you a text and you didn’t see it. Or maybe they were just all together at track practice, and then organically rolled into plans afterwards. Or maybe they had that you said you were out of town. And I explained to kids, you don’t have to believe those reasons, I just want you to get in the habit of thinking a little bit more critically about what might have been going on in that interaction, so that you don’t go straight to catastrophizing straight to personalizing, because that will make the experience doubly worse. You’ve got the actual feeling like you’re missing out on something. And then you have those spiraling thoughts that make you feel like maybe you’re you’re on vulnerable ground when it comes to your friendships.

It’s interesting, because I imagine a lot of what we’ve discussed today, or certainly elements of it are in your book, which is called Middle School Matters, the 10 key skills kids need to thrive in middle school and beyond, and how parents can help. It was published in 2919, and received all kinds of, of wonderful reviews. What was the impetus for writing that book, Phyllis, and what do you want parents to leave from it?

When I first worked in the middle school, I had only been an elementary in high schools. And it was like a landing on the moon, it was so different. And their needs were so different than the younger kids, and also from the older adolescence. And yet there was very little out there, except for this negative cultural narrative about the phase that kids were internalizing, they were thinking of themselves as mean and drama seeking, they were less likely to assume positive intent, when it came to their friends. Meanwhile, their parents often were taking a step back, because it didn’t seem like their kids wanted them there, they might be bringing their own negative memories to the table. And they’re kind of happy to just sit through this phase and wait till it’s over. When I see it as this unbelievably fertile time to teach values, to impart skills, self-advocacy, to teach them how to make good friend choices to teach them. Everything you can really think of, at this particular time. The reason it’s so magical is because they’re still impressionable, they’re still young enough that they care what their parents think a lot. The power of it, the disappointment of a parent is unbelievably powerful for a middle schooler, but they’re not so old, that they’re and they’re not so old, that they’re jaded. And that they’ve settled into their own beliefs and really pulled away. And they’re also very intelligent, they are capable of absorbing sophisticated ideas. So rather than set it out, I really wanted parents to lean in, and just parent differently to coach them instead of to manage them or tell them what to do. And it’s such a tough line to walk. It’s a really hard transition for parents to make. And so Middle School Matters really is a roadmap for what you can expect during the phase and how you can manage all of those different situations that arise.

So many incredible golden nuggets of wisdom, Phyllis, I’m just wondering, is there anything else that you’d like to add that maybe I haven’t asked you?

You know, I always like to end on a positive note, too. I do think optimism is super critical right now. So I’ll share something that helped me. I was listening to a webinar given by Dr. Ken Ginsberg and he is a developmental pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. And he was talking about the generation that lived through the Great Depression and how they are different than other generations. They’re thrifty. They’re not as materialistic. They really appreciate things that in a way that other generations might take them for granted, they, you know, reuse their tin foil, maybe as an example. And he was saying that, in the same way that that generation was impacted. He thinks this generation of kids, the seeds have been planted for them to value things like venerating elders, connection, hugging a friend, unstructured time, not having a race to nowhere, all of these things that are the building blocks of a happy life that they don’t necessarily acquire without having these hard experiences. And so I’m very hopeful that this generation my kids included, will come out of this with some skills and perspective that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

As an eternal optimist, I’m so happy to end on an optimistic note. Phyllis Fagell, mom of three school counselor, therapist, author and journalist, thank you so much for your time today.

Thank you


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