Lessons In Stress: If Scrappy Vines Can Overcome Adversity, So Can Our Kids
By Nancy Watson, LCSW, CADC
I had no idea that my recent vineyard visit and a tour would turn my thoughts to stress. As I rode on the open wagon through the lush green rolling hills that revealed rows of lush green plants, I took interest in the vineyard manager’s passionate telling of all that goes into growing plump juicy grapes. As it turns out, grape growers have learned that adversity in the vineyard yields the best fruit. They purposely crowd the plants close together, plant them in soil consisting of clay and rock, and place them on uneven terrain or steep hillsides. These strategic growing methods compel the grapevines to dig their roots deeper in search of nutrients and to use alternate paths to reach light and water.
Plants become resourceful and adapt to their environment. Simply put, the stressors put on these plants build their capacity for resilience.
The connection between the role stress plays in the life of a vine and the development and growth in human development is poignant given the global pandemic and is of particular interest to me given my role as a psychotherapist and school social worker.
We find ourselves and our children in less than perfect soil during current times, and we can draw immense comfort from the vineyard’s message that scraggly, scrappy vines triumph when they confront adversity – the obstacles our children face will foster their development into free-standing, self-confident, and resilient young adults.
Under normal conditions, it can be tempting for adults to remove obstacles, disappointments, and challenges from their children’s paths. The challenges that the pandemic offers makes it especially difficult. However, our disruptions close the door to opportunities that build important life skills and telegraph the message that our children are incapable of tolerating stress. My work with families and children affirms that when parents offer their children an unnecessary “lifeline,” dependency is fostered by setting in motion delicate patterns of helplessness.
Uneven Turf Builds Important Life Skills
Allowing our children to firmly plant themselves in uneven turf that consists of disappointment, challenge, and hurt ultimately promotes skills and introduces children to their assets. These experiences build on one another and lead to increased confidence and a robust sense of self. I have had a front-row seat to watching the students at my school navigate the return back to school this year. Not unlike the vines, their return has been fraught with the less than ideal routines and conditions of wearing masks, one-way aisles, spaced desks, lessons via Zoom, and outdoor classrooms. And like the vines, they have had to create new paths to find the sunlight and a new comfort level – and they have done it with grace and adaptability.
Stress Builds Resilience
Developmental psychologists and researchers on resilience have long held that mastering transitions and managing stressors are essential to the physical, emotional, and social health of our children. Noted psychologist Lisa Damour, reveals the benefits of manageable stress in her book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress in Anxiety in Girls by wisely observing that “stress has gotten a bad rap — somewhere along the way we have gotten the idea that emotional distress is always a bad thing.” Damour argues that anxiety is a normal and healthy protective factor and that stress accompanies all growth, building our durability and resilience. She reminds us that “stretching beyond familiar limits doesn’t always feel good but growing and learning — the keys to school and much of life — can’t happen any other way.”
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University likewise contends that learning to cope with manageable risk is critical to the development of resilience. Their research finds that workable stressors build and strengthen flexibility and adaptive skills and foster a sense of perceived control and agency. When children build the capacity for resilience, they are able to confront challenges, shift course, and move toward achieving their goals.
Rocky Ground Helps our Kids Flourish
So even though our children might find themselves in less than perfect soil or on rocky ground, we need to resist every parent’s instinctual urge to remove the obstacles and stressors and remember that challenges and struggles ignite the essential developmental process of discovering and building strengths and adaptability.
Like the grapevines, when forced to do the necessary and sometimes hard work themselves, our children can flourish, all the while growing stronger and deeper roots that will ensure their healthy travels through all of life’s growing seasons.