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106 NOVEMBER 2007
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Attracting resilience: Helping kids do better

Hector Sapien

Isn’t it frustrating, sad, or disappointing when you see the cloud of self-doubt loom across your kid's face? They don’t seem to try “hard enough” , then buckle under the slightest pressure or mishap. What about the guilt and anguish that comes from blaming yourself for these personal “weaknesses” because you don’t think you are doing a good enough job with the kids you care for? I’ve been there, done that.

Stop! Back up, and get off that road! Consider another path. But before you do, find an easy chair and notice yourself sit down comfortably, take a deep slow breath as your mind clears, and allow me to tell you about my personal experience ...

Javier was very subtle when he was upset. He wouldn’t say anything, just a look – that forlorn look that was a frequent visitor. Initially looking at me when I broke the bad news about his mother calling to say she wasn’t coming, and then looking over my shoulder at the dingy wall hanging, when he caught me nervously watching for his reaction. He then turned his eyes downward, embarrassed at being exposed, and then he looked away as he turned and slowly slipped out of the room.

This was the third time this month. I started work as a child care worker about a month before the first time, so I was just getting to know Javier. He was about twelve going on twenty-five. His parents were divorced, five years now. His father was already a heavy drinker but stepped it up after the divorce; he worked as a shrimp boat deck hand on shrimp boats in Corpus Christy Bay. He couldn’t keep work. Javier idolized him, recounting the stories of when they used to go fishing out on the bay. Suddenly, about two years ago, his father disappeared, his boat was found floating a few miles from shore.

Javier’s mom said he was never the same afterwards. He was rude and defiant, or quiet and vacant. He was involved in a fire setting episode with a few other youngsters, at the local store, late one night, which lead to the arrest, followed by placement at the treatment center. His mom was strong and determined but struggled vehemently to make a living for Javier, his younger brother and herself.

His mother usually had trouble getting a ride to come and pick him up for the weekend. The first time this happened, Javier took it the same way initially, but then later that night he provoked Lenny for a seemingly insignificant triviality, and it erupted into a lamp-smashing brawl in the living room. The fight subsided as quickly as it had erupted, leaving my head spinning as I oriented myself to the priorities of the moment. I provided emotional first aid, led the clean up, and then asked the boys to go on to the routine of showers, snacks, and bedtime. Javier and I talked at length later that night. I was surprised and encouraged by his easy disclosure. He said I reminded him of his “Tio (uncle) Frankie”.

The second time his mother didn’t show up resulted in a similar yet milder version of the first incident – no breakage that time, just verbal projectiles. However, this third time was a crap shoot. I was a bit nervous, like walking on thin ice covering an ankle-deep puddle. I detected the emergence of a skull splitting headache. I was lucky. Javier went to his room. I followed him, a respectful distance behind. From afar I could see him lying down on his bed, lost in thought, arms folded behind his head, gazing at his “Santana” poster on the ceiling right above him, partially tacked and hanging loose at the bottom. Soon, he was asleep. I sighed with relief as I went in, covered him with a blanket, and turned off the light.

That night, after change of shift, I went home, watched some TV, and then went to bed. I laid there lost in thought, arms folded behind my head, gazing at the spider web hanging from the ceiling, gently blowing so that it would swing in a slow pendulum fashion, yet careful not to kill it. I was amazed and excited at how Javier managed his disappointment with such emerging resilient composure.

I talked with him the next day and told him how shocked I was with how well he took the upsetting news (he liked “shocking” me; he had revealed earlier that it was one of the only things he did well! – so I let him shock me with “good stuff"). His response was particularly surprising since he had been talking about going home all week, describing the different things he would do with his mom and the new puppy. He replied, “I kept thinking about how I felt, remembering the other times, the trouble I got into and those talks we would have afterwards. About how pissed off I was, then how I hurt, felt bad, and would go looking for a fight, I don’t even like fighting, it hurts. I remembered you reminding me about my mom and how much she loves me. I know she was trying to find a ride. That makes a difference, enough to make me feel better. Then I saw you watching me, you’re no ninja! You didn’t talk with me like the other times. I knew you were watching to see what I was going to do. Still, I felt better. I thought about wanting to feel even better, so I did what we used to do, think about my friends here, how much my mother loves me, and the things I like to do, then I fell asleep. When are we floating the boats we made, in the canal?”

Later I went through similar situations with other kids although the details were different.

It was rare to have things work out as they did in Javier’s story, most of the time I frequently remember feeling lost and disappointed, much like the kids I was trying to help. My co-workers were in no better shape. We used to go out after work, debrief the day’s events and get smashed, I guess it was coping. Later, as I became more experienced, I learned gradually how to make a difference. I learned how to help them “bounce back”, attract their resilience, just the way I was attracting mine. As I saw the effects of this difference, I was amazed and ecstatic that I could have that kind of effect. I felt like I was accomplishing something, more fulfilled, and I wanted to do more of that so I embarked on a personal quest to refine these newly discovered skills, or so I thought.  

Instead, I found that I had these skills all along, kind of like Dorothy and her friends on the journey to find the Wizard of Oz. What I discovered over time was how to become more intentional and deliberate in their use, while also finding and devising ways to stimulate or attract them in others.

My explorations led me into many late night conversations with fellow colleagues, attendance to child care conferences, and reading about what other people had come up with, as well as a relentless survey of my personal history (beliefs, attitudes, expectations) and perspective. I had to be careful not to drown in my sea of personal drama. Now I am ready to share what I learned. Please allow me to share essential principles that I learned that set the stage for the tips that follow:

I learned to become more strategic in how I could influence this shift in other’s attention and the associated feelings that would get drawn out. Since the feelings stimulated could be positive or negative, I targeted healthy positive emotions. I would first shift my attention to something I thought would interest them and bring about good feelings. I would introduce or change the subject to that topic, then wait for response. We commonly do this when we are looking for things to talk about when we are with friends. Consequently the more positively invested we are in that topic the greater the “attraction” power. It is important to note that this is not a controlling gesture, but more like an influencing dance. I could only attract or engage their attention to these matters, but if I could use topics that were in their healthy best interests, they would most likely continue to pay attention. Timing was significant as I found that this shift would not occur if the person was entangled in a mire of emotional turmoil. I found I would be more successful when I helped them release this hairball of pent up negative emotions (see Tips). I then generally went into two differing ways of using focused selective attention.

  1. The unrelenting prospecting I would practice any time I was with kids (my own as well). Prospecting, involved watching, listening, and being emotionally sensitive to what was going on at any given moment while looking for particular elements in their play, personal stories, and general endeavors. I would prospect for nuggets of personal strength, successes (no matter how small), and ways of coping, solving problems, creativity, and weathering disappointments or other difficult intense feelings in safe, civil ways. I found their numbers increasing over time the more I prospected (or were they coming out as a result of my prospecting? Either way, their numbers flourished!) I would also comment on these golden elements to the person, showing her how that strength enhances her efforts. She would smile (most of the time). It was as if I was conducting my own personal study of their resilience and these traits were reaching out to be recognized and studied. My selective, focused attention was drawing them out. I was “panning”, and when they would glitter and “catch my eye” I would gather them and store them in my memory, as well as mark them for their personal inventory. Then when the person was having a difficult time I could use one or more of these nuggets to attract their increased resilience (–cash in–), transplanted from other situations. Ultimately, my goal was to help her do this automatically and independently. I was becoming successful in stimulating their shift from negative feelings to positive feelings of confidence, empowerment and resilience. The effects were magical, and I was flabbergasted.
  2. The the shifting of attention to that which the person has at the present time. I explored with the person what they could count on at that given moment, what is continuing, and what they could feel good about. It could be anything from personal physical health (breathing), beautiful surroundings, friendships, resources, etc. Focusing attention on these matters stimulates a shift in feelings to those of appreciation and gratitude which have a positive energizing attracting influence (see Attraction below)

What Javier was paying attention to in his personal reflection was going to orient his future actions. He had revealed to me (after the first time) that following the disappointment he kept ruminating on thoughts of “being left there”, “thrown away”, not loved, all leading to excruciating unbearable emotional pain that was avalanched by the insignificant encounter with his friend. This event provided relief and distraction from his pain as well as a small physical casualty. My facilitating and guiding influence, as he allowed, helped him to voice the emotional discharge while in the context of my receptive compassion. Then, once he was more clear and cool-headed, he used the coping skills (retrieved from other times) for resolving the current problem, without the unnecessary intermediary stumbling steps that potentially could have made matters worse. We then shifted attention to his friends, the diversions he could look forward to, as well as what he had accomplished so far compared to what his life was like months or years ago. The focus of all this attention was crucial to what outcome would unfold.

Resilience is the ability to shift our focus:

“What I am not getting now”
“What I am getting now”
“What do I want"
which will attract

getting more of what is appreciated (like attracting like)
then taking action, guided by these invigorating thoughts, down that path.

It is essential to feel, recognize and validate its presence, and includes the emotional experiential sensations associated with the different feeling states, especially the desired one. All our feelings are valid, in and of themselves causing no harm. It is the thoughts and /or actions that can damage and create more pain. Acknowledging and feeling the negative emotion releases it after achieving its purpose, which is notifying you that something is needed. In addition, the natural personal energy that we have that emanates particular emotional frequencies attracts its like counterpart in others (described in the following section); the more intense the emotional experience, the greater is its attractiveness.

I guided Javier initially, on that first incident, in this process; however he was a “quick study” and learned to do it on his own. He grew more resilient, as I had, in learning how to pass it on to others, like it was passed on to me.

These processes are all natural human aptitudes that we find have been there all along. We “get stuck” when for any number of reasons, we cannot complete this process to move forward. We become overwhelmed and something else, or rather someone else is needed to inject assistance and help. Our view of ourselves evolves when we move on from these gifts of challenge to one that embraces greater personal power. When we actively search for improving our effectiveness we are left with the task of collecting and clustering these lessons, much like a nutritionist identifies those foods that are most physiologically nutritious. We learn through our self-awareness that we can be more intentional in their use, consequently improving more deliberate use of our own resilience as well as attracting it in others. The more we inventory our historical experience for resilient acts and bookmark them for easy access, the more they become little energy capsules that we can activate as needed by calling on the situation that is most similar to the one we are faced with.

Here are few tips to use when attracting resilience:

  1. Make the intention to pay full attention to the individual for the period of time that is the focus of resilience attraction, but only if you genuinely care about them, otherwise it will only be a time-wasting, empty act. Take the time and pick a physical setting that reflects the priority of the situation; no distractions if possible. Get in an emotional state of soothing alert calmness and intend to grow trust between you and the individual. All other sounds will fade away. Listen more than talk (60%/40%).

  2. Initially use an Active Listening method to help the individual vent pent up negative feelings; such as:

a. Reflecting summarizing statements – e.g. “I hear you”, nodding your head, “you look really angry”, “you were embarrassed when they teased you”, “ouch, that must have hurt!” Correct your reflection if you are corrected. Use words of emotion that reflect the degree of emotional intensity “give your best guess, then correct your impression when appropriate.

b. Suspending any judgment while maintaining impartial neutrality. “Be like the crystal clear reflecting pool of fresh water, still, with a mirror like surface”. Achieve this by quieting your internal self-talk. Take comfort that the more emotions are put in to words the more negative emotion is being released verbally, the less will be expressed through physical behavior, and the more clear thinking is accessed for “figuring things out”. This informative release also gives you perspective on their situational life space. It also clears the way for envisioning of solutions from the past or to creative new ones, especially at a time when they are vulnerable and more willing to accept help. It comes about within the compassionate supportive stability that you provide as the listener. This too will be a memory, with a resilient twist.

3. Begin prospecting for evidence of personal strengths being used, whether it is a “can do” attitude, comments, actions or supportive caring attachments. Recognize and affirm the occurrence of these and reflect to them how these can be of practical value. Identify what needs they are seeking to satisfy, affirm their importance and link the identified strengths as ways to gratify them.

4. Use resilience saturated stories to resurrect optimism:

a. GOOD – Tell a story, that involves someone else, with a strong example of resilience (use your imagination, or movie if need be).

b. BETTER – Tell a personal story of a similar circumstance that had a successful outcome due to practice of resilient qualities, (emphasize these).

c. BEST – Ask them (or bring one out of your memory) to recall a previous time when they felt this way under similar circumstances but that they did something that signified to them, that they “managed the situation the way they wanted to”, and they were satisfied with the outcome. (Prospect for memories that have the greatest positive feeling charge)

* (If they tell the story watch for subtle changes in non verbal behaviors such as more animated body movement, voice tone to higher excited pitch, eyes brighten up, smiling – tune in to this elevated emotional state and exhibit these same behaviors back, and you will feel similarly).

* (If you are telling the story do the same thing only using the story as the source of excitement; you tuning in to the emotional nature of the story can attract the same in the person you are with)

5. Ask them what they want (related to this crisis). Take the time to explore, visualize, and elaborate on what it would look like, how would they feel, what would they hear, what would they say. (Do not describe this in “what I don’t want” terms). Repeat words of resilient competency, such as courage, persistence, tolerance, caring for others, planning, healthy pursuits, etc., especially in connection to their actions. (Grow your vocabulary for such words to be called upon as needed).

6. Ask them what would be the smallest thing they can do to get this to happen. Reflect back to them the importance and value of what they are currently doing to improving their way of doing things, stressing that it is their unique way. Tell them that you can’t wait to hear how they did, and will check in the near future, and then do it.

Javier was growing up, and so was I. We made an easier time of it for the brief moment in our lives that our events were joined. It was good! We both benefited from it immensely. That memory energizes me as I think about the different ways that we come together to help each other into maturity, even though we were at two very different life stage planes. I have been noticing this happening more and more, among friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, etc.

Our intentionality and deliberate use of these strategies increases their frequency and strengthens our resilience as a whole, be it village, town, community, culture, country ... planet!

If we bend our mind, the spoon will bend – The Matrix

Maslow, Abraham H. (1970). Motivation and Personality. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc. p. 15. 

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