Resilience or "You're in Charge of Your Own Imagination"

So far, my children have had amazing teachers.  One of my favorites is a teacher Amira, now 7, had in Montessori pre-school.  This woman preached two very important lessons:  "you're in charge of your own imagination" and "everybody is a part of the community."  These two principles are guiding forces for how Amira understands and moves through the world.  

A couple of weeks ago, Amira encountered behavior that really challenged these values.  To be fair, her class has really struggled to get along.  There have been incidents of bullying, biting, and hitting.  Amira has chosen to deal with this by staying out of the fray and spending time with a very sweet group of friends she made last year.   Recently, a classmate formed a group of students to "teach" during recess.  Amira and her friends were excluded because they don't have black hair.  She clearly felt rejected and hurt, and didn't understand how people could be excluded because of the color of their hair.  In her world, everyone's a part of the community, and no one can be excluded.  There were tears and anger and confusion.  At one point, I was ready to march up to the school and have a heart-to-heart with her teacher.  Amira asked us not to. She didn't want to anger her classmate, and she wanted to handle it herself.  OK, I can wait.

As parents, we have worked hard to create and find environments that will nurture the healthy development of our children.  I realize that we can do this because we have the resources, time, and energy to do so. This is clearly not true for everyone. What I wonder sometimes is how resilient can our children be if their lives have limited opportunities for adversity.  How do they learn to trust themselves if they never have to struggle and figure things out on their own?  Where is the line that divides protection from over-protection, that may inhibit the development of self-trust and competence.  

I have a close friend who has a child, "E," who's in high school now.  A while back my friend and I were talking, and I was saying what a star E is.  My friend agreed, because she is, and then stated, "but she's never had to deal with anything hard."  She was wondering the same thing, does she have the resilience to deal with the hard stuff of life?

Another close friend of mine has a son who is graduating from high school this year, and will be going off to college in the Fall.  One of my all time favorite kid stories belongs to him, "J." One day, while in elementary school, a boy came into the bathroom and threatened to beat J up.  J looked him in the eyes and said, "I guess you can try" and then walked past him and out the door.  That incident fizzled away into nothing.  I do think our children face adversity.  The politics of the "playground" can be very challenging at times.  They may not have to deal with life-threatening trauma, but they do have to negotiate complicated relationships and power dynamics.

So Amira had two hard weeks of being sad, angry, confused, and hurt.  Last week, I asked her how school was.  She was talking about a girl in another class.  I asked her if this girl was a friend of hers, and Amira said "no" that she was like her class mate.  Then she said, "You know mom, not everyone has a beautiful heart."   I love that answer.  Now we can collectively assume that all children have beautiful hearts, and that their responses to themselves and others are partly a function of their experiences.  So what IS so great about Amira's answer?  She didn't personalize the rejection.  

Back to resilience.  In the above example, Amira didn't let the other child control her internal narrative.  Amira's classmate decided that because Amira doesn't look a certain way, she wasn't allowed in this exclusive club.  Instead of taking it personally and/or shaming herself, Amira decided that that kind of thinking doesn't work for her.  She's bounced back, as only a first grader can, and is learning that she's in charge of her own beliefs and her own imagination.  If you can take charge of your internal dialogue, then you can better manage difficult situations.  In the story involving J, he heard the threat, apparently didn't get lost in all the possible implications, trusted that he could handle it, and walked away. Now that's power.

Matching Your Child's Intensity--some thoughts

Children come into the world with different levels of emotional and energetic intensity. Intense children are often seen as brilliant, precocious, creative, and sensitive, on one hand, and/or needy, oversensitive, dramatic, and quick to act out, on the other.  Where they fall on this spectrum depends, in part, on how well their experiences are reflected in their important relationships.  Mental health professionals use the terms empathic attunement to describe the quality and depth of the connection.  Children who don't get the right level of attunement may feel unanchored and lonely.  

This makes me think of my friend, Dr. Elizabeth Sylvester who runs Austin Child Therapy. When she comes to my house, she greets me and my husband, and even the dogs, in a calm, affectionate way.  But when she greets the girls, her energy level and focus increases, her eyes open wider, her manner is more animated, and her attention is often on small, positive behaviors and efforts the girls are making.  The children love her!  They clearly feel seen and valued, and brighten up when she walks in the door. Elizabeth sees and matches their intensity level.  

Wherever they fall on the intensity spectrum, children (and adults for that matter) need accurate mirroring from their adult relationships.  What happens when high intensity children don't get the right kind of positive attention?  That's when you start seeing an increase in acting out.  All children need to have their feelings and experiences reflected back to them in a meaningful way.  If they can't get the attention they crave in a positive way, they'll get it negatively.

So what does this mean for the parent of an intense child?  I think of it in two ways. One way is about matching the child's emotional energy.  This involves responding to the child using words, body language, and facial expressions that acknowlege and mirror what they're trying to communicate.  When this is done well, the child will calm down. But if you try to ignore or minimize their experience, chances are they will escalate their behavior until they get what they need.  So, for example, yesterday my intense child was crying because she missed her dad while he was taking the dogs for a walk. Typical dog walks last 20 minutes, but for whatever reason, my daughter really missed her Dad.  I started off with, "He'll be right back."  "He won't be gone for long."  "He always comes home."  Let me just say that none of this was helpful.  When I earnestly sat with her and hugged her and talked to her about how sad she was, and how much she misses her Dad, she began calming down.  I then praised her for being so brave and strong in the face of her sad feelings.  This brings us to response number two, which I have learned from Dr Sylvester.  

Response number two involves consistently articulating and praising the behavior you want to continue seeing, and ignoring (unless it's dangerous, or extreme) behavior that you don't want to encourage.  Negative attention can be as reinforcing of behavior as positive attention.  So on a good day,  I might calmly ask my daugther to stop throwing the ball in my face.  When she does it again, I might take the ball away and remind her that we don't throw balls at people's faces.  If she manages to redirect her attention to something more positive, then I jump on the opportunity to praise how well she listens and how much I appreciate her response.  If her father is there, I might tell him what a great listener she is as well.  It ends up being a mini celebration that reinforces and teaches children how to get their need for attention met in a good way.  If she picks something else up to throw, I would turn and walk away and let her know that I'd be happy to play ball with her when she stops throwing things at my face.  Again, a mini-celebration when she cooperates.