Resilience, And How To Build It

…especially with your children

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This article was inspired by a post on Bath Mums, a local mum’s forum in our home city of Bath in England. A mother was bearing her soul and expressing her lack of resources to help her young daughter with high sensitivity and coping at school. The little girl was having real trouble adjusting and displaying highly emotional behaviour.

It got me thinking, how do we build resilience both in ourselves and our children?

Part of this taps into something I am really passionate about: how do we learn to accept and support our children’s (as well as our own) emotions? In so many scenarios at schools, in public parks, on the bus or train, or even just walking down the street, I’ve observed children having feelings and their parents or carers treating them as if they are being “naughty” and punishing them accordingly.

I question this. Is it a cultural thing? When did emotions become the enemy?

In one way we are talking about accepting and understanding our own feelings, as well as both allowing and supporting the authentic emotions of others. In another way, we need to to have deeper perspectives on resilience and build real life tools to help grow it.

Think about the newsworthy subject of high suicide rates amongst men, I wonder if there is possibly a relationship between our ability to incorporate strong emotion into our lives in a way that builds resilience rather than destroys us. Feelings connect us as human beings and being connected to to each other is such a crucial part of our existence (see the book Sapiens for more on this) – in recent research it is being linked to other global issues like addiction and terrorism.

Here’s one take on it. 

Generationally there are different requirements made of people. Coming out of World War I and II, people born in or around the 1920s, like my grandparents, were required to be innovative, resilient and stoic. Growing up during the World Wars meant there was no time for people to ruminate on how they were feeling. If you were alive, you were lucky and that was that.

The next generation (that of my parents) were encouraged to embody these same qualities, though many rebelled in the 60s and 70s in the era of cultural revolution and free love. Questions were asked of this stoic, ‘just get on with it’ attitude. The pendulum swung in the other direction: rules were broken, hair was long, music was wild and so were the parties.

Still once the baby boomers grew up, that original and pragmatic approach to life their parents had instilled in them seems to have prevailed for many and all too often the quest for emotional self-realisation took a back step in the face of economic recession (the 80s) and globalisation (don’t get me started on the neo-liberal agenda…).

My generation (Gen X) has grown up in the nuclear age, the cold war looming, world economic and environmental collapse at least on the horizon or – for too many people – a stark reality. Again, we don’t all have time to consider how we feel about things. And culturally, certainly in the west against the backdrop of Judaeo-Christian values, the way you feel about things may not be a priority day-to-day. It is often seen as almost indulgent to consider such things.

So the long and the short of it is, in my experience, unless a person is exposed to some form of mental illness, depression or trauma and is forced to explore their emotional landscape, most people just don’t.

Fair enough really.

The result is that so many of us (especially if we become parents) are suddenly confronted with a really raw and unrefined experience of emotional expression when either something difficult happens in our lives, or as we bring up our kids. If we are blessed with sensitivity, or a “sensitive” child, this experience can be heightened.

So what do we do?

I deeply believe that being a sensitive and intuitive person bears immense gifts, but only if we can work out how to become a container, or a conduit, for those gifts and remain flexible as well as strong enough to experience our lives fully along the way.

This is where resilience comes into play.

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There’s no escaping it: life brings failures. I mean the concept of failure (like success, which I’ve written about before here), is a moveable feast of ideas. To a large degree, it is defined by our conditioning, our expectations and perhaps our exposure to difference. Resilience is an incredibly powerful response to the ups and downs. 

When I separated from my son’s father he was just three months old. The six or seven years following I had to work out how to become a parent, how to heal a broken heart and how to survive financially and emotionally as a single parent. The first couple of years we moved seven or eight times, and although my son by nature is quite a happy soul and extremely affable, he was naturally affected by all the instability.

This translated to a real distress when it came to change. If we had to go from, say, home to daycare, or from a friend’s house back home, he would get quite upset. I learned over the years to respect his feelings around this and give him as many options as possible in that moment to move through it. I would acknowledge how he felt, “I know you’re sad that we have to go”, and then tell him what we had to do and why, “…but I can’t let you stay here because I need to go to work and it’s time for you to go to daycare now”. I would give him options, different ways to think about his situation, “What can we do to help you feel better on our drive to daycare, would you like to take a book with you?”. All that in the most empathic and compassionate way possible – admittedly tricky when you’re potentially running late for a vital day at work.

Over the years he has retained his sensitivity, and has become a persistent and determined, yet still compassionate and warm, 13-year-old. He travels alone between the UK and Australia to see his Dad and family there, and he is a remarkable young man who has moved internationally, experienced physical distance from his father and friends, and started high school – all with real strength and grace.

Most importantly, he knows how to ask for help – one of the characteristics that consistently appears in research on the subject of resilience and connection. I’ll be doing all I can to keep myself open to him, as well as remain both detached and engaged in balance to be there for him as he faces the trials and tribulations of young adulthood. He has to fall so he knows how to, I just hope he knows I’m there to help when he needs me. I’ve written a bit about parenting teens here.

Resilience is one of those extremely pervasive ideas in my life now. I prefer to use it as a concept because I don’t just want things to be sustainable and maintaining, I strive for more than that. I seek to create a family that houses individuals who each have their own style, their own feelings, and their own different ways of responding to the challenges that will surely come.

As always, I’d love to hear from you. Comment below, tell me your story of resilience, tell me how you create it in your life.

Yours in connection,

PS. Have your say in the comments below. How do you or your kids experience sensitivity? How do you build resilience? How is it important to you or your family? I’d love to get your take on it.

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