Children and the Need to Struggle

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Sad schoolboy

Today I planted my early spring garden. I tenderly nestled new seedlings of broccoli, cabbage, lettuces, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts in the still chilly soil. These plants can survive the frosts that will still carpet my garden each morning. But, I am sheltering them by hiding them under sheets until their roots are adjusted to their new environment and begin to thrive in new soil. When I see they are ready, then I will back off and let them become sturdy and strong.

As I planted, I marveled about the way children are much like my “garden babies.” We try to give them the best of all circumstances in which to be all that God created them to be. We hold them close and try to protect them from pain, sorrow, and suffering. But, I am wondering if sometimes we don’t know when to step back to teach our children how to deal with the struggles of life.

In America, we seem to hate any kind of pain or discomfort. We want to put an end to it immediately.
I am led to recall the story of Jacob who wrestled with God an entire night. If Jacob was my son, my first reaction might be to try to convince God to go wrestle with some one else. True to God’s character, He knew that Jacob would be blessed after this encounter. Jacob was changed and God even gave him a new name.

So, if we shield our children from their trials and tribulations, how will they manage without us in their adult lives? The following are two simple ways I believe we can strengthen our children’s muscles for the times they may need to carry their crosses:

1. Don’t transfer your anxiety onto your children.

As a past teacher, I had a student in my classroom whose behavior was quite out of control. The first time I met this child and his mom I was firmly told, “You will never give a consequence to my child or correct him.” If mom suspected he had a rocky start to his morning she showed up for lunch with his favorite take-out food. Mom disagreed with my using a taking turns procedure for the only computer we had in the classroom. This boy loved the computer and would race others to get to it first. But, I was not to disappoint him by redirecting him to other activities so another child had a chance to play.

I am telling this story because I believe that this stemmed from the mom’s own deep issues. Perhaps this mom had a painful childhood and made a vow that her son would never feel the pain that she had endured. Maybe she had narcissistic tendencies and felt that she and her family were entitled to the perfect life.

As adults we often have to calm down our reactive right brains. We then can pray and ask God to reveal to us the source of our own need to tightly hug our children in completely gentle harbors. Counseling might be helpful so our anxiety doesn’t become our child’s anxiety.

2. Use both sides of the brain.

Many of us go to one of two places when we face adversity. One location is the land of rigidity. Here we try to control and manipulate the circumstances or people involved. There is no room for compromise or negotiation. The other land we might visit is chaos. Strong emotions rule here and we feel little control. What if we could teach and model staying in a place of integration? In this place we reside in a peaceful, reflective, flexible and formative stance.

Thanks to the field of neuroscience, we now know how to help our brains to stay integrated and balanced. We each have a right brain, which is the place of emotion, and our left brain, which is the place of logic and perspective. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, describe a technique we can use with children called “the connect-and-redirect.” When children are faced with difficulty, it is helpful to listen to them and then reflect back their feelings. “I hear you saying that you were really upset at lunch when you couldn’t sit with your best friend.” This type of listening and reflection connects or attunes you to your child. He/she then feels heard and understood. As an adult, you just used your own right brain to help to calm your child’s right brain.

Siegel and Payne Bryson state that “When a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs.” As a counselor, I have had several children say, “My parents go blah, blah, blah.” This tells me the child was stuck in the right brain and was totally unable to hear the wisdom their parent provided. If your child is ready to connect with the left brain, then both sides of the brain can now work in harmony. Your child is now ready to problem solve. You could ask, “How might you self calm if you can’t sit with your friend tomorrow?” “I wonder what plan you might make for days when you can’t eat with your best friend?” Notice that the parent doesn’t jump in and tell the child how to solve the problem in the future. Instead, the child is encouraged to think of strategies. This is actually an exercise that will grow and develop the left brain.

So let’s remember that Paul tells us to “…rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope…(Romans 5:3-5) Siegel and Payne Bryson mirror this thinking: “We don’t want our children to hurt. But we also want them to do more than simply get through their difficult times; we want them to face troubles and grow from them.”

So every night for the next few weeks I’ll tuck my new plants into their bed under the sheet. In the morning I’ll remove the covers so they get lots of sunshine. But, then I’ll know when they are ready to endure life on their own with me only weeding and fertilizing. I realize spring seedlings have an innate ability or resilience to survive adversity. I’ll trust in God for their endurance on the cooler days, and soon they will produce a bounty that God has blessed.

Kathy Milans is the lead member of the Soul Care Steering Committee.
Image attribution: lvdesign77 / Thinkstock

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Kathy has experience as an elementary educator, teacher trainer, adjunct professor, and has served as Family Resource Director for a major hospital. Kathy is a Kentucky Licensed Pastoral Counselor and is credentialed as a Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor by the American Association of Play Therapy. She is owner of a private practice, Path of Life Ministry, in Wilmore, KY.

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