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Part 2

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Bringing Up Children in Distressing Times - Part 2

In Part 1 of “Bringing up” Children in Distressing Times we heard the story of Suzie and her “big sad.” We attended to the principal’s wise attuned engagement, through which he was able to facilitate Suzie’s return to joy/peace. In doing so, the principal was careful to:


  • Remain at peace when walking into a highly charged situation.
  • Reset the emotional-relational atmosphere of the classroom/home.
  • Attune to Suzie without becoming enmeshed.
  • Honor the distress coming from Suzie’s voice without taking it too seriously.
  • Give Suzie hope. “Let me know when big sad is only this big.”
  • Give relational time. It took a while for Suzie to get beyond her big sad.
  • Take advantage of a teachable moment, without forcing it.

Building Resilience

The story of the principal and Suzie was primarily about recovery from a distressed brain state, but this is only half of the work that is to be accomplished. It is also the responsibility of parents and teachers to build resilience. Resilience is the capacity to absorb adversity without slipping into a dysfunctional, distressed brain state. The greater the resilience, the less likely a child (or anyone for that matter) is to respond adversely, regardless of what is happening in the environs. Eight practices for building resilience will be the topic of this blog.


1. Take care of the brain by taking care of the body. Human persons are bodily beings. If our bodies are not well cared for, we do not do well. If this is true of adults, it is even more true for children. Always, but particularly in stressful times, it is essential to ensure that children get plenty of exercise, sufficient sleep, and a healthy diet, one low in simple carbohydrates. If life on sugar, caffeine, and little sleep make adults more prone to emotional outbursts, how much more is this true for children?


2. Learn the power of redirection. Hourly, most of us have at least one  distressing thought flit across our minds. If we give this thought attention, even by arguing with it, the thought becomes increasingly more potent and distressing. In contrast, if one has learned the habit of redirecting  a thought to “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable… anything worthy of praise,”[1] these initially distressing thoughts lose their power. An alert adult can be of great assistance to a child who has not yet learned this skill. Daily, we have seen children of increasingly distressed minds relieved, when peacefully redirected by the simple task of going to get a drink of water or handing out the science books.


3. Establish joyful routines and good order. External order supports internal order. Assuming it is not being maintained by an anxious, angry parent, routines and good order promote security and peace. Children experience a greater degree of emotional well-being when they know what to expect of each day – time to rise, time to sleep, time for meals, time for chores, time for schoolwork, time for play, time for family and time for prayer. Moving from little or no routine to joyful routine can be challenging, as is any change. The challenge is more on the part of the adults than the children. Children adapt quickly if there is gracious, peaceful reasonableness and consistency, but reasonableness and consistency on the part of adults is essential. Children disdain what they experience as arbitrary.


4. Build grateful hearts. Some of us give most of our thought and our talk to that which is worrisome and distressing. Others give most of our thought and our talk to that which is good and appreciated. The latter are far happier people and far better equipped to deal with distress. Appreciation inoculates us against a distressed brain. One cannot feel both appreciation and distress at the same time. Children tend to catch either a worrisome or appreciative orientation from their parents, either the habit of dark thoughts or the habit of sweet thoughts. The latter are far happier children and far better equipped to deal with life’s distresses. Whether around the dinner table or as part of a bedtime routine, spending a few minutes remembering the blessings of the day nurtures a grateful heart. It  is important that such a routine not be a dead litany but an active remembering, re-experiencing, and appreciating of these blessings.


5. Share stories, especially heart-felt stories. When we share part of our story with someone who is interested and cares, the joy in the story gets multiplied and any associated distress is reduced. Parents and teachers are in a potent place to serve children in this way. Children need us to hear them, to be open, curious, and engaged. They need a gentle, encouraging response that communicates interest, support, and empathy.
Related is the sharing of story through a regular time of family read-a-loud from a classic story. The adventures and adversity in a worthy story  do much to inform the hearts of children,  particularly when experienced in community. As we interact around shared stories, they tell us who we are and how we do life together.


6. Provide worthy “mind food” and worthy work. Engaging the mind with idea-rich learning and with fruitful work provides a mental and emotional satisfaction that inoculates the brain against overwhelming distress, providing something to give attention to. A child’s lament of “I’m bored,” “There’s nothing to do” and the like quickly contaminate the atmosphere, leading to distressed brains.


7. Get out in nature. There is something emotionally healing and restorative about being out in nature, whether walking through a park or studying a plant in the yard. Even the painting of a clipped flower has some of the life-giving effects of nature.


8. Minimize screen time. Television and video games have a powerful effect on our bodies and our minds. Such media are designed to play upon our autonomic  nervous and endocrine systems, taking advantage of the body’s heightened response to keep us tuned into the screen and out of life.Children do not leave time with TV and video games feeling emotionally refreshed; rather, they become increasingly fragile and reactive. Screens may provide a temporary distraction for children and a break for parents, but there is a price to be paid. The more time on screen, the higher the price of dissatisfaction, resulting in  vulnerabilities to all that is in the “air.”


If this is all new, these eight suggestions for building resilience may seem overwhelming. It is important to be wise. Begin by thinking about where to start?  Do what you can and build upon it. You and your children will be blessed by your efforts.


Some Final Thoughts

The ability to manage emotional distress well and stay one’s best self is a learned skill. A few may be naturals, such as the congenitally light-hearted and positive. While they seem  inoculated against distress,  most of us must learn from a trusted adult who will walk closely with us.


It is worth asking the question, How good am I at managing emotional distress and staying my best self? How good are my children at it? Are we content to leave our children to their nature? They are not capable of doing that which they do not know how to do. Are we willing to grow up ourselves and to help them grow?


Unusually distressing times such as these turn up the temperature, increasing general levels of distress. The good news is that the principles for supporting child resilience and recovery from distress remain the same, even in times like these. And such times provide opportunities for everyone’s growth. We encourage Ambleside teachers to pray regularly that whatever areas of immaturity are present in the students be brought to the fore. This is a courageous prayer. But what is the alternative? Only that a student’s weakness remains hidden and maturity elusive. This is a challenging prayer. It requires that we all grow into the kind of adults that can stay our “best selves,” even when our children are less than their “best selves,” and that we learn to respond in a manner that cultivates greater maturity for all.


May God’s grace be upon us, as we are His instruments in the loving nurture, the “bringing up” of the children given to our care.


[1] Philippians 4:8 (NRSV)

*Image courtesy of Matthew Henry all rights reserved. Creative Commons.