Children are born kicking and screaming, with all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions and extreme behaviors. Then, parents and cultures “raise” their children to refine these powerful abilities into skills of flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors which work in their culture. These skills give children, their families and communities the resilience to manage almost any unpredictable event in the future, because these skills help people work closely together despite stress, loss and change.
Today, more than ever before, children face rapidly changing times in a rapidly shrinking world. Conflict and change will be inevitable, over longer and longer lifespans. The children who will be most successful in the future will be the children who grow up with the most solid foundation of resilience, built with the strongest bricks of flexible thinking, managed emotions and moderate behaviors.
A Story of Teaching Resilience
Lauren and Ethan started out with a high-conflict separation which translated into a high conflict co-parenting relationship. This included calling the police a couple times because of conflicts during parenting exchanges. However, after two years, the parents reached an out-of-court divorce agreement which included approximately equal parenting time.
Ethan was highly distressed by the finalization of the divorce. He never wanted the divorce and he had a hard time managing his emotions about it, even two years after the parents had separated. He was alternately tearful and angry as the date to sign the final agreement was coming up.
Just before the agreement was to be signed, their 4-year-old son, Wyatt, started having extreme emotional responses to leaving his father during their parenting exchanges. Wyatt would cry and cling to his father, and resist going to his mother.
Ethan became very distressed by Wyatt’s clinging and fearful behavior. He insisted that something must be wrong at Lauren’s house and insisted on reducing Lauren’s parenting time, as this is what appeared to him to be upsetting Wyatt. It seemed to be a logical plan to him. Reduce Lauren’s time and Wyatt’s upsets would reduce.
So Ethan presented this idea to Wyatt’s therapist, who also became very concerned that there was a problem at Lauren’s house. But Lauren was resilient. She had a divorce coach who gave her suggested responses to Wyatt, to Ethan, and to the therapist. Lauren learned to say things to Wyatt such as:
“I know this is an upsetting time. But you’re just four years old and shouldn’t have to worry about how I feel or how your father feels. It’s okay for you to just be a kid and think about what you want to do today. You’re going to spend a lot of time with each of us, and it’s our job to handle our own upset emotions.” Wyatt usually calmed down right away at her house, after absorbing how calm Lauren was about the whole thing.
Lauren also spoke to Ethan, saying: “Remember our feelings aren’t decisions. Just because we’re upset right now doesn’t mean that anything needs to change with Wyatt’s schedule. He does just fine at my house, after he calms down from the exchange. It usually takes him just a few minutes. He tells me he’s upset, then we play. I suggest that we have someone with us during our parenting exchanges who can make it feel more neutral, and see if Wyatt does better.”
Lauren also suggested this “exchange supervisor” idea to Wyatt’s therapist, who thought it was a great idea.
After three parenting exchanges with the exchange supervisor, Wyatt was having no problems with the exchanges. The divorce agreement had been signed, and Ethan seemed to calm down too, as it became clear that their marriage was over. One day, Wyatt said he didn’t feel like going to his father’s house for his scheduled parenting time. Lauren said: “I understand, but you’ll have a good time with your father. Remember, feelings aren’t decisions.” And Wyatt would go and usually have a good time.
But occasionally, Wyatt would be upset at his father’s and Ethan would call Lauren and say: “Wyatt’s upset. He wants to go back to you right now. Can you pick him up? Or should I bring him back?”
Lauren said: “Remember, feelings aren’t decisions. We shouldn’t teach Wyatt that just because he’s upset, everything changes. I already have other plans for today. Let me talk to him.” And she explained the same thing to Wyatt.
Lauren told her coach: “Sometimes it feels like I’m raising two children. But it seems to be working out.”