Building Emotional Resilience in Children (from a Biblical Worldview)
What is the reassurance a child needs when they discover Dad loves alcohol more than he wants to provide for them? What hope does a child need to know when Mum is terminally ill? What reassurance would be strong enough for them to cling to when their parents decide divorce is their best option?
“Emotional resilience” is a term that has been coined by psychologists, social workers and health professionals as they seek to discover answers to a relatively recent phenomenon: the frightening rise of anxiety, depression and hopelessness. Descriptions such as the ability to bounce back, the ability to be optimistic, to be able to come through adversity, to see things as a ‘glass half full,’ or to grow stronger rather than cave in, are often used to express a person’s emotional resilience.
The complexities of these conditions are outside the scope of this article and do not deny the inter-play of all manner of contributing factors. However, the place of developing emotional resilience is vital and therefore will be the focus here. This rise of anxiety, depression and hopelessness is also seen in children, or may begin in childhood. Why some children cope well in stress or disaster and some fall apart has long been of interest to professionals. Exploring the development of emotional resilience in children will be the focus of this article.
The Formative Years
It is widely accepted that the early childhood years are the formative ones for our most foundational beliefs. This is a time when beliefs develop that set up a developing mind to be either friend or foe to itself. It is also a time that needs to be monitored because children are great recorders of their experiences, but poor interpreters of them and so unfortunately, just one faulty, destructive belief can wreak havoc when it goes unidentified for years. For example, if a child goes to bed with a wrong conclusion, eventually they will wake up with a wrong belief. If they continue to go to bed with that wrong belief they will eventually wake up with a wrong attitude. Repeatedly going to sleep with that wrong attitude will mean they wake up with a wrong character.
Healthy children don’t grow by chance and they don’t come with instruction manuals. Being responsible for a child is certainly not easy, and now, more than any other time in history, we need to consider how to intentionally set our children’s minds up to agree with God and his perspective.
Our post-modern society protests that there are no right or wrong beliefs, and true and false don’t really exist. Children are encouraged to sculpt their own ‘reality,’ and in order to protect the developing ego, poisonous thinking goes unchallenged by those around the child. They say 'it takes a village to raise a child,' but what if the village is no longer doing its job in raising strong, secure, emotionally healthy children? More and more we see young people growing up with no road map for a healthy and resilient mind, and in fact, not many people even know what a healthy mind might look like. For most children now days, life is like a dense jungle, so the need for an accurate map is even more important.
Romans 12: 2 tells us that the only way to avoid being conformed to this world is to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Understanding and meditating on Scripture and being filled and taught by the Holy Spirit will ground us in purpose, a belief in a loving Creator and a hope for a perfect, eternal future. This can be protective in times of trial.
But there is more we can do, including the technique of “tracing, facing and replacing.” This idea is similar to Misbelief Therapy (1) and suggests that once a belief, a conclusion, or a deep assumption is traced back and faced (acknowledged), there is need for it to be replaced with truth and possible strategies or life skills (2).
One practice that parents can use is the daily debrief. This acts as one of the most powerful tools we can enlist to keep an eye on children’s developing perspectives, assumptions, beliefs and conclusions about life, God, others and themselves. It might look something like this:
- Around the night meal (without TV or technology) develop the habit of a ‘daily debrief.’ If you are all morning people, breakfast may be better for you.
- Keep it casual and informal and don’t put pressure on your child.
- Initiate the ‘best thing about my day’ and the ‘worst thing about my day’ discussion. Encourage anyone who wants to share to do so.
- Be careful to listen to each person as they speak, always ensuring that the person talking isn’t interrupted, spoken over the top of, or brushed aside.
- Remember that no one cares what we know until they know that we care, so listening, validating and affirming should be taken seriously.
- Listen out for any comments that could develop into ‘stink thinking’ – for example, “no one played with me today…my teacher doesn’t like me…I am not as smart as…..”
- Take opportunities to re-frame discussions about the ‘worst’ things to help the child adjust their perspective so that it aligns with God’s view. For example, you could say, “it must have felt lonely having no one play with you today” This validates that they have been heard. Then you could say, “has that happened to you before?” (Drawing in siblings can be helpful). Then you could say something like, “what might God have wanted to say to you when you were by yourself today?”
- Scripture, devotions and prayer may also be tools for this time but be careful not to give clichés that will miss the mark. Try not to say, "just pray and leave it with God” or “God loves you and doesn’t want you to feel that way.” Try to specifically address issues.
It seems that a vital difference between children who eventually ‘bounce back’ from trauma, stress, gross disappointments and injustices, and those who don’t, is whether or not they have access to internal reassurance and hope. This access is crucial if the child is to come through trauma without it doing permanent damage.
M. Scott Peck declared that “life is difficult,” (3) and most people, if not all, will agree with that statement. In this day and age, counsellors see more and more young people who suggest a more apt statement might be “life is too difficult.” Indeed, unless one’s mind is one’s friend and is offering encouragement and hope, the only available road is one of insecurity, fear, hopelessness and sick thinking. Childhood gives the best opportunity to identify and correct faulty assumptions at their origin. This may protect against the need for counselling, or training the mind later in life when we’re in so much pain and trouble.
MY LIFE RULZ is one programme that explores the development of emotional resilience in children. Co-authors Jo Koskela (Living Wisdom Counselling, Australia) and David Riddell (Dean of Living Wisdom NZ) are counsellors teaching on resilience and emotional health from a Biblical worldview. They have been searching for powerful, fun and simple ways to cultivate resilient young minds that withstand the challenges of life and lead to a successful life. The programme is based on ten foundational assumptions (which all agree with Scripture) that can be intentionally laid down as a building platform in the depths of a young mind to set it up for emotional health and resilience. It is a resource to identify many of the common toxic, destructive beliefs that are beginning to be laid down in a child’s mind, and offers several profound truths that will antidote these toxic beliefs before they have chance to take root. It is a simple way to offer the mind options, reassurance and hope, which in turn will develop emotional resilience when believed and over time, deeply understood. It is a unique and valuable resource centering around the Children’s Book (which comes with a User Guide DVD), an excellently produced Song CD, Truth Cards, a Christian Primary School Programme and Children’s Church Programme. The nature of the book invokes valuable discussion and exploration of crucial formative issues such as self-esteem, identity, worth, injustice and disappointment. It’s a mandatory resource for parents, teachers, grandparents, chaplains, organisations and carers who understand the incredible value of our most precious resource – our children. Check out myliferulz.com.
1. William Backus and Marie Chapian. 1980. Telling Yourself the Truth. Bethany House Publishers. Minnesota.
2. David. J Riddell. 1986. Living Wisdom. Nelson. New Zealand
3. M. Scott Peck. 1978. The Road Less Travelled. Simon & Schuster. New York.
Jo Koskela is a counsellor working for Living Wisdom Counselling in Australia and is co-author of MY LIFE RULZ. This article has drawn on concepts, principles and training from David J Riddell, the Dean of Living Wisdom, NZ.
Photo Credit: your/shutterstock.com