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4 Steps to Build a Gritty Family

Grit is an indelible trait that will help you achieve the best possible future for you and your family Grit can be learned over time. There are many similarities between developing grit and sound financial planning



Do you know what I love about Special Needs Families?  They are some of the grittiest people I know.  Perhaps that isn’t the compliment you were expecting.  However, I think it is the perfect illustration of what you are.  Grit.  It may be one of the most important qualities you can have….and you likely have it in abundance.  You just may not know it.  If you doubt you have it, don’t worry, you have the ability to build your gritty family.


What is Grit?


The idea of grit has recently jumped to the forefront of psychology and has made its way front and center of the education debate.  It’s a hot topic and you may already have an opinion.  Perhaps you’ve seen this famous TED Talk on the subject.


Angela Duckworth is a fascinating person.  She is a psychologist who spent much of her career in consulting before quitting and ultimately taking a job teaching 7th Grade. It changed her worldview.  She noticed that it wasn’t the most talented or smartest kids that succeeded.  Rather it was kids that had innate qualities that led to their success.  This led her to research what qualities matter in achieving success.  Her conclusion….Grit. She then went on to write a fascinating book called Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.


During her research, Duckworth conducted six different studies and found that grit significantly contributed to successful outcomes.   She studied students and found the more determined undergraduates earned higher grade point averages than their peers. She studied cadets at West Point and found the cadets with more grit were more likely to stay after the first grueling summer called Beast Barracks. She studied spelling-bee champions and found the “grittier” spellers outranked less tenacious competitors.  The most surprising finding was that success was not necessarily correlated with IQ and ability.


Here she is in Forbes:


“Of course, innate talent does matter. In other words, the DNA you inherited from your mom and dad, influences the odds of success in any career. Why? Because everything about you, from height to extraversion to IQ to grit, is influenced by your genes. But no matter your genes, so much of your destiny is under your control. Trying hard to be your best is a choice. So is having the courage to really listen to constructive criticism. Ditto for seeking out mentors and asking others, “What can I do to be more helpful?”


The idea that other qualities may matter more than IQ and ability are important.  “I don’t think anyone’s figured out how to make people smarter, but these other qualities of grit may be teachable,” she says. Her advice for those who want to achieve their maximum potential?  “If it’s important for you to become one of the best people in your field, you are going to have to stick with it when it’s hard,” she says. “Grit may be as essential as talent to high accomplishment.”


She defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long-term until you master them.” In a paper, she writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.” Fate handed you and your family a challenge.   Stay in the game.  You don’t have a choice.  Grit is a required trait for success.


A Stacked Deck


Caroline Adams Miller is another well-known writer on the idea of grit.  She authored the book Getting Grit and in an interview with author Julie Littlechild, Miller stated that grit can be learned.  She suggests three strategies that help people find their grit.


The first is stress reduction.  Miller points out that many high achievers are intentional about meditation and exercise to reduce stress.  Unfortunately, Special Needs Families are inherently stressed.


The second is your network.  Gritty people hang out with gritty people; social contagion theory in action.  Well, Special Needs Families often feel isolated and have a small network.


The third is optimism.  People can learn to be more hopeful and optimistic.  According to Miller, grit is about learning the traits of optimism and hope.  Families battling the daily grind for a child with a disability is a difficult subject.  Somedays there just doesn’t seem much to be optimistic about.


Seems like the deck is stacked against us….but there is a way forward.


Learned Optimism


Enter the idea of learned optimism.  According to renowned psychologist Martin Seligman, optimism is a choice.  Whether you are a pessimist or an optimist depends on how you explain bad events to yourself.  Permanent explanations for the causes of adversity lead to helplessness; temporary explanations produce resilience.


Children who experience a pessimistic style will learn it. A pessimistic explanatory style combined with negative life events (such as a sibling with special needs) predicts childhood depression.  Learned helplessness and depression erode the effectiveness of the immune system. In fact, one study established that learned helplessness caused cancer.


People who accumulate bad life events tend to get worn down and turn optimism into pessimism. Unsurprisingly, pessimists tend to experience more negative events, launching a self-fulfilling prophecy of lowered expectations. Because pessimists tend to give up during setbacks, they don‘t seek help or social support. They isolate themselves and become passive, giving bad events the opportunity to overwhelm them. Sound familiar?


Special Needs Families must decide to take measures to reduce their stress.  They must invest attention and passion in rebuilding their relationships.  They must choose to be optimistic in spite of their circumstances and those of their child.  Optimism leads to grit and gritty families thrive.  So how do we build gritty families?


Building Gritty Families


Step one: Learn to be optimistic by developing a positive vision for the future.  Caroline Adam’s Miller provides us with a methodology to do just that.  She calls it identifying your best possible future.  The exercise requires you to write about your life 10 years from now as if everything has gone as well as possible and your dreams have become a reality. This is an optimal time frame for contemplating the fruits of long-term labor.  It helps you re-prioritize your life. It puts you in touch with who you want to be in the future. It generates more hope and optimism for your future, which are essential mindsets for grit.  According to Adams, by going into the future and then coming back to the present, and doing it in that order, you set up a situation called “mental contrasting.” When we visualize our ideal future, and then bring ourselves back to the present to contemplate whatever obstacles stand in our way, we are more committed to taking the first steps than if we start where we are today and think about what has to happen to make our future dreams a reality, which can feel overwhelming.


Step two: Determine what you must do to achieve that future self.  In order to determine how to achieve that future self, you must develop achievable objectives.  Humans are predisposed to short-term thinking.  To achieve your future self, you must be deliberate in the development and execution of your goals. Check out my piece on S.M.A.R.T. goals to see how to properly align your effort with your vision. People will experience greater optimism with increased progression towards a goal. Even thinking about a positive situation is thought to have the same effect as behavior that brings a goal closer, leading to increased confidence in successes.


Step three: Develop a strong support system. While Special Needs Families can often find themselves in isolation, there does exist a community if you just look hard enough.  When facing difficult situations, having a strong support system is essential. Deep and meaningful relationships play a vital role in overall well-being. Past research has shown that individuals with supportive and rewarding relationships have better mental health, higher levels of subjective well-being, and lower rates of mortality.  According to Brooke Feeney of Carnegie Mellon University “Relationships serve an important function of not simply helping people return to baseline, but helping them to thrive by exceeding prior baseline levels of functioning….. and emphasize that the promotion of thriving through adversity is the core purpose of this support function.”  Some places to go to build your support system are:


Special Needs Organizations: Look for organizations that often have regular activities, outings, group events, and support meetings.  Through regular attendance of these events, you will likely make connections with other like-minded individuals and families.  Finding others to socialize with who “get you” is both important and rewarding.  An additional benefit to joining one of these organizations is the opportunity to stay up to date on the latest news and research.


School: When your child begins school, this also presents another opportunity for you to network and meet other parents.  Socialization for you and your child can happen at after-school programs, play dates, school trips.  We all need other parents in our lives and school presents one of the best opportunities to find them.  Don’t shun the opportunity.  Keep yourself open, strike up a conversation while waiting for the bell to ring.  You’ll be happy you did.


Online: As much as I hesitate to have you rely on a virtual community, your online life can be a significant factor in developing key relationships.  There may not be a single other family facing the same challenges nearby.  Often our children have very unique and rare conditions.  Finding an online community that inherently understands what you are going through is incredibly helpful.  Early on we learned the benefit by joining a Facebook group just for families with Dravet.  The advice, emotional support, and information that other parents provide are priceless.


Family: It is not uncommon for Special Needs Families to shut out relatives.  Perhaps they just can’t understand what you are going through, or maybe there is a fear of creating a burden or overwhelming relatives with the needs of the child.  Your family won’t understand what you are going through.  They can’t possibly get it.  However, give them a chance to try.  They may not know how to act around your child and never will unless you give them an opportunity and include them in the nitty-gritty of your life.  Having a strong family connection is as important for your child as it is for you.


Special Needs Financial Planners:  Finding a good financial planner can be incredibly important in helping you build your community of committed professionals.  A financial planner who specializes in Special Needs can help you bridge the gap between where you are today and your best possible future.  They should specialize in organizing your financial life and implementing strategies to help you achieve financial independence, not just for you, but also for your child.  Along with an Elder Law Attorney, this may be your most important professional relationship.


Step four: Persevere when things get hard; believe you can change and grow.  In order to persevere, you must build a “growth mindset”. Carol Dweck studied the impact on the mindset and student performance.  According to Dweck, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset). And when students learned through a structured program that they could “grow their brains” and increase their intellectual abilities, they did better.  In order to persevere through hard times, know that you can grow and learn from the situation.  Next time will be better because of what you are going through today.  It may be hell, but you can still learn from it.


Building gritty families takes time.  You will undoubtedly face difficult experiences, but grit is an indelible trait that will help you achieve the best possible future for you and your family.  Develop a vision for what the future looks like.  Set S.M.A.R.T. goals to achieve your intermediate objectives.  Spend time nurturing relationships and build a strong support system.  Believe you can grow and persevere when things get tough.


Financial Grit


There are many similarities between developing gritty families and sound financial planning. In fact, financial planning will help you develop grit.  Doing the right things financially will provide your family the flexibility to persevere when times are tough.   Financial planning builds optimism.  A sound financial plan will help you achieve your vision of a future self. In my post about the Savings Imperative we identified key components in building financial resiliency and grit in our financial lives:

  1. Learn to budget
  2. Pay down your debt
  3. Prepare for emergencies
  4. Plan for your own future by saving for retirement and investing wisely
  5. Write a letter of intent
  6. Establish a Special Needs Trust
  7. Start an ABLE account
  8. Protect your family with appropriate insurance policies
  9. Plan for your own life’s goals



Want to see how gritty you are? Go Take the Test.

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