Several years ago, when my daughter was five, she played soccer and got kicked in the shin during a game. From the sidelines, judging by her behavior, it seemed like the leg would have to be amputated. We were able to save the leg (with a bag of ice), but she never really recovered emotionally.
She takes after her father in this way.
Eventually, she finished the season and decided she’d rather dabble in extracurriculars with lower odds of getting kicked with a cleat—dance and gymnastics and piano, for instance. However, this autumn, she decided to try soccer again.
The first practice, she looked like Frogger.
She ducked and dodged away from every other player on the field. When the ball came toward her, she turned away from it and hugged herself tightly. She never actually fell onto the grass in the fetal position, but it seemed like it could happen at any moment. She explained that the kids at this level were bigger and she was afraid of getting kicked in the face with the soccer ball. I told her the odds were long that it would ever happen.
By the time our third game rolled around, she’d become less afraid and more aggressive on the field, refusing to back down on defense and inserting herself into the scrum for a loose ball. Her fear appeared to be melting away for good.
Then it happened.
A giant, precociously pubescent fourth grader launched a ball directly into her little third grade face. I didn’t see it happen—I was busy trying to get four players on the sidelines to sit still and quit squirting water bottles at each other. But, when she arrived at the sideline, the evidence was there: a big, rosy welt covering most of her left check. She was in tears, head in hands.
But I’ll be honest, a part of me was glad it happened.
This was her biggest fear about soccer, and you can’t play your best soccer if you don’t know that you will be able to endure your biggest fear. The same is true of life. A good life isn’t one in which we avoid all of the loss and heartache and disappointment and loneliness and rejection and failure of being alive; a good life is one in which we become confident we can survive all that pain.
In life, most of our anxiety comes from fearing the soccer balls that will be kicked in our face, while most of our resilience comes from feeling them.
So, I looked at her and I said something that caught her off guard: I told her to pay attention to the pain. I told her to get some water, feel the hurt, start counting seconds, and come tell me when the pain had subsided a little. I told her I wanted to know how long the pain lasted.
A few minutes later, I felt a tug at my elbow.
Her face was still red, but her tears were gone, replaced by a glint in her eye. She told me it wasn’t hurting that much anymore. She told me the pain had lasted about three minutes. I crouched down on her level, looked her in the eye and told her that her greatest fear had come true and, three short minutes later, she had survived it.
I’m not always this intentional with my kids, but she happened to take a soccer ball to the face around the time I was talking with a parenting group about raising resilient children, so I was more aware of practicing what I preach. And it’s autumn, which means a bunch of young people on my caseload who were high school seniors just a few months ago are heading off to college. It also means a bunch of college freshman are going to be returning home in the next few weeks, having already dropped out. This is happening at an increasingly alarming rate. Why? Well, it’s complicated, but here’s at least one reason:
No one is making them count the painful seconds.
Kids go away to college and get homesick, and their confidence gets shaken by the increased academic rigor, and the social adjustment is sometimes painful, and adulting in general feels a little scary and overwhelming. Not so long ago, young people were expected to endure the discomfort of it all—to count the seconds until the pain of it all subsided—but these days we’re more inclined to rescue them from the pain. We bring them home in the hope of ending their pain, when what they need to practice is enduring their pain. That’s how they discover their resilience. That’s how they discover their strength.
That’s how they discover their true self.
A week after the ball to the face, it’s the afternoon of our next game. I’m wondering how Caitlin will respond after last week’s pain. Will she refuse to go out on the field? Will she revert to her old, Frogger ways? In other words, will she remember the girl who got kicked in the face, or will she remember the girl who counted to three minutes and survived? We’re collecting shin guards, knee high socks, and water bottles when I get an answer.
“Dad,” she says, “I’ve been practicing my karate kicks, and I’m going to use them in the game.”
I think about telling her the referees will probably not be okay with her kicking other players in the chest with cleats. But I decide against it. She’s not really planning to kick anyone. She’s not telling me what she’s going to do.
She’s telling me who she is.
Connect with Kelly
Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable, and his next book, True Companions, will be published in 2021.