Tag Archives: resilience

The place between: responding to your child’s distress gives everyone space to learn

photo 1 A couple of days ago I was struck by a revelation. Like the situation for many key learning lessons, it initially didn’t appear as a very auspicious day. In fact it was anything but. I was to be honest feeling hideous and worse than that, feeling hideous at work with blocked sinuses and vertigo, a super foggy brain that would not properly activate to the tasks required of me, a still malfunctioning computer and a strong desire to be in bed.

I had also mistakenly written down a meeting time an hour later than it was in my diary and when I received a polite Tweeted prompt from the meeting head (luckily just a journal article discussion club but one on an article I had provided and was meant to be discussing) I took off running across campus via the car park to get to the target building. Slightly distracted as I passed some IT staff (thinking about my problem computer), jumping over some borders at the same time, and not noticing the purely ornamental, annoyingly always undoing shoelace on my shoe had done just that and got stuck under my other shoe, I suddenly went flying through the air and smacked into rough tarmac at significant force on hands, knees and the front of my feet.

Hearing an “Are you all right Victoria?” from the IT staff I popped back up to crouch position, and realised that while I might be injured I was actually all right and I had a meeting to get to so I yelled back “I’m fine”. At this point though I kind of took stock and realised that 1) my right hand was missing a significant amount of skin on the palm; 2) I had really hurt my right knee and it was full of holes, and my left knee was similar; 3) I had grazes all over my feet and 4) causing the most distress was that my near new capri pants were literally shredded from the fall. I was relieved my new phone and well beaten up sunglasses had survived- priorities! Despite all that I was relatively calm. I managed to Tweet back en route that they needed to have the first aid kit ready.

I pretty much walked in the door of the meeting looking like a crazed lunatic, bleeding and probably looked a bit shocked. After all grown ups don’t typically fall over and come to grief. First aid was kindly administered and I carried on. Straight after my meeting I went to visit MissBB at childcare and asked her for all I wanted- a cuddle, which instantly made me feel better. Of course everyone I saw for the rest of the day asked me what had happened and I got a lot of “Oh how embarrassing” or “You must feel really silly” comments.

Not one to be deterred by injuries I went to yoga after work, where I discovered that approximately 88.8% of the moves were manageable, although not necessarily painless. It was here that my revelation happened. Lying down for the mindful meditative finale of the class, where I was meant to be clearing my mind suddenly I realised that despite feeling unwell I had actually demonstrated great resilience today. More than that my mind alerted myself to the fact that I could have been really embarrassed at what had happened but I wasn’t. I could have felt ashamed, berated myself for being so stupid, felt really sorry for myself, I could have cried (that would have been perfectly understandable), but I didn’t. I just accepted what had happened and moved on. I was struck by how powerful that felt, not to allow myself to wallow in negative thoughts in a way that society (clearly some of my colleagues) maybe expected me to act. It was a reminder that from challenge comes personal growth and that the mind when given the right conditions can flourish and grow with positive thoughts.

And there in my mindfulness practice I felt an incredible sense of peace and happiness. Even more so because I was struck by if I could get to this place at age 40, how amazing it could be to teach my daughter at age 4. Then I realised that she probably has this sorted already- children are at least 10x* more onto it than we frequently give them credit.

photo 3

Most of the time our children when they hurt themselves, or are indeed upset about something (whether we think their tears are rational or reasonable to us or not), just need our support and acknowledgement to get through their pain and/or distress. In other words, they need our emotional responsiveness towards them in that moment. We adults, when distressed may be able to administer our own response to suffice, as I did to myself, due to our much better ability to regulate our emotional state. A hug from someone else we care about though can be all it takes to feel all right again.

How we respond to our children in this moment (and there’s another blog post on this coming very soon regarding social media) can be a valuable learning tool and has longer term implications. My experience reminded me of an excellent recent post on Evolutionary Parenting I had recently read on Distraction, Redirection and Responsiveness.

Personally I’ve never been comfortable with distraction as a parenting strategy- it has always felt a little dishonest on my shoulders. Distraction is where we try to get a child/baby to stop crying or doing something by showing them something else. A child is for example really upset about their mother leaving them at childcare and so they get shown a ball, when all they want is their mum or at least someone to talk about that they want their mum. Redirection is a useful technique for some situations. This is typically used for misbehaving rather than upset children and is where you move a child’s undesirable behaviour to more desirable behaviour but with explanations of why, e.g tipping flour over the floor shifted to baking something together.

However, it is in the fostering of good attachment through responsiveness that I have been focusing my efforts as this has been clearly shown[1] to be associated with positive outcomes. Responsiveness is when you acknowledge and respond to the child’s distress/communication through respect for the child’s feelings. It doesn’t mean you necessarily give into your child and you can still maintain your boundaries (See Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood). It frequently involves staying with the child and hugging them until they are calm enough to look at other ways to express themselves and discuss other coping strategies etc. Responsiveness when a child is not distressed is equally important too in terms of setting up ‘at ease’ communication patterns as children age.

Like any parent I have my moments where I don’t comply with my own plan. A few months ago I was aware that MissBB was reaching a more challenging stage and I noticed that my parenting efforts were starting to frequently be the result of letting my cultural filters slip back into place, which wasn’t aiding myself or my daughter. Since getting back to my own parenting values (See Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood), with a central tenet of strong positive attachment including responsiveness, I have noticed a profound and positive difference in her behaviour. It’s a sample size of only one, but a good example that a form of “Are you all right?”  (and come and have a hug until you are) works incredibly well.

Given though, that children are frequently one step ahead, I decided to ask MissBB how she would like to be treated. I presented a scenario of having hurt herself and then outlined in the most unbiased language I could- distraction, redirection and responsiveness options. It’s just a sample size of one again and a single scenario of distress but she immediately said that she would want the responsiveness option. When I asked her why she said “because I just like hugs, lots of hugs”.  She also added that when she’s having trouble calming down she looks around her to feel ok- this is one of the strategies we have worked out together (you can read more about that in Boundaries, fencing and reliving childhood and The rubberband effect: building and maintaining resilience)

That, and our mindfulness breathing approaches we successfully use. Responding to our children this way AND to ourselves is an empowering and positive approach for all parties. It’s a little bit like creating “The Place Between” – “The place where MAGIC sends you“**. In other words, providing a supported, calming and safe place until you or your child is emotionally ready to talk about their distress and work through it.

It takes enormous personal strength to grow as a person, to examine within and to find a better way, especially if that means not giving in to the expectations of those around you. It takes an equivalent amount of strength and the same principles to find the parent within, the one that deep inside you discover you want to be. At every step it may be a battle against the voices of those around you and all the filters that you’ve accumulated over your life that want to keep popping back into place. But when you can stand up and say to yourself “I’m all right”, acknowledging hurt you may have experienced but learning and moving on, then that’s a moment to cherish. I encourage everyone to embark on this journey.

And for our children, who are little but oh so very important people too, there’s no better time for them to start this journey than right now, with a parent or caregiver that can demonstrate their respect to their child’s attempt to communicate. It may feel like the hardest thing in the world sometimes to be responsive and it’s impossible to always respond in the most nurturing way without sometimes snapping in a manner we may all berate ourselves for after. Our children though teach us the remarkable capacity to forgive these transgressions when we find ‘the place between’ to provide us with the space to calm, think and then apologise. We all want our children to have a beautiful life, free from as much distress as possible- responding to them when they are distressed is one of the best ways to help them for now and for their future.

*Pure speculation, no scientific data to back this figure up whatsoever.

** Leon and the Place Between is a magical children’s book by Angela McAllister and Grahame Baker-Smith about the place where magic sends a boy, perfect for children 3 and above.

Scientific reference

[1] Grusec, J.E. 2011. Socialization processes in the family: social and emotional development.  Annual Reviews in Psychology  62: 243-69.

The rubber band effect: building and maintaining resilience

When resilience is low, it can feel like life is an uphill battle

When resilience is low, it can feel like life is an uphill battle

Resiliency is one of those qualities that when we’re fully equipped and our resilience cup is overflowing, we don’t notice how strong we are- life just feels good. We tend to be either unfazed in the main by the curve-balls that constantly seem to come the way for many of us as adults or in a state of mind where we can readily find coping strategies to work through the issues we register. When our rubber band gets stretched out however, at some point we suddenly realise that there are cracks forming.

Hopefully, we reach that point with enough insight into our own inner workings and limits to know that our resilience systems are in need of repair. Psychological resilience is our ability to cope with stress and adversity. When we reach this state it’s time to regroup and find that inner strength to alter our situation (frequently that centres on changing our thoughts) in order to bring the rubber band back to its strong relaxed state. If we’re unaware that our rubber band is starting to fragment by being stretched so thinly then it’s difficult to see a way out of the tunnel that’s starting to enclose us and that can lead to the beginning of the blues or other negative feelings and for some people, symptoms of depression.

Stretching the rubber band

This last week and the last of my summer holiday, I reached the sudden realisation that my resilience indicator was reading low. In fact, it felt like I was hitting a record low alongside a feeling of being the most exhausted I have ever been. The power of the mind to erase previous negative experiences or at least lessen their magnitude means I don’t really think this was my least resilient point or my most tired- surely those severe reflux, no sleep newborn months were worse, or the times immediately post-earthquakes or other far more stressful events I have experienced? To me, it just felt earlier this week that like the polar vortex in the US that I was heading to zero or below.

It seems strange that at the end of a decent length holiday anyone should feel least resilient or most tired. However, anyone with children will know that holidays with children are not particularly restful (not even!), as pleasurable as they may be. In my case, after our family time away, it was two weeks at home for me and my daughter whilst my partner was back at work six days a week.

There are many interrelated reasons why my resiliency took a hammering at this point. Parenting a full-on boundary-pushing four year-old is one way to achieve a new level of exhaustion I have discovered (upcoming post). After another long arduous year with effectively no holiday time, it’s probably unsurprising that as the holiday went on, my mind and body realised how much resilience rebuilding I need. That and the trepidation of what the working year ahead entails as I am aware it is going to involve significant restructuring, including job losses, with one of the first (and uncharacteristic) emails issued this year about how we could maintain wellbeing this year (alarm bells screaming). For all the residents of Christchurch still, there are now the longstanding, multi-factorial and accumulated effects of being now three years and counting post earthquakes. The predictions of health professionals (e.g. here and here) were that the 3rd-4th year post quakes would be the hardest and they weren’t wrong and it’s worse for women.

Frequently, there’s a trigger(s) or factor(s) that is a resilience eroding tipping point and I would take a guess that all parents reach a point or many time points where their resiliency is far from optimal. In my case, the camel’s back-breaking stone was actually technology. We live in an age where we have embraced all the advances of technology and what it offers us, but there’s actually significant stress associated with use of technology- it’s real and it’s called tech stress. For me it was combined effects: a faulty motherboard in my work laptop which I have been waiting a replacement for for seven long months plus our home internet failing and promised support call-backs from our provider not eventuating. The ultimate tug on the rubber band has been, for the last month, needing to use my old, faulty and mega infuriating android because my iPhone was being fixed and has just been declared terminal following an unfortunate road/car vs. iPhone incident.

I’m acutely aware that this is a crazy first-world issue and seems pathetic as I write it, but the actual frustrations and time wasted trying to use this largely non-functional phone have felt epic. When technology use actually impedes life and impacts heavily on time in a negative way, it’s not the magical thing it’s touted to be.

How to rebound

I could have spent ages self-analysing and trying to pinpoint exactly what factors were impacting me and to what degree but having spent enough time working out the general list my aim was to get that rubber band back to as close as its strongest phase as soon as possible using decisive action. To take myself back to a state of wellbeing using whatever psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources seemed appropriate. These are called cumulative protective factors.

Get out and get active- surefire ways to boost wellbeing and enhance resilience.

Get out and get active- surefire ways to boost wellbeing and enhance resilience.

Although I am largely opposed to listicles, it seems appropriate to insert a list here. None of it is rocket science. For me, some of those key wellbeing steps are:

  • Get out. Getting out of the house to experience new things or favourite things is a key way to bounce back. Sunshine improves mood. Taking children on our journey teaches them too the steps they can take to improve their own mood.
  • Get physical outside. There’s nothing better than pushing oneself hard in the sunshine. In my case that means carrying my petite four year old (but still 13 kg) up a steep hill to the top on a sweltering day for a stunning view or mountains, hills, harbour, sea and (broken) city and then engaging in activities that are fun for both of us.
  • Get physical inside. Whether it’s just at home doing squats and abs or a super hard gym workout.
  • Be kind to self. Kind thoughts. Kind actions. Treat oneself- a hot chocolate out (without over-indulging which will lower self-worth)
  • Dancing. In the privacy of my living room in front of and with my child to the latest hits.
  • Engage in daily mindful breathing. Breathe in and breathe out.
  • Recognising that external situations I cannot change, but my thoughts and attitude I can control, not falling into the victim trap- it’s totally unconstructive.
  • Yoga and pilates. One of my two gym sessions a week where I escape the house sans child.
  • Honesty with my child about how I’m feeling- the most touching thing that happened last week was my empathetic and thoughtful daughter putting together a whole bag of her things while I was in the shower so she could cheer me up, when my phone stress got too much. That and lots of hugs, when the tech stress rose to the surface! This honesty also teaches them that no one is perfect- adults struggle at times too. Letting them be a part of the support of the journey back to wellbeing is invaluable in teaching empathy and also allows them to witness how to find their own coping strategies.
  • Honesty with others (partner, friends, family) about what’s going on. Doesn’t need to be long and involved- a problem shared is a problem halved and all that.
  • Creativity. Doing something for me like craft is such a great way to rebound and feel self-confident and fulfilled.
  • Gardening. Looking at what is growing in the garden, the insects and butterflies and new life is such a restorative activity as is eating produce we have grown.
  •  Doing fun activities in or out of the house with my daughter (and my partner, friends, family)- getting joy from her development, catching up and connecting with others. A day with my parents picnicking and walking on the beach was fabulous.
  • Reading. As a parent and an academic, reading a work of fiction or literary non-fiction is such a decadent relaxing treat.
  •  Watching a movie. There’s no way anyone could watch Frozen and not feel more buoyant afterwards, even my musical hating husband.
  • Organising and goal setting. This can be as simple as getting the house in a semblance of order each day after MissBB is asleep, or making progress on some chores, writing lists and plans or even unpacking some more boxes following earthquake repairs temporary relocation (from a year ago…).
  • Thoughtfulness. Doing something thoughtful for someone else.
  • Abandon technology. Ok, so the technology is not working- may as well pretend I am still away out of range and attempt not to use it.
  • Sleep. Reset the mind. Recover strength.

Most of these are recognised as key factors that promote resilience. In the wake of the earthquakes here, much has been written about individual and personal wellbeing and I will write more on it in later posts. One of the best initiatives nationwide is The Wellbeing Game, which runs for a month each year and individuals from teams have to record their wellbeing activities across a range of categories during that time.  Aside from great data collection for governmental departments, at a personal level this game showed me daily just how many activities I engaged in last October that promoted my wellbeing and it also pushed me to fit in even more. I was pleasantly surprised just how much I did to address my health and it has since made me conscious of what I do in a day to foster personal wellbeing and register when I am not doing enough.

The other great social media campaign running in Christchurch (but applicable to anyone anywhere) is All Right? which is led by the Mental Health Foundation and the Canterbury District Health Board. Like The Wellbeing Game it aims to make us think about our mental health and wellbeing, here as part of the earthquake recovery process. With great billboards, postcards, lots of online resources and crazy spontaneous activities it is bolstering our exhausted residents. Mine and MissBB’s favourites: the posters stuck around the city with ‘free compliments’ to rip off and keep.

Many reality TV programmes are partly built around the concept of testing resilience- the Survivor series and the like. While, I was writing this post in the background I had the new Bear Grylls TV series, “Bear Grylls: Get Out Alive” shot here in New Zealand playing. American teams of two are put in taxing situations in our remote areas and those that don’t have coping strategies are eliminated. It’s both a contrived and extreme example of the assaults on our resilience we face daily, but the methods to improve resilience and be equipped for survival are exactly the same.

Just like the grip of the first polar vortex has eased in the US, my rubber-band is relaxing and rebounding again. Being prepared and equipped means a second cold snap for the US or in my case the return to work should hopefully have little negative effect.

When parents are resilient then they are better able to parent positively. Allowing children though to witness the ebb and flow of resilience is an important part of their own development (more on that in the next post). I just hope I can get our intermittent, suddenly dial-up speed slow internet to behave long enough to put out this post. Breathe in, breathe out.