Feeling Into Fall: Cultivating Resilience in Our Children Part One
By Colleen Drobot
Summer’s over, now it’s fall, just the nicest time of all. I remember reading that poem in the early weeks of primary school and feeling like it was a big crock. Summer, not fall! was the nicest time of all because I could play and be free and be with my mom and not have any pressure to perform or get things right. I could wake up slowly, camp outside, eat treats, and not have to be conscious of behaving or fitting in. My teacher probably felt the same way about summer.
I know my mother welcomed the fall, which brought some respite from my siblings and me. Many parents long for the return of structure, healthy eating, bedtime routines, and yes, a break from their children, as much as they love them.
But for a child, the end to summer can be a big loss. Endings are hard for human beings. Although we may be excited about the future, we sometimes hold onto the past. Many children, particularly sensitive ones, don’t want to get older; they find new ventures alarming, and they would prefer to avoid change. Transitions can be hard on all of us, particularly for children, as it means the unknown is coming, something bad could happen, and they may not be able to control or stop it. Yet, change is inevitable and therefore our children must cope and hopefully gain resilience to deal with it.
There is so much children (and we!) cannot change or control. They cannot control winning all the time, being the best, being first, being liked or fitting in. They cannot control whether their sibling treats them well or hurts them. They cannot control whether their friends invite them to play or leave them out. They cannot control keeping mom and dad together, keeping grandma healthy, or keeping their pet safe at all times. This lack of control can create much frustration and alarm. These difficult emotions are par for the course for all of us when we cannot change or control our experience. But if emotions such as frustration or anxiety have no outlet and get stuck, they wreak havoc on our minds, bodies and behaviour. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work to shove them down and hope they go away. To be resilient, we must feel them, allow them to move through us, and express them in some way. Talking with someone we trust, moving our bodies, and creating art are all healthy ways to express what exists inside of us. For children, play is also an extremely important way to work through difficult feelings and experiences. If we continue to resist these challenging feelings, the system gets plugged up and stuck. And so does the maturation process.
As parents, we would do well to keep this in mind this month as transitions abound for our children. New schedules, new teachers, new bedtimes, and new activities can create upset and anxiety, causing behaviours in our children such as clinginess, tantrums and many tears. The good news is, as humans, we all have the capacity to adapt, to accept, and to surrender to things beyond our control. But it takes time. We must feel all the emotions that accompany the adjustment. If a child can feel their frustration or alarm, be conscious of it and express it (in a non-harming way) then the prognosis is good that they will adjust and thrive.
So how can we help our children become resilient in the face of change, loss, and difficult experiences? As developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld teaches, there are 3 keys to helping our children become resilient, learn and grow from life’s difficulties. Let’s take a look at the first important key (more to come in subsequent posts).
One of the most important keys to helping children become resilient is to allow or invite your children to have a good cry when they are upset. We must grieve what we cannot change. Not every child will spontaneously do so, but if your child can have a draining cry it releases pent up emotions. The tears may start out as frustration, with yelling, complaining, whining, and basically fighting their experience. But if we can hang in there with them, sometimes the tears will slowly shift from tears of frustration to just a good cry that leads to acceptance of their situation. You will actually see and hear the energy shift as the limbic system (the emotional system) is engaged. The child’s body will soften, they will often allow us to comfort them, and resistance fades away. On the heels of a good cry, they will feel refreshed, as if the reset button was pushed. If the release of emotion is the kind we are looking for, we will often see in our child a renewed spirit, a softness, and new vibrancy (or they may just fall into a healing deep sleep if it’s just before bed).
Some children are able to have good cries often and some children (particularly highly sensitive ones) fight this process. Sometimes, the brain will rail against it, as it is so vulnerable and it can be scary to let go. I have never seen a case when a child’s draining cry didn’t reduce their frustration or anxiety, at least temporarily. The more challenges they face, they more often they need to drain. It is similar to a child who is constipated. If they aren’t getting enough fibre they get plugged up. So too with pent up emotions that cannot be felt and expressed.
The good news is that other things can precipitate a good draining cry and this does the cleansing work. At a young age, as I sat in the theatre bawling over Old Yeller, many other sadness and losses were being released. When my son was little, he used to resist crying until he accidentally stubbed his toe or skinned his knee. Then the tears would come and he could relax. This would inevitably free his energy up to go play, explore and grow. Even watching a sad movie and having a good drain can allow the ‘sun to come out again’ and grant us a renewed perspective of the world. If we don’t resist the process, the energy of frustration can move and be released.
So how does this grieving process help cultivate resilience? By paving the way for the bigger losses they will inevitably experience. When a child has a good cry and survives it, the experience builds a tolerance for greater losses to come and builds confidence that they will be all right. This is the key to growing stronger from difficult experiences. This is also true for teens and for adults but the sadness may be felt on the inside. We may not burst out crying every time we can’t control a situation. But we do need to feel emotions of sadness for surrender and resilience to ensue. For little losses, we can feel it inside. For big losses we may need to have many tears over time.
As parents we can midwife the process with understanding, patience, and compassion. It is very tempting to tell a crying child to cheer up, turn that frown upside down, and look at the positives. But we are actually interrupting this important process that leads to resilience. Instead of us fighting their experience or becoming logical, we should support the child’s feelings and allow the energy to soften and hopefully move to release.
Another way we often interrupt the process is by moving to fix or distract. We want to take the experience away, understandably, as it is hard to see our children upset and often we don’t have the patience for the messiness of a tantrum that often precedes a draining cry. But if we can see how important it is, as Dr. Neufeld says, to move from “mad to sad”, then we will focus on allowing it to happen. Of course, there are times when distraction or fixing is necessary. When you have company, it’s ok to give in a bit to keep the peace. When you are in public and need to get out of a store or restaurant, it’s wise to use distraction just to survive the moment. But if we are using these strategies all the time, we are preventing our children from opportunities to feel upset or sad and know they can tolerate these big emotions. And we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop resilience.
We can help this process along by letting our children know we get how hard it is, by telling them we have felt this way too, and giving them the message their emotions aren’t too much for us. We may have to bluff this one at times! When we remain in the mature adult position it gives children a deep sense of security. It doesn’t mean things will magically clear up, but the more a child can experience a tantrum and allow the feelings to shift to grieving and acceptance, the more resilient they become. We can also apply this to ourselves. The more we can grieve what isn’t working in our lives, the more resilient we become.
So these next few weeks may be rough as transitions happen. Routines, rituals, slowing life down and allowing for some tears will not only help in the short term but will pave the way for resilience to grow in the long run.
Stay tuned for other important keys to help facilitate this resilience process! In the meantime, we can be gentle with our kids and ourselves as we all feel our way into fall.