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When Duct Tape Won't Bond, Try Resilience
by Celia Straus
An article in the February 16th Washington Post, published midway through America's rush to empty hardware stores of duct tape and plastic as protection against a biochemical attack, advises parents to be aware that their children's "sleeplessness, nightmares and problems in school could be signs of severe anxiety." In "What Steps To Take Before, After Attack" Marilyn Benoit, president of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry also stresses that, "the way parents handle their anxiety will determine how well their children do. Don't let children see panic." This is sound advice, more useful than the suggestion that we seal our families into customized baggies along with the mechanical can opener and tomato paste. It's crucial to appear calm when our children look to us for assurance that "everything will be okay," even if we aren't confident of our ability to guarantee their safety and security. However, instead of glossing over everyone's fears with forced bravado, why not use these uncertain times as an opportunity to bond with our children? Why not address their anxieties (and ours) with inner resources that we can both rely on?
The best way to cope with our anxieties is trusting that we have the inner strengths to face hardship. And, after the struggle, trusting that we will survive, even stronger and closer to those we love than before the crisis occurred. If we acknowledge and honor these strengths each time we recognize them, as well as foster them in our children, we create an environment where a sense of security and confidence can thrive. Creating a sense of security is important during a time when global events, which usually do not regularly appear on the radar screen of children and adolescents, seem to intrude on a daily basis. We might be surprised how many of our children know they live under a vague yet ominous Orange alert; have listened to the latest Bin Laden tape; and watch the televised images of our armed services being deployed to the borders of Iraq.
A study by Project Resilience in Washington, D.C. (www.projectresilience.com) asked 25 children who had done well in stressful situations like war, the death of a parent, or extreme poverty a single question: "how did you do it?" "Their answers revealed that all had been scarred by their experiences. Nevertheless, they were also strong and healthy in many ways." Why? When faced with a crisis or traumatic event, they drew upon experiences of being strong, competent, creative and joyful rather than ones where they were victimized, felt fearful or weak.
Courage, laughter, creativity, acceptance, objectivity and connecting with others are some of the shared strengths we can identify and practice with our children. In The Mother Daughter Circle, I explain that the more we identify and connect with these strengths in ourselves as well as nourish them in our children, the more we experience a sense of comfort and balance. "These connections fill us with positive energy, provide relaxation, increase our enthusiasm and self confidence, and detach us from our personal agendas." Plus, the more we take pride in our ability to be strong, the stronger we become. The more we reveal our own inner resources to our kids, the easier it will be for them to find those same resources in themselves.
Here is an email I received from a mother responding to my question asking parents to describe a time when, in the presence of their children, they demonstrated courage in the face of adversity. "I am an artist. I am also a divorced mother of two girls. Since my husband left I've been supporting us going on three years now. I won't go into all the jobs I've held down except to say that most of them involved manual labor and like, very low pay. But I've kept painting. Maybe it was late at night. Maybe I used those little sets of water colors kids get or leftover house paint. Maybe I painted on shelf paper, or our walls but I painted. Now things are better. And I guess I showed courage doing that, because one day last week my daughter came home from school and said she hadn't made varsity basketball but it didn't mean she was quitting like some of her friends. She was going to keep on playing. When I asked her where she had learned to be so strong, she said she learned it from me."
Talking to our children about their strengths instead of their weaknesses makes us both feel good about we can accomplish and endure. Instead of feeling victimized by events, we can strategize about how to plan and respond. Of all the ways to foster strength in our kids, talking respectfully, as equals (instead of as grownup to child) about our positive qualities may be the most practical response we can make during these uncertain times. For example, we can talk with younger children about their wise decision-making powers when it comes to obeying safety rules, choosing a nutritious snack or taking care of a pet. We can share our stories of experiences when we have replaced our fears with faith in order to face an anticipated event such as a temporary (school, a business trip) separation from the family. With our older kids we might discuss the media and how we can participate actively in what we see on television or read in the newspaper by asking hard questions about what is fact and what is hearsay or conjecture. We might all feel more confident about our analytical powers and ability to discern the truth if, together with our adolescents, we practiced Mark Twain's advice that, "I believe everything that I read in the newspaper except that which I know."
With children of all ages we can also talk about the inner strength that comes from love. In The Mother Daughter Circle many parents described their unconditional love of their daughters as the foundation on which to build resiliency. "Is there a way to give her total self-confidence in life by just loving her no matter what? I hope so." said one mother. "I affirm her exerting of independence, her abilities, her confidence, her "space." I try not to personalize it when she shows she dislikes me. I never give up loving her even when she is difficult," says another. To love unconditionally it helps to believe we are not personally in control of our lives or our daughters' lives, but that a Universal Love is, whether we call this life force God or the Divine or by another name. In fact, perhaps the simplest way to follow the advice of Marilyn Benoit to "don't let children see panic" is to act from love instead of fear as often as possible.
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