Dr. Karen Villa Part 10 | Resilience and Fortitude

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Dr. Karen Villa, a developmental neuropsychologist, joins Sr. John Dominic, O.P. for a discussion on the importance of resilience for a child’s emotional and mental health. Together they explore the synergy between neurobiology and virtue education.

Dr. Karen Villa There are parents who want to protect our children from any kind of discomfort. They never learn to tolerate frustration. And you know, Dan Siegel talks about that. That’s really the goal of resilience is to increase this window to tolerate things like frustration.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Welcome to Mind & Heart. We’re going to continue our discussion on resilience and seeing this connection with the cardinal virtue of fortitude.  We want to continue looking at the study, the understanding, all the different aspects of resilience. How does shame play into this, and into the development of a child and in the formation of his mind?

Dr. Karen Villa So shame is a very easy parenting tool to use when we are reacting to a situation, and it’s kind of a sign we’ve left our own green zone. So it’s something for parents to be very aware of that if you find yourself using shame, you need to really understand that this really prevents resilience.  God wired us for connection and if a child feels ashamed, what’s at the center of that is a fear of disconnection. So it can really shut down this sense of resilience and is the opposite of the four S’s.  The reason it’s so dangerous is because when we deal with the adult population, we see that shame placed such a significant role in many disorders like addiction, eating disorders, depression, and even bullying. So it’s an important thing to avoid when you’re parenting.  You think shaming your children into behaving in the right way would be effective, but it’s the exact opposite of that. You know, some people call it the ‘master emotion’ because children will do anything to not feel ashamed and they really get into their ‘no brain’ and they get very shut-down and they cannot engage with the world. So it’s just kind of a cautionary note to be very careful of that one.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. And I’m sure that the good news for parents to understand is that if you’ve done it, you haven’t  ruined your children. The brain can be reconnected. So I think that’s encouraging –

Dr. Karen Villa Children are themselves very resilient, so we want to build resilience and we want to understand that this is going to undermine it.  It’s the beauty of everything, there’s always repair, there’s always reconciliation and re-engagement, but you have to recognize the problem.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. I think that’s why it’s very important to address this. You have to be honest with yourself and to see if that’s something that you do. It’s easy to do; a teacher could do it.  

Dr. Karen Villa It’s such a blow to their self-worth. Children are very forgiving – they’re naturally forgiving. So if you have a situation where you are not in the green zone with your child, when you get back in the green zone you can really discuss that with them, “If I scared you or if I gave you the message that I don’t love you. I’m sorry for that,” and “What would help you to feel safer again?”

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Thank you for bringing that up.

Dr. Karen Villa So at the other end of the continuum, excessive praise can present a problem because children will feel like they have to perform in order to please their parents and that can really shut them down from, “I just need to practice and build skills and get better at this because I feel good about that when I do that.”  So excessive praise can present its own kind of problem.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. And actually, oftentimes that can follow them into adulthood where they always feel like they have to please in order to be recognized.

Dr. Karen Villa Yeah, seeking affirmation rather than building substance is the difference between those two. Again, it goes back to parents think if they just shower their children with praise they’re going to have enough self-worth to go out into the world. Well, gaining of that self-worth comes from this doing, this practicing this doing, this mastering the challenges of learning and everyday life.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. Now early on we had referenced mindset which is different from mindsight.

Dr. Karen Villa Yes. So even here in our area, the Detroit public schools, use these ideas of mindset in their education system. And the idea is that you are facilitating a growth mindset, not a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset can come from something like excessive praise where you think you have to be perfect in order to be loved. But what we want to facilitate with resilience is this idea “You’re growing and you’re going to make some mistakes, you’re going to get some things right. But you’re going to have successes too. And we want you to be focused on growing.” So Carol Dweck wrote this book called Mindset. And again, she gives so many examples of people who have a fixed mindset versus a growth mindset and with a fixed mindset, you really see them shutting down if there’s a mistake or if there’s some kind of failure and kind of avoiding going back out into the world. With a growth mindset, a child would feel like, “Oh, well, I didn’t get that right the first time I can practice and get it right the next time.”  And this is really how people, again move towards success and success in young adulthood and beyond.  So, a growth mindset facilitates a sense of optimism in kids. You know there are a lot of pessimistic young people out there, unfortunately. 

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. It’s interesting because we have the theological virtue of hope where we’re always looking towards the eternal. So here, when we talk about optimism, obviously we’re always looking at these things from a Christian perspective. What are some examples?  

Dr. Karen Villa I think a good example is how children learn to approach their studying. They can approach it in a very unrealistic way say for a test, “I don’t have to study, I’m going to do just fine” would be really unrealistic. “I don’t have to turn in my assignments and I’m still going to get a good grade.” I am amazed how often I see this one, that parents are communicating even the basic expectation that you turn in your assignments. Like they have to negotiate that – so that’s very unrealistic, “I don’t need to turn in my assignments or study to do well.” The pessimistic view would be, “I always fail so there’s no point to me studying. There’s no point to me even trying.”  And if parents see this they can pretty much suspect that their children are in that ‘no brain’ state and they want to turn up the volume on that.   An optimistic perspective is, “I can put effort into my studies and I can ask for help when I need it and I feel confident that I’ll be prepared for the test.” So even a test is a kind of adversity, isn’t it? So these are ordinary, everyday ways that children are dealing with adversity and if they enter it with this sense of optimism, effort, practice, “I feel good when I do well,” it’s just all going to go so much better and it’s going to build that strength for facing the elements of life.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. I think of what you said that the importance of understanding that there is this sense of growth and it’s not like, “I can’t do this. I’m never going to go back to it.” It’s almost like rock climbing, or hiking –  you start out like, “I’m going to get it done” or learning a new skill or, for me, perfecting free-throw shooting to make ten in a row. And another thing that you and I have often talked about is boredom and frustration.

Dr. Karen Villa You know parents want to see negative emotion as, again this opportunity to teach balance and resilience and the two that are so missing today because of this information-age, this generation being raised on the internet, us being so overprotective and focusing on safety. Kids are so overstimulated they don’t know how to be bored anymore.  And curiosity comes from boredom and it’s so different when we were raised; if we were bored and we said that to our parents we would get a chore. You knew something unpleasant was coming if you didn’t handle your boredom and there’s such an incredibly low tolerance for boredom these days. I’ve had kids in my office saying, “I can’t do that because it’s too boring.” They just want to be entertained and overstimulated and you know, if you even watch the course of movies these days, they’re only ninety-minutes instead of a hundred and twenty minutes because nobody can maintain attention for that long anymore. So it is important to specifically pullout boredom and make provision for it.  Fostering boredom, and that curiosity and that passion for figuring something out are getting a lot more lost in this day and age of safety-ism and overstimulation.

You think about the amount of frustration that’s embedded in learning any new task that has to be modulated and managed and again, that’s where mindsight comes in. “Oh, I’m frustrated. What can I do to manage that?” Well, maybe walk away for a few minutes and come back to it. Maybe take a few deep breaths and calm down so that I can enter back into the difficulty of this. But when we are parents who want to protect our children from any kind of discomfort, they never learn to tolerate frustration. Dan Siegel talks about that. That’s really the goal of resilience is to increase this window, to tolerate things, like frustration. Our window is so narrow and you want to think about building skills that increase that window so that there’s a wider range to tolerate all kinds of challenges.

Sr. John Dominic, O.P. There’s so much in this that we can learn as educators, as parents, and the importance of helping young people, even ourselves, to cultivate courage in curiosity. For us, we want to cultivate and practice these virtues to be more integrated to have a healthy mind, healthy heart, and really ultimately, you know to become the person God created us to be.  So thank you so much for taking the time to be with us and to share your passion your field of study your experience as a mom and as a counselor, and I look forward to more conversations.