Two years ago, Sheryl Sandberg -- by any definition, one of the most successful business leaders of my generation -- suffered a horrible tragedy when her husband, Dave Goldberg, passed away suddenly on vacation in Mexico.
The Facebook COO and best-selling author faced not only an immense personal loss but also the challenge of guiding her children, then 7 and 10 years old, in the wake of such trauma.
Working with her friend Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Sandberg has come out with a new book, Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy. I read the book last night; it's extremely well-written and touching.
In the New York Times this week, Sandberg summarized some of what she learned about building kids' resilience, even after they've endured tragedy. (Update: check out the seven most important words in the entire book.)
1. Let your kids know that you love them, big time.
In a super-viral article a few years ago, author Christie Halverson gave her best advice on raising kids: "Love them fiercely. Love everything about them, even the annoying stuff. Love them for their actions and their intentions. Let them know in word and deed how much you adore them. Daily."
Sandberg writes that she learned this was her first job as a parent, even as she was dealing with her own unimaginable grief:
"I turned for advice to a friend who counsels grieving children," Sandberg wrote in the Times. "She said that the most important thing was to tell my kids over and over how much I loved them and that they were not alone."
2. Make sure your kids know that they matter.
One of the difficulties Sandberg writes about in Option B is that other people often don't know how to react to people who have suffered trauma. Sometimes -- and we all do this -- we avoid even talking about the trauma, for fear of being awkward or dredging up unwanted memories.
Unfortunately, that can send not-so-subtle messages that grief and trauma don't matter, which is the exact opposite of what anyone going through trauma needs. So it's your job as a parent to make sure you kids know that they and their feelings are important.
"Sociologists define 'mattering' as the belief that other people notice you, care about you and rely on you. It's the answer to a vital question that all children ask about their place in the world starting as toddlers, and continuing into and beyond adolescence: Do I make a difference to others?" Sandberg writes. "When the answer is no, kids feel rejected and alone."
3. Remind them that their feelings matter.
This is related to the second piece of advice, and frankly, it's among my favorite bits of counsel anywhere. We're surrounded by self-help lists and better-life tips these days. Paradoxically, one of the most important things to do in almost any situation is to give yourself a break, remember that you're a human being, and that human beings are inherently fallible.
In other words, we all fall short of the idealized standard. I do it pretty much every day. Sandberg says she sat down on an afternoon with her son and daughter to write out some "family rules" that would remind them of the coping mechanisms they need -- and that their feelings are legitimate, normal, and necessary. Among the rules:
- It's OK to be sad and to take a break from any activity to cry.
- It's OK to be happy and laugh.
- It's OK to be angry and jealous of friends and cousins who still have fathers.
- It's OK to say to anyone that we do not want to talk about it now.
- It's always OK to ask for help.
"The poster we made that day," she writes, "with the rules written by my kids in colored markers -- still hangs in our hall so we can look at it every day. It reminds us that our feelings matter and that we are not alone."
4. Walk alongside them.
As a parent, you'll never have the answers to all of your children's problems -- and in fact, there's a good argument that in many cases, you shouldn't try to solve them all for them, even if you do have the answers. But that doesn't mean leaving them to their own devices, of course. As Sandberg writes, there is value in simply "'companioning' -- walking alongside them and listening."
Throughout the book, Sandberg credits Grant with offering her more than platitudes when they talked about grief together, and instead grounding what he suggested they explore in experience and research. For example, she writes, he told her about some "evidence-based programs at Arizona State University that help families cope with parental loss and divorce," which have led children to earn higher grades, and have fewer mental health or substance abuse problems.
"These programs teach parents to create and maintain warm and strong relationships, communicate openly with children, use effective discipline, avoid depression and help their children develop coping skills and strategies," she writes.
5. Remind them of the power of gratitude.
It's one thing to know on an intellectual level that you probably have a much more charmed life than most people in the world. It's another thing entirely to be able to appreciate that on a day-to-day basis. I know I fall short on this count; I'm sure most others do too.
But how do you find the wisdom to practice gratitude when you've just lost a spouse or a parent? At some points it was hard to imagine what she had to be grateful for, Sandberg writes in the book, but her coauthor Grant gave her an example that affected her and inspired her to try to lead her children:
"Dave could have had that same cardiac arrhythmia driving your children," Sandberg recalled Grant telling her. "Wow. The thought that I could have lost all three of them had never occurred to me. I instantly felt overwhelmingly grateful that my children were alive and healthy."
6. Remind them of the past.
One of Sandberg's great fears, she writes, was that her children would eventually forget what their father had been like. They were young when he died. Would they remember his voice, his presence, his demeanor?
She found one solution by asking dozens of Goldberg's friends and colleagues to record videos in which they talked about their memories of him, and then asked her children to record their memories as well. But another, perhaps more ongoing and practical, solution was simply to continue talking about him -- and to tell stories of their family's history.
"It's especially powerful to share stories about how the family sticks together through good times and bad, which allows kids to feel that they are connected to something larger than themselves," Sandberg writes. "Studies show that giving all members of the family a chance to tell their version builds self-esteem, particularly for girls. And making sure to integrate different perspectives into a coherent story builds a sense of control, particularly for boys."
7. Understand that resilience itself is a renewable resource.
Having been privileged to count several wounded warriors among my close friends, I've sometimes wondered whether the resilience they display -- and the ability to experience not just recovery but posttraumatic growth -- is something that can be developed after the injury.
The other alternative would be to work on it ahead of time. It seems Sandberg asked that question herself, and came up with some good news: "Resilience isn't a fixed personality trait; we're not born with a set amount of it. Resilience is a muscle we can help kids build."
This really is good news. Nobody goes through life being handed only roses, Sandberg writes. And so, whether you or your children are going through tough times or not, it still makes sense to work on building that resilience muscle now, before it's needed.