The Roots of Resilience and Recovery

At the heart of raising resilient children is understanding that our job as parents is not to make everything work for them but to help them with the things that don’t work. We are in a unique position as their caretakers to help them thrive despite facing disappointment and adversity.

Discoveries in neuroscience have shown us that our adaptation is not the result of logic but of emotion. It is about being able to surrender when facing something that doesn’t work, like a job we don’t get, a test we do poorly on or a friend who doesn’t want to play with us. When we are faced with that which is futile, there is nothing left to do but feel tremendous sadness and disappointment. Our limbic system may send signals to the lacrimal glands and the eyes may begin to water. 

There are many types of tears, those of pain, anger, joy, and even those cried to onions. The type of tears we shed are important. The tears shed in surrender to the things we cannot change such as losing or rejection are significantly different. In fact, they serve to cleanse the body of all the big emotions that have been stirred up. When tears of futility are put under the microscope, there are enough toxic proteins in them to kill a small rodent.

The irony is our strength comes from our vulnerability. Not only can we be wounded deeply by others and overall life experiences but it is this capacity to feel that is at the heart of healing. By finding our tears, we can find our way through and can adapt. Resilience comes from knowing you can survive when things don’t go your way.

So how do we help our children find their tears of surrender when they are up against things that will not go their way, for example, getting another cookie? As parents we take up dual roles of agent of futility and angel of comfort, presenting to the child what won’t work or can’t work while also comforting them. The child might ask, “Can I have another cookie?” and if your answer is no then we present them with this futility. The reasons for the lack of a cookie is not necessary as our logical answers only court a child debating with us. For example, if you start a discussion about how “it will spoil your dinner” they will of course reply, “no it won’t” and we end up in a circular conversation aimed at changing our mind. While presenting futility we also offer comfort, “I know you like these cookies, I understand you are upset,” and when they then ask “can I have a cookie then?” we still come back with “no more cookies,” until the tears of acceptance come and they are at rest again.

Parents sometimes tell me that it seems like we are provoking a child. I know that until a child has had their tears about that which they cannot change, i.e. have another cookie, there is no rest from this pursuit. They will go on and on in their pursuit of the cookie, be filled with frustration, even lash out in anger until their limbic system registers the futility and they start to cry tears of surrender about the cookie that will not be.

A parent once said to me, “So you want me to let my 5-year old son lose at chess to help him build resilience?” I replied that I would much rather my child learn they won’t always be first or the smartest from me than to learn this from their peers. We need to make room for their disappointment and collect their tears so they can realize they can survive.

Futilities and adversity exist and abound in our lives. Our strength lies in our vulnerability. To feel deep sadness when facing futility is the essence of adaptation and recovery. When we grieve what will never be it allows us to open the door to what can be. In its wake a sense of resilience forms, these are the gifts of our tears.


Copyright Deborah MacNamara, PhD, Kid’s Best Bet – Dr. Deborah MacNamara is a counsellor in private practice and on faculty at the Neufeld Institute. She works with parents, educators, child-care and mental health professionals in making sense of kids from the inside out. See or for more information.