Low Contact Parks on the Eastside

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[Update on 3/24: The “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” proclamation announced by Gov. Inslee DOES allow for “Engaging in outdoor exercise activities, such as walking, hiking, running or biking, but only if appropriate social distancing practices are used.” I believe this post supports that approach, by offering low-density, no-touch outdoor options. ]

With malls, movie theaters, libraries, and churches closed due to coronavirus, people may be feeling pretty stir crazy and wanting to get out and about. Especially with our beautiful spring weather, we all want to be outside. However, it’s important to be practicing social distancing, keeping at least 6 feet between you and other folks. We’ve seen pictures shared on social media recently about the crowds at Alki Beach, Golden Gardens, and Rattlesnake Ridge.

Those are some of our best known outdoor spaces, so they may be the first thing that come to people’s minds when they think about getting out in nature. But in the Pacific Northwest, we are blessed with so many fabulous public spaces outdoors. Here are some less well known gems to consider for your walks during this time. (Some of these are bike-friendly, some are not: check bike maps for bike trails.)

If a park has a playground you would have to pass by to get to the trails, I’ll make a note, because I know it could be super hard for some little ones to see a playground and be told they couldn’t play there. And please see my note at the bottom about minimizing illness exposure to yourself and to others.

Bellevue

Bellevue Parks has over 2700 acres of parks and open space and over 90 miles of trails! There’s a map of Bellevue Parks here. Some options to consider:

Lake to Lake Trail System is ten miles of trails. You could park at many spots along the way and just do a portion of the walk. The Lake Hills Greenbelt is from Phantom Lake to Larsen Lake. Larsen Lake Blueberry Farm has plenty of room for wandering up and down the rows.

Coal Creek Natural Trail is near the Cougar Mountain trails, but has fewer hikers.

Lewis Creek has a 2.3 mile walk that takes you through wetlands and meadows. (Playground at one end, but easy to avoid.) There’s a 3 mile trail at nearby Lakemont park that I haven’t checked out yet.

Mercer Slough is 320 acres. It’s got multiple trails to hike to view wetlands and meadow.

There are three parks I know of that you might never know had a mile or more of hiking hidden in them.  Robinswood Park – near Bellevue College. Here’s a trail map, with one of our favorite trails through the woods marked out on it. Ardmore Park – near Microsoft.  Zumdieck is just north of downtown, and has a nice little loop through the woods. These are all great hikes for younger kids – I’ve done them with many three year olds, also good for elders who aren’t looking for an endurance hike. All three have playgrounds.

If you want a more challenging, straight up the hill in the woods hike, try the Weowna Park Trail up hill from Lake Sammamish.

If you’re just looking for a place to sit and read or have non-social play, there’s also tons more parks, both big and small. Some have playgrounds, some don’t. There are also lots of “mini-parks” and “corner parks” that aren’t much more than some grass, some trees and a picnic table. (We ate at one of those the other day, but we threw a blanket out on the lawn rather than sitting at the table.) Check on the Bellevue Parks website to learn more. And more Bellevue trails are listed here.

Crowded Parks – may want to avoid

Avoid Downtown Bellevue Park – it’s often crowded – leave this to the folks who live downtown and may not have cars. Same thing for Crossroads Park, which can be crowded and is in another neighborhood where lots of folks don’t have cars to take them to other options. I would guess Bridle Trials might be more crowded than many of these trails, since it’s well known – let’s leave it for the horse folks to get the outings that they and their animals need. I would avoid the barn area at Kelsey Creek park which may be more crowded, but there is a nice .9 mile walking trail there.

Kirkland

Here’s the Kirkland Parks map. Some parks to try:

OO Denny – north of Juanita, near the Kenmore border. Nice beach area. (There’s a playground there.) What many people don’t notice is that on the other side of the road, up the hill, there’s a mile or so of fabulous wooded trails (here’s a trail map with points of interest). It’s a pretty challenging steep climb, but beautiful and unlikely to be crowded.

Big Finn Hill is also on the border of Kirkland and Kenmore. It’s got 9.5 miles of trails back behind the playground.

Carillon Woods – near Northwest College. Some trails into the woods, pretty hilly. I wrote a post about it, though it mostly covers the playgrounds, which are closed now.

Edith Moulton – between Totem Lake and Juanita. Here’s the schematic for when it was re-designed, which includes detailed maps. It’s got a nice easy walking loop.

Juanita Bay (around the corner from Juanita Beach) has a nice path to look over the lake. You may see turtles.

There’s also some parks I know nothing about, like “Cotton Hill Park – undeveloped.” Looks like it at least has a trail? Juanita Heights, Kingsgate and Norway Hill also have trails.

Places to sit and read/work outside: Everest Park – I like parking at their north parking lot and sitting by the stream. (The playground is out of sight from there.) Peter Kirk in downtown Kirkland, Terrace Park in Houghton – both of those have playgrounds.

Parks to Maybe Avoid

Tot Lot – I usually love it, but it’s a tiny fenced in park with a now-closed playground. There’s lots of parks that are basically just a play-ground – now closed – so I wouldn’t take kids there, but they could work for   some grown-ups for a picnic on the grass, such as the park at Phyllis Needy, Reservoir, Van Aalst.

Juanita Beach, Marina Park, and Houghton Beach can get crowded on sunny days.

Kenmore

Rhododendron Park has a short trail – a nice amble for a young child or an elder.

Wallace Swamp Creek has trails, but I haven’t had the chance to check it out. (Note, this is NOT an off leash dog park, but some people are under the impression it is, so there may be loose dogs there.)

Burke-Gilman Trail. This is a 20 mile long trail, but portions of it go through Kenmore. It’s paved, so great for bikes, roller blades, strollers. It is quite busy on sunny weekends, but probably a decent option for a cloudy, gray weekday. We have found the Kenmore stretches to be less busy than the Seattle zones.

St. Edward’s State Park. Lots of great trails. Definitely too busy on a sunny weekend, but would be a good outing on a rainy weekday. Large playground – it’s possible to park a ways away and walk away from it, and they might not notice. It’s a state park, so you need a Discover Pass, or it’s $10 to park there.

Redmond

There are 59 miles of public trails in the City of Redmond!

The City of Redmond website doesn’t provide a lot of useful information on the trails; however, you can find more info about them on the All Trails website or app, on the Washington Trails Association website or TrailLink.

Trail names to look up:

Or, there’s the 1.5 mile Viewpoint trail in the Tam O’Shanter neighborhood on the border of Redmond and Bellevue.

Parks to Avoid

I would avoid the dog walk at Marymoor unless you have a dog who absolutely requires that much space for running in, just because there’s probably many humans there. The rest of Marymoor has plenty of open space for walking in or sitting outside in while distancing.

Learn about Nature while you’re out

I’ve written a guide to learning about Northwest Native plants, which includes all the major plants you’ll find on a hike outdoors, and also has a couple of scavenger hunts – one for preschool age kids, one for older kids (or adults), and a dichotomous key. Here’s another great Native Plant Field Guide that was developed by someone as her senior year project.

The City of Bellevue has a scavenger hunt for Lewis Creek that could also be used elsewhere. I found that some of the things on it were harder for kids, so I made my own version of the nature scavenger hunt using theirs as a base.

Walking in Your Neighborhood

Or, if you want to stay super close to home, but need to get outdoors (there are LOTS of physical and mental health benefits of time spent outdoors), you can get outdoors with proper social distancing, in ANY neighborhood. If you’re an adult walking alone, try listening to some great podcasts as you walk, or use this time to call and connect with a friend or family member. If you’re walking with kids, and doing the same path over and over, there are lots of ways to liven it up: one day do a search for all the letters in the alphabet (on license plates, street signs, and so on), another day, do a search for all the numbers, another day, play I spy where you take turns spotting things. Some folks are trying to start some coronavirus-time connections, like placing a teddy bear in their window for kids to spot when they’re out walking – keep an eye out in your neighborhood to see if you can find any signs that this is catching on!

When to Go Out

Obviously, if it’s rainy or cool, there will be fewer people out than if it’s gorgeous weather. So, grab a raincoat or an umbrella and head out in any weather.

You may also choose to access the parks at less crowded times – I would suspect that the most crowded times will be lunchtime, maybe a 4 or 5 pm end of the day time, and weekends, since many people are still working regular hours, whether at home or a work place, or attempting to school their kids during “school hours.”

Before you go out

First, let’s be cautious to take as few germs out into the world with us as possible. Things to consider: If you haven’t changed clothes in a few days (no judgment if that’s the case!), do so before going out. (What about masks?) Take your temperature to make sure you don’t have a fever. (This is not a perfect precaution, because you can be contagious before symptoms, but still a good step because if you do have a fever, you should definitely stay home.) Go to the bathroom before you leave the house, so you’re less likely to need to do it when you’re out. (And because many parks facilities and bathrooms may be closed.) And wash your hands!

If you have children, explain to them before you leave that this is a “no touch” outing. (Toddlers may not be capable of resisting all the time, but we can do our best.) I would not bring snacks along if I had a little one, since their hands would be in and out of their mouths over and over, maybe transporting germs in and out.

Note: Rails to Trails also offers a helpful article on hiking and biking in the covid-19 era.

When You Get Home

Leave your outdoor things (coats, shoes, purse) by the door. Don’t carry them through the house. Wash your hands! If you were using your phone, you could clean that too.

More Ideas?

If you have more ideas or any feedback, please add it in the comments!

Elsewhere on this blog, I have tips on Suddenly Homeschooling – I share the system that’s working for us and easy ideas for Toddler Activities in the Time of Coronavirus. Plus the blog is just generally full of tips about parenting kids from birth to age 9.

Suddenly Homeschooling

Due to coronavirus, millions of parents across the country (and around the world) are suddenly homeschooling their children. Some may feel prepared (they’re teachers!), some may have all the resources they need at home, but many of us are under-prepared, under-supplied, and also trying to figure out how to manage that along with all of our other responsibilities in this new era. We’re all faking it together and figuring it out on the spur of the moment!

For us, school suddenly disappeared. One afternoon we found out that at the end of the school day, they were closing for two weeks, then the next day that became six weeks. We took a few days off from being responsible. For the first four days, we let our son do whatever he wanted to (well, we limited his screen time to two hours a day, but otherwise he was flexible). But we told him we were just doing that for a few days, and he should expect that on Monday, we’d start homeschooling. That gave me a few days to come up with ideas.

I turned to homeschooling parents for advice, and I’ll share with you here the plan we’ve put together for our nine year old.

But first, let’s say:

Go Easy on Yourself

Don’t put a ton of pressure on yourself! Don’t feel like things have to be perfect!! Don’t worry that this will cause them to fall behind and never catch up. We’re all just going to do the best we can. Luckily, kids are resilient, and they will bounce back from this experience! If some days, you’re exhausted and swamped with your own burdens, don’t feel guilty about using screen time. If you feel like you should be making your child do math homework, but you just need to get the laundry put away, then today becomes Life Skills 101 instead of math, and you teach your child to fold laundry. It’s all OK.

And if you know that trying to homeschool your children would make you miserable, would make them miserable and turn every day into a battle, then don’t do it!! We never want kids to resent “school” so much that they decide they hate learning! I believe that love of learning is the biggest key to success in school and life, so do whatever works for your family to preserve that. Feel free to run with the Free Range philosophy and do whatever whim strikes you for the day, letting your child self guide their learning – reading books all day, doing Lego all day, whatever!

Many parents find that unstructured spontaneity works well for their family, many recommend having a bit more structure than that, so the rest of the post offers some structure and routine in case that is what is helpful to your family, as it is for mine.

Making a Plan

I’ve seen a variety of advice, but this is the one I find the most helpful summary. It’s from Mary Oemig, President Boom Learning (former homeschooler).

Each child should write a plan for the day each morning. Younger kids might need a little help with ideas. Older kids should include open items assigned from teachers.

All kids should include:

1. A reading activity
2. A writing activity
3. A math activity (games are great for younger kids)
4. A science activity (for youngers can be observations about spring during a walk – note changes each day, observe weather, online videos)
5. A social studies activity – history of plagues is relevant, lots of great educational videos on YouTube. 🙂
6. A PE activity – walks and bikes are good. Playing on playground equipment not so much.
7. A plan for playtime/free time.
8. Life skills / chores

Develop a system for family members to communicate to each other “Do Not Disturb” and “Available for Play”. Reinforce respecting whichever system you come up with.
Parents should have a set time during the day to review the plan with each kid to help them learn time management. This is a great opportunity to develop self-management skills.

I suggest that you do not dictate the schedule but rather guide children on developing their own plan.

For those who care: The research source for this approach is Tools of the Mind. They use this method with children as young as pre-school.

The idea of creating categories to complete was really helpful for me. (I’ve been teaching this idea for years when talking about how to choose toys and activities for babies, toddlers, and young children, using the theory of multiple intelligences – read more here.) I decided to build a system of cards for my son.

For each card, he earns either a full point or a half point. He’s not allowed to have any video game screen time before noon, no matter what. After noon, WHEN he has completed 5 points (~2.5 hours) THEN he gets one hour of free choice screen time. He then has to complete 3 more points to earn another hour of screen time, and that’s the maximum for the day.

My husband and I are both working full time from home, so his activities needed to be things he can do mostly independently.

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Each card has criteria for what could qualify for completion – sample activities he can choose from. Here are his cards. The first 4 cards are required to complete every day. The others are options to choose from.

  • Reading – 30 minutes. 1 point. Lexia app from school, reading packets from school, or reading a book. To count for school work, it must be a book with a plot. Fiction. Not comics. Paper or ebook is fine. (He loves reading and would read all day, so this is the easy one.)
  • Writing – 20 – 30 minutes. 1 point. Practice on Edutyping app. Journal, write a letter, email, write a book report to share with a family member (we might also start writing Amazon reviews), write reflections on science homework. (He hates writing, so this is our hardest one.)
  • Math – 30 minutes. 1 point. Can use Dreambox or Xtramath – online programs from school district, or complete math packet from school. He can also use apps that drill him on multiplication facts. Sudoku, Numbrix, or other math puzzles. Math heavy board games or card games with parents.
  • Physical Activity – 30 minutes. 1 point. Could walk, bike, roller blade, play catch, etc. (This is a good time to rummage through your garage or closets for that sporting equipment you never use… we’ve got roller blades we hadn’t used in a decade!) He could do Wii sports to count for this, but he must spend a half hour outside every day, so if he does Wii sports, has to plan another outside activity, even if that’s sitting in the sun while reading. (Note: yes, you can still go outside now! Just minimize touching anything others have touched, so no playground time, and keep your distance from others.)
  • Science – 30 minutes. 1 point. Can include an educational video (there’s lots of great science content on video!) or a podcast. Could be a book. Must include something hands-on / active learning. (I teach hands-on science classes, so this one is easy for me… if you’re looking for resources for science learning for kids age 3 – 8, check out my other blog, www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.)
  • Social Studies – 30 minutes, 1 point. Can include video, podcast, or book. Can cover history, other cultures, social/emotional skills, and so on. (We’re thinking of podcasts like Short and Curly – an ethics / philosophy podcast from Australia, or Dad and I Love History, or Forever Ago. Let us know what else you like!)
  • Call his grandparents. Half point. We haven’t seen them in person for two weeks because we don’t want to risk exposing them to anything (they’re in their 80’s), so it’s nice to connect via Skype. His grandma is teaching him some Spanish as they talk.
  • Play recorder for ten minutes. Or make art. Half point.
  • “Life skills” – like folding laundry, cooking, cleaning. (One of the things we can all do with our coronavirus break is bring back Home Economics and shop / Industrial Arts classes! Whatever work you need to do, have your child do it with you! Half point.
  • Social Time Online – Zoom or Skype calls with friends, family, church members, and so on. Half point.

At the beginning of each morning, we have a stack of cards. He gets to decide what activity to do first. I flip the card over, and write when he started doing that activity. When he reports back, I write what he did so I have a record. I’m not super strict about the 30 minutes – anywhere in the 20 – 45 minute range counts. He can combine some activities: for example, if he plays recorder for his grandma on Skype, that counts for two half point cards. If he draws while he listens to a podcast, that counts for art and social studies. If he writes about science, that could count for both. (He has to ask permission to double count before starting the activity.)

So, you’ll notice that if you add up all those cards, it does not add up to maybe 4-5ish hours, not 6.5 hours, which is how long his school day was. (And if he doubles up activities, it’s less than four hours.) Parents might worry that they’re not doing “enough” if it’s not 6.5 hours of school work. Here’s the deal – at school, they’re not getting 6.5 hours really! They’re eating lunch, having recess, walking down the hall to music class, waiting for their turn with the teacher, and so on. You can get more done in 3 – 4 hours one-on-one. And they (and you) will have time off from worrying about “school.”

Having the flexibility to decide what order he does things in has been super helpful to him. And if he’s enjoying a science show and wants to watch two, he can do that, he just knows it will take longer to get through his points and longer till that screen time, but he can make that choice himself, which he likes.

So, I’ve created the structure and the requirements, but give him a lot of freedom of choice within that structure. So far it’s working well for us… hopefully it continues to.

And if you think it sounds super hard and time consuming, I promise you it’s not! I literally have been working 8 – 10 hours every day and squeezing management of his “school” in and around that, and it’s just some quick check-ins every half hour. And if you think I must have an angel child for this to work, I should say that my son is diagnosed as autistic, and suspected ADHD, and we know the principal at the school very well, and the resource room teacher very well, because he spends a lot of time with them! But, for him having this structure, with the freedom of choice within the structure is exactly what he needs.

If you have advice, suggestions for resources, or questions, just add them to the comments!

Toddler Activities in the Time of Coronavirus

In the Seattle area, lots of activities are canceled due to concerns about transmitting coronavirus, but busy toddlers don’t understand this and still need to burn off energy. I’ve written a series in the past about “cheap dates with toddlers.” Here’s some that will keep you busy without putting you indoors in close contact with others.

  • Farm Parks – It’s fun to take kids to meet farm animals. On the Eastside, there’s Farrell McWhirter Park in Redmond, Kelsey Creek in Bellevue, and more.
  • Egg Hunts – need a rainy day play activity for any day of the year? Plastic egg hunts – they’re not just for Easter anymore!
  • Nature Shopping – collecting rocks, leaves, pinecones, or photos.
  • Explore New Parks – covers St. Edward’s, O.O. Denny, and Big Finn Hill in Kenmore. Even on cool rainy days the park is a lot of fun as long as you have appropriate clothing.
  • Counting Cars” on any street corner… kept my boy busy for hours!
  • Go to a Dog Park – even if you don’t have a dog!
  • Construction Theatre – do you have a construction project in your neighborhood? Take your child by from time to time to see the progress.
  •  Take a Ferry. Don’t spend a lot of time up in the seating area, but drive your car on and spend time on the deck in the wind with the view.
  • Rock Shops and Plant Nurseries – offer fun outdoor exploration and an opportunity for some basic botany and geology lessons.
  • Go for walks around your neighborhood, or take a drive to somewhere new to walk. You can prolong a walk with kids by making a walk anABC scavenger hunt. They need to find the alphabet in sequence along your walk in the letters on street signs, garbage bins, license plates, etc. Could do the same w/numbers. Walk until you have found all the letters in order. Also, you could make it a scavenger hunt with a list you compose before you leave home. List all the things you have to pass before you can come home…a green car, a black and white cat, a garbage bin, etc. Or take dice with you and roll at each intersection – odds left, evens right – or adjust if you have 3 options. nice way to explore the neighborhood and fun for them. Or in a downtown area, follow the lights… at every intersection, press the button for the walk light crossing both ways – whichever one says walk first, that’s the way you go.
  • Plan daily Skype calls with grandparents, your friends, your kids’ friends. Have someone else entertain your child for a little while – you get a break, they get to bond, and reduce isolation for all. Folks can read stories, play charades or do puppet shows, do art together, sing songs together, and more.
  • Teach life skills – if you’re doing laundry, can your child help you sort socks? If you’re putting away dishes, can they find all the spoons? If you’re gardening, give them a trowel to dig with.

Other ideas:

You can also check out my “Fun with Toddlers” series, which include songs, games, crafts and books for toddlers, all related to themes, such as Transportation, Spring, Ducks, Stars, and so on.

Circle Time for Toddlers

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I teach a parent-child class where the toddlers are 12 – 30 months in September. Each week, we do a circle time for music and stories. I tell the parents that not only does music have many benefits for children’s learning, and not only do rhymes and songs help teach language skills, circle time is also a chance for children to begin to practice key skills for kindergarten readiness: the ability to sit still, to listen to a teacher, to notice and do what the other people around them are doing, and to stop doing something when asked. (We do the shaker song every week, “oh you shake and you shake and you shake and you stop” and I talk about how huge this is for practicing impulse control.) My secret agenda is that teaching parents things to do with their children builds connections. Plus, of course, circle time is fun!

At the beginning of the year, I make sure parents know that their children will not yet be good at sitting still and paying attention for the full circle time, but the more we practice, and the more we model that behavior for them and encourage them to try, the better they’ll get. At the beginning of the year, circle time is about 10 minutes long. By the end of the year, it’s 20 – 25 minutes.

I always go in the same order each time, just adding more pieces to each segment as we go along. That way the children learn the ritual, and are better able to participate because they can predict what will happen next.

  1. Greeting Songs – each week we do the “I roll the ball to [name] song” and one other greeting song which uses the child’s name and gives each child a moment in the spotlight.
  2. Lap Songs – when we bounce children in a rhythm, it helps to instill rhythm in them at a fundamental level. It also helps to build their vestibular system. These songs are also super fun, and get lots of giggles going.
  3. Finger Rhymes – these teach a lot of vocabulary, and also teach children to notice patterns… “after dad says ‘with a one step and a two step’, he’s going to tickle me.”
  4. “Theme Activity” – I always have some small toys, puzzle pieces, or decor items tied into the theme gathered in my red gift bag. We sing “what’s in the red bag, the red bag, the red bag…” song. The kids come running over to find out. I give each one an item to take back to their parent – they talk about it together, then we do a few rhymes or songs that are related, then they bring them back to me.
  5. Book (we start these about halfway through the year)
  6. Shakers – we do the shake and stop song, sometimes some other songs, sometimes we turn on recorded music and dance and shake to the music.
  7. Active Songs, with or without parachute. Moving around the room in rhythm to the music is great at building coordination, rhythm, and large muscle skills.

I’ve gathered the ideas for my circle time rhymes and songs from many great sources. I have lots of favorite songs (here are links to lyrics and to videos showing hand motions). I have some favorite toddler books I share.

I have a full year’s worth of circle time plans for my toddler class – it’s organized by theme, and we do each set of songs for about 4 – 6 weeks. Themes include: fall, winter, spring, farm, zoo, stars, transportation, ducks, and beach.

For my science class for 3 – 6 year olds, we do two completely different circle times each week – opening circle teaches a rhythm activity, a discussion of the day’s topic, and a non-fiction book. Closing circle teaches a song, we read a fun imaginative fiction book related to the day’s theme, and we often do a group game to reinforce the day’s learning. You can find about 35 topics worth of circle time plans at www.InventorsOfTomorrow.com.

Do you have any great tips for how to help circle time go well, any favorite songs, or favorite resources for finding more ideas?

Resilience

This is a companion piece for “Building Resilience in Children“. This post offers a deeper look at theories of resilience, and links to some key research in the field.

What is Resilience?

So, what is resilience? And how do you know if you have it?

If you were lucky enough to never face any challenges, you’d never know if you have resilience (and honestly, you probably wouldn’t, because we build resilience by facing and mastering challenges in our lives.)

But, for most of us… challenges come to us on a far too regular basis, right?

Types of Challenges We Might Face

Anytime we face a life transition, or a new developmental stage, that’s a challenge. (These predictable developmental cycles are called “periods of disequilibrium.”) Whether that’s a toddler who falls down many times before they learn to walk, or the new parent who has to cope with all the tantrums that might cause. There’s midlife crises, there’s the challenges of aging… those are “expected challenges” that any developmental psychologist can tell you are typical, but that doesn’t mean they’re not hard for the people going through them.

There’s also all the unexpected challenges – the fall in the mud puddle, the flat tire, the spilled milk, the flu.

And then there’s interpersonal challenges – the boss who makes unfair demands, the girlfriend who says she’s “just not that into you,” or the parent who lets you down.

Challenges just keep on coming.

But… and people in the midst of adversity hate it when you say this…  each of those moments of adversity is a learning experience. Each one offers “opportunities for personal growth.” Each one helps us learn how to stretch and how to bounce back.

Bouncing Back

One way of defining resilience is “doing better than expected in difficult circumstances.” We all have times when it seems like life is trying to knock us down, in small ways or in big ways. The question is: how will we respond? It seems there are three main pathways of response: Will we let adversity pin us down? Or will we bounce back up the status quo? Or end standing stronger and taller than ever before? And how can our family and our community and our beliefs help us to bounce back?

Image showing three responses to adversity - defeat, return to the status quo, and empowerment

Resilience is a really complex issue. There are lots of factors that influence our response to adversity. Several different models have been developed to examine factors. I’ll share a combination of those that shows my best current understanding.

Protective Factors vs. Risk Factors

The reality is that hard things come into everyone’s life at some point. Sometimes they’re expected challenges like a move to a new home, but often adverse circumstances arrive out of the blue – an illness, a home break-in, or a job layoff might appear in our metaphorical inbox. When a challenge hits, we start running with it, and we figure out our response as we go along.

running with it

Several things affect our response and whether or not we end up in a good place in the end. The risk factors drag us down. They challenge our ability to cope and to recover from this challenge, and increase the chance of poor outcomes. The protective factors – things that make it easier for us to cope – lift us up and make it more likely we’ll have a positive, empowered result.

risk and protective

What tips the balance for good outcomes is when the protective factors outweigh the risk factors. When we have so many good things going for us that the hard times are easy to overcome.

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Among the factors that influence our response, some are on the individual level  – specific to that person and the ways they interact with the world, some are found within  their network of family, close friends and communities,  and some are influences from the broader society as a whole.

levels

Individual Factors

Some people are just inherently more resilient than others, no matter what life throws at them. Dr. Thomas Boyce has researched the human stress response for 40 years, and he says some people are dandelions, and some are orchids.

Dandelions are people who can go through almost anything, and be unfazed by it all. Orchids are a lot more sensitive – they’re more vulnerable to stress, and need more support to weather the storms. But given the right nurturing care, they can thrive and become incredibly beautiful.

So what individual factors help to make us more or less resilient?

  • Internal Locus of Control – Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner found that resilient people have a strong internal locus – they believe they are in control of their own destinies. Even if bad things happen to them, they feel they can choose how to let that impact them.
  • Confidence – Resilient people have confidence in their own competence. And they have a growth mindset… instead of thinking of themselves as “not good” at something, they think “I’m not good at it yet. If I just keep working hard, I bet I’ll figure it out.”
  • Temperamentit’s easier to be resilient when you have a sense of humor about life, when you’re naturally easy-going, naturally flexible, and calm.
  • Mental and physical health – Our mental health is influenced by many things beyond our control – genetic, epigenetic, and environmental. Depression can make it supremely hard to bounce back from challenges, and anxiety can mean that even small challenges quickly become overwhelming as you spin into worry about how much worse it might become. Physical illness and disability are challenging circumstances on their own, often creating chronic adversity, and they can also make it harder to bounce back from other challenges. Good mental health and physical health is a huge protective factor.
  • Goals – Having goals you’re working toward helps with resilience – it’s the “eyes on the prize” focus that helps you push through the hard times. Resilient individuals tend to have things outside themselves that give them a reason to get up every day. This can be an interest or passion, such as music or art. This can be big dreams they’re working toward. Or, it can be knowing that other people are counting on them.
  • Perception – According to psychologist George Bonanno, a key individual factor is  how we interpret difficult circumstances. Do we perceive an event as traumatic or as an opportunity to learn and grow? Sometimes even something tragic, while very sad in the short term, might also be a powerful life event that changes someone for the better in the long term. This positive perception… finding meaning in loss… is more likely for people who have a spiritual or religious faith.

Which brings us to the next set of protective factors.

Family and Close Community

Our family of origin, and the close communities that we interact with throughout our lives (like a child’s school, an adult’s workplace, or a church community) have a huge impact on resilience. When these circles are healthy, they provide the key protective factor of a secure base.

From these communities, we learn our values – what does it mean to be a good person? We learn about faith – whether that’s a belief in a higher power, or a belief in a greater good, faith can provide a strong beacon of hope in the darkness of despair. We learn our stories. The most powerful stories are when members of our communities say “we’ve had good times and bad times, but we are a strong, resilient people and we keep moving forward together.”

In these communities, we find our key relationships. Researchers at Harvard found that no matter the source of hardship, the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable, committed relationship with a supportive adult. Whether that’s a parent, friend, clergy, teacher or coach. That person offers us emotional support, they help us to see our own strengths, they teach us how to plan and how to cope in healthy ways.

In these communities, we can learn that we are valued, and that we can contribute in meaningful ways. If we have clear roles, we can see that our commitment is essential, and sometimes on our darkest days, what keeps us going is knowing that other people are counting on us, and we have to show up for them.

These communities can also be a source of concrete support – a ride to the doctor’s office after an injury, a bed to crash on when a relationship falls apart, a loan when we can’t pay a bill, someone to watch our kids for us – all these “little things” can help carry us through a hard spot.

Now, the problem is that our families and our communities are not always healthy. And just as a healthy home base can build resilience, an unhealthy family is devastating to our long-term resilience.

There is some really important research in health and mental health called the ACE’s study – where ACE stands for adverse childhood experiences.

Researchers asked people about their childhood – had they experienced things such as abuse, witnessed domestic violence, had parents with mental health issues or addiction or who were incarcerated, or had experienced homelessness. 60% of people have one or more of these experiences in childhood. The more you have, the less resilient you’ll be as an adult. About 12% of people have an ACE score of 4 or higher. With a score of 4 or higher, you’re four times more likely to experience addiction, 3 times more likely to have heart disease, respiratory disease and diabetes, far more likely to experience mental health challenges, and 6 times more likely to say you never feel optimism or hope.

The good news about ACE’s is that they can be overcome.

Knowing about the negative impact of ACE’s and working to mitigate it is the first step. Another key step  is connecting to healthy relationships and healthy communities. The research is really clear that even for kids from very toxic home environments, even just one healthy relationship with one positive mentor in the community is a huge boost on their path to recovery.

Now let’s look at the impact of Society and Resources.

Societal Factors and Resources

We have a strong cultural narrative in America – the cultural narrative that everyone can succeed if they “just try hard enough.”

But we don’t have a level playing field in America – we’re not all starting from the same place. A person who is living in poverty, in a crime-ridden neighborhood, where drug use is a common escape from the pain of living just doesn’t have the same resilience resources available to them. Or, even if someone had all the other advantages they could have, if they happen to have dark skin, or happen to be female, or gay, or trans, or disabled, or non-Christian, they have to carry the weight of systematic oppression. click to add That weight makes it harder to magically “bounce back” from challenges.

It is so much easier to be resilient if you happen to have been born into a stable, white, middle class family. If you made it through childhood with an ACE score of 0. If in adulthood, you’ve always had resources… so whatever challenge might arise, you’ve got back-up plans: car insurance, home insurance, health insurance. Flexible hours at work, paid sick leave, and short-term disability pay. Cash in the bank. A safe, warm home. People to take care of you, people to take care of your kids. If you’ve got the skills to research and access any services that you need. If you can speak with educated words and a voice of authority and white skin that afford you respectful treatment by those you encounter. All of these things make it easy to “bounce back” from whatever happens.

So, let’s start talking about how we can build resilience in ourselves and in others.

Building Resilience

At the Societal Level

Let’s first look at this societal level, and what we can do to tip the balance.

societal

We can work to dismantle systematic oppression. Respect and support cultural identities as tools for empowerment. Help increase equitable access to concrete resources and safe communities. Support organizations which work to increase hope in impoverished communities through the arts, access to job opportunities, and tools to help people reach for their dreams.

At the family and community level:

  • Think about the Stories We Tell. Stories can mobilize sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. When you’re facing difficult times, it helps to feel like you’re a part of something bigger. There are three types of stories we can tell – 1) our people are always successful (unfortunately, this can bestow a sense of entitlement if you as an individual are successful or a sense of personal failure if you’re not at the moment), 2) our people are never successful and things always get worse for us, or 3) our people have a history of weathering challenge and emerging stronger than before. That third kind is the best for building resilience for future adversity.
  • Build Relationships, and Be a Mentor. Remember, a key factor in resilience for children or for anyone is having a relationship with someone who believes in them, encourages them to be their best possible selves, and helps them keep moving when life seems too hard. You can be one of those people – not just for your friends and family, but for anyone you encounter in the broader community. Any time we interact with anyone in a way that reflects their inherent worth and dignity, we build their resilience.
  • Invite and Value Contributions. Let people know that their presence in the community matters, and that they can make valuable contributions. This is even in the little things. I’ll occasionally ask a child to help me as I set up or tidy – even a three year old can be asked to help carry something. Sometimes kids are surprised to be asked, because we often don’t ask them. But when we do, and we thank them for their help, it increases their sense of efficacy.
  • Concrete Support. Lending a helping hand to a parent with their hands full, offering a ride to someone recovering from an injury, helping someone work on a resume, passing on news about available affordable housing, or accompanying someone to a support group meeting are just some examples of simple things we can do to help people get back on their feet after a challenge. Keep your eyes open for your opportunities.

At the individual level:

  • Build others’ internal locus of control. Support others in viewing themselves as having control over their destiny. You can use a framework of “I have… I am… I can…” that encourages someone facing hardship to think about what resources they have, to tell themselves a positive story of who they are, and to think about concrete steps that they can take to help improve their situation.
  • Support a growth-based mindset. Carol Dweck has researched what she calls “the Growth Based Mindset” which is a belief that we are capable of learning more and doing better. And Angela Duckworth has researched what she calls “Grit” as a vital mechanism in achieving success despite barriers. One way to build these things is to talk about mistakes, failures, and setbacks as normal parts of learning, not as reasons to quit. Remind yourself and those around you that everyone runs up against things they can’t do. The ones who succeed are the ones who pick themselves up and try again.
  • In terms of Temperament – some people are naturally more fearful, and when things seem hard, their anxiety takes over. Researchers at Yale have learned that if we accommodate too much, it actually makes anxiety worse. If we tell someone “I know that’s scary, so you don’t have to do it”, it actually validates that this thing is way too scary and way too powerful. Instead, we can say to ourselves and others “It’s OK to feel scared. We all feel scared. Let’s make a plan for how we can do it anyway.”
  • We know Mental Health and Physical Health are huge protective factors. So, at the societal level, we can be doing public policy advocacy to increase access to health care. But, at the individual level, with ourselves and others, we can think about self care. We can remember that it’s important to prioritize self care – it helps to help recharge our batteries to give us enough energy to face whatever challenges may come.
  • We know that having a goal in mind helps us to keep pushing forward. Ask people to tell you about their dreams. Help them to figure out what the next manageable step is toward achieving that dream. Emphasize that even when challenges seem hard in the short term, we can work to overcome them and not let them block us from that long-term goal.
  • Perception – Learn how to re-frame challenges for yourself, and share with others what you have learned. There are three aspects to re-framing:
    • If you find yourself believing that when bad things happen it’s always your fault, try reframing to “sometimes bad things happen that are beyond my control. What I can control is how I respond to them.”
    • Stay focused on fixing the specific problem rather than thinking it’s a sign of some global problem. For example, if you don’t get a job you were hoping for, remember that it’s not that you are fundamentally unemployable. It’s just that one job that said no…. keep trying till you find the right fit.
    • View problems as impermanent – it will get better in time, and there are steps you can take to help it improve.

In the end, some of the most important protective factors that build resilience and increase positive outcomes  are the stories that we tell ourselves about the challenges that we face, and the stories that we tell those in our community about who we are, and what we’re capable of. If we believe that we are strong, and can overcome anything, the chances are much higher that we will.