The Hugging Tree is the story of a little tree that ends up on a cliff and must grow there. He finds comfort in the sea and the moon, support from the crow, and connection and warmth from the people sitting in his shade. The Hugging Tree is a beautiful story that aims to teach children about hope and resilience. We are so honored that Jill Neimark, author of The Hugging Tree and a former editor at Psychology Today, took the time out of her schedule to answer a few questions for us about raising kids that are resilient.
What is resilience and why is it important?
Resilience is the ability to adapt to the challenges that life brings, to weather the storms that come our way and emerge intact and whole. It is the ability to bend but not break. We all face problems—from tragedies like natural disasters to our own personal health, work, school and relationship problems—and by cultivating the behaviors that enable us to be resilient, we can bounce back from troubled times. Psychologists have studied resilience for many decades, and have concluded that resilience can be taught, and that it involves a range of coping behaviors that allow us to deal with stress effectively. One of the most inspiring, decades-long studies on resilience, by the psychologist Emmy Werner, found that one-third of all high-risk children—children from very troubled homes—displayed so much resilience that they grew into caring, confident adults. By studying those children, Werner was able to distill the kinds of behaviors that foster resilience, such as patience, flexibility, gratitude, connecting with others, and not giving up.
2. How can parents encourage their children to be resilient?
In The Hugging Tree, there are many examples of how the little tree, challenged by tough and lonely life circumstances, shows resilience. Most important, the tree reaches out to others who can help—the moon, the sun, the sea, the cliff itself, and the little boy. Similarly, in Emmy Werner’s research, at-risk children often found one adult, in the household or neighborhood or school, who could help nurture them. Children can be encouraged to reach out to others for nurturing through tough times, to ask for help and guidance. In addition, a trait often found in resilient people is the ability to give to others. Again, in The Hugging Tree, the little tree offers its branches to birds to nest, and as it grows, provides shade and comfort to visitors from all over. By giving to others, research shows, we connect with our hearts, and also discover our own competence and confidence. Children can thus be encouraged to help others and be givers. Finally, patience is another trait that fosters resilience. In the book, the moon explains that tough times come and go. Like the moon, they wax and wane. Children can be encouraged to view the big picture, to know that even if something is difficult right now, that easier, happier times are waiting just around the corner.
3. What can your book, The Hugging Tree, teach children & adults about resilience?
My book is inspired by the real life story of a world-famous cypress tree that grows in northern California on the edge of a wave-lashed cliff near the sea in Monterey, California. It was very hard for that tree to grow there, and it is not as tall as cypress trees in their native habitat. But it survived, and now that tree is a tourist attraction that draws legions of marveling visitors every year. My book shows that even the toughest circumstances—when we are lonely, afraid, and undergoing enormous stress—can be overcome.
4. What are some strategies and skills children can use for coping with challenging situations?
The good news is this: Resilience isn’t necessarily a birthright. It can be taught. One important skill is learning to shift from “why” questions (“Why did this happen to me”) to “how” questions (“How can I fix this?”). Children can be encouraged to come up with solutions, and ask others for their advice on ways to fix a problem. They can also learn not to catastrophize, and fear the worst, or get lost in emotions. When children encounter a challenge–whether it’s the first time away from home at a sleepover, the first day at a new school, a test they are worried about, a problem in a friendship—it’s okay to feel a rainbow of intense emotions. But then it’s time to think through what actions to take. Encourage children to see themselves as the heroes of their own success stories. Each time a child is able to cope successfully with stressful events, they gain inner confidence and grow their own inner strength.
Need more ways to help your child become more resilient? Our April crate, “I Can Thrive: A Resilience Box” is full of fun and empowering activities for building resilience and includes The Hugging Tree by Jill Neimark.