Steps to Building Resiliency in Children and Teens
When the new school year begins, many parents are relieved that their children are once again in a structured environment and with their peers, and no longer playing video games or fighting with siblings! For children and teens, it is a huge transition from being carefree with no homework and little pressure, to waking up earlier with the demands of homework, sports and extra-curricular activities, an increase in social interactions and added peer pressure. Many children can become overwhelmed with the expectations of teachers, coaches, parents and friends. This can increase the likelihood of anger outbursts, anxiety, lack of motivation and feelings of helplessness. With the increasing demands placed upon children these days, they need to learn to become resilient. Building resilience – the ability to adapt well to adversity, threats, sources of stress, tragedy and trauma can help your children and teens thrive despite these challenges.
In raising my children, I certainly remember how difficult it was to juggle sports and extra-curricular activities, healthy meals, completion of homework, doctor appointments, social engagements and holidays. It was a daunting task to manage the scheduling alone. As parents, we must manage a tight schedule when shuffling our children to activities, but often the relationship with your child or teen can suffer greatly as a result of these obligations. As a parent, you are your child’s first teacher, and teaching about resiliency is a gift that you can give them that will provide a foundation of security and decrease their anxiety considerably. This begins with the following:
Connection : You must connect with your child/teen emotionally every day. You must talk to them face to face and preferably over a meal (dinner). You need to make eye contact and reflect back to them what you heard them say. This doesn’t mean taking on their problems, but it means talking to them about how they feel and not talking at them. Ask them to share what their day was like at school and what they enjoyed most and what they enjoyed least. Guide them to share using feeling words (happy, overwhelmed, sad, confused, afraid, confident, ignored, etc). Ask them to talk to you about what they are learning. Children will often be eager to share about the subjects they were taught if you ask. Reflecting is a wonderful tool for connection as your child will feel heard and validated. They will think they are important because you took that individual time with them to learn about their inner world and this is the best way to build that connection. Remember to reflect their emotion by using feeling words. For example, “It seems as if you are worried about your science homework.” To build resiliency, you must then hand the problem to them in a way that empowers them to think. For example, “Gosh, I know science can be difficult. What do you think you need to do to prepare for the test this Friday.” This will help your child think for themselves, solve their own problem and establish goals. These are the foundations for building skills of resiliency. Remember never to judge, compare a sibling or friend or yourself, criticize, blame, or lecture. You will lose the connection and your child/teen will be reluctant if not completely resistant to connect.
ANTS: I absolutely love this acronym, as it represents an easy way to help a child/teen remember to check in with their own thought processes. This acronym stands for Automatic Negative Thoughts. Research indicates that humans have an average of 60-80,000 thoughts per day, of which 80 percent of those thoughts are habitually negative. Through MRI scans, research has proven that negative thoughts stimulate the areas of the brain that promote depression and anxiety. These are the same areas that are stimulated when we have physical pain. They have also proven that positive thoughts set off a cascade of Oxytocin and other feel good chemicals that change our brain chemistry. Our brains are hardwired to remember the negative experiences we encounter more than the positive ones. We are designed to survive, therefore if faced with the same situation again, we can protect ourselves, physically and emotionally.
To create feelings of happiness, we have to remember to work on our thoughts, just like we exercise our bodies. When we learn to recognize the ANTS, we can develop our own inner “ant eater” and replace those thoughts with positive ones, or question our thoughts. When we question our thoughts, we change the relationship with our thinking and we are able to choose what we believe and what we respond to in our lives. As parents, you are your child’s model for building resiliency. If your child hears you complaining, worrying, talking about how bad the world is, getting angry over things you can’t control, criticizing, blaming, threatening, yelling, and using foul language, your child will grow up to be negative thinkers and develop these same types of attitudes and behaviors.
Children are little sponges and they want to be just like us, whether we are positive role models or not. Even if your child doesn’t have these attitudes and actions, they will be damaged internally by the messages you are sending. I am not trying to lay a guilt trip on parents here. I am seeking to create an awareness of the impact your own thoughts and words have on a building your child’s resiliency. Once you are aware of your responsibility to eat those ANTS, you can teach your child to do the same. For example, when a child says, “I can’t do this”, or “this is too hard”, or “I am not good at math”, you are hearing their ANTS. If you can teach them that those are ANTS, they can learn to self talk and use their inner ant eater. Relaxation and “downtime” can restore a child’s ability to think more clearly. When parents take the time to relax themselves, they model self-care, which promotes positive thinking.
Goal setting: The ability to establish goals helps children feel as if they have more control. Talk to your child/teen about what types of goals they have for themselves. Often children can’t think that far ahead and parents can see the bigger picture and help them dream. An easy way to start the talk about goals is to use a goals worksheet. There are many examples on line that you can use that break the process down incrementally, helping children understand the concrete and measurable steps they need to take to reach their goals. Goal setting is a way that children learn to develop what is referred to as an internal locus of control, as opposed to an external locus of control. When children develop an internal locus of control, they learn that hard work is the key to their success. They begin to understand that they are responsible for their success, and see the results of their efforts. This establishes the motivation that is necessary for success, not only in academics, but in all that they seek to achieve.
In closing, I want to remind you that each day offers opportunities to build resiliency in your children. We can miss those opportunities when we are too focused on our own problems, work, social engagements, media, or neglect to take the time with our children. The time that you spend with your children now will not only impact them, but impact future generations, as they learn that the world isn’t such a bad place to be and life can be enjoyable. When our children feel loved, they learn to “find the good.”
Love Your Enemies
God commands us to love our enemies. Who are our enemies? They could be living with you in the same household or they could be your close family members. They could be someone at the office that you see every day and cringe when you have to associate with them. It is never easy to love someone that has hurt us, especially when you believe they intended to do you harm. However, there is grace in suffering and there is much grace in loving those that hurt us. God gives us the grace to love the unlovable, or those that we don't feel like loving at the time.
Many times we expect too much from others and we are disappointed when they don't follow through as we thought they would, or we wish they would. I am referring to those expectations that we place on others that need to be reserved for God. We sometimes expect others to fulfill that deep longing we have for love and companionship, but often that hole in our heart is a God shaped hole and we shouldn't expect any other human being to fill it. We need to ask God to fill it by spending time with Him and telling Him what we are feeling. There is no greater healer than God and He always wants the very best for us in our relationships. Sometimes those that we expect so much from really don't have a clue about what our needs are. But God does. He sees hearts and he knows our longings. We just have to be still sometimes.
So, perhaps there is someone in your life that has really let you down. Someone has not fulfilled that need you have or expectation you desired. Perhaps they didn't intentionally try and hurt you. God sees hearts and we are not supposed to judge. We are supposed to forgive and let God handle the rest. Is there some hurt you need to let go of today, or someone you need to love unconditionally? God doesn't want us to be hurt, but He wants us to let Him handle our pain and suffering. Are you going to give your suffering to God and let Him heal your heart? All you have to do is ask. God is love and He has more than enough to go around.
In God's love,