Fish in water
So everyone’s social media feeds are full of the ‘starting/back to school’ images and I haven’t yet seen one in which a child is not exuding joy and enthusiasm….
By nature, kids want to grow up, and so-despite their possible apprehension-they have an innate desire to beam their ‘I am so ready for this!’ smiles at the camera.
Moving on…Have you ever arrived home from work and realised you recall very little of your journey? It can be quite alarming; is this some kind of memory loss? Have you driven dangerously? Is a speeding ticket imminent? The chances are that you drove just fine.
At birth, we don’t have a clue, but as we grow up, the experiences we live are pivotal in shaping the brains we now possess. Once we have practiced a task, an action or even a thought with enough frequency and over a long enough window of time, our brains establish neural networks designed for maximum efficiency. The path of least resistance exists inside our heads, literally.
Skills are refined and actions become habit; neatly stored in the filing cabinet of our memory; and so-whether it’s driving, typing a password, or possessing a belief-much of our life is lived on ‘autopilot’. The brain is basically a very lazy organ.
So what happens when we-and especially our kids-face the unknown? How does a child respond when; in the pursuit of ‘growing up’; their brains are flooded with the unfamiliar, but lack the neural pathways to navigate these changes?
I am not prone to sharing my personal stories, but I am inevitably reminded on my own transition into secondary school. I had learned how to knot my tie, and I rode to school on a bus, and I felt very grown up. But within weeks, the novelty was gone. Quite suddenly, my ‘best friends’ were no longer my friends, and in fact, had positioned themselves as the enemy. These kids-who were just like me-regarded me as a different and lesser species than them, and I couldn’t understand why.
Inevitably, I hold a very different perspective now, but it would take a rare 11 year old to recognise such deep insecurity in their peers; The need to exploit another’s vulnerabilities so as to avoid the same fate. Eat or be eaten, kill or be killed…
Of course, I’m not saying that this is the reality we should prime our kids for, but those children who struggle-not just with the horribleness of other children, but with any kind of transition-need so much more from their adults than our common default responses; ‘You’re not in foundation anymore’, ‘You’re a big girl/boy now’, ‘There’s no need to worry’ etc.
Emotional growth is like building a house, and if it needs to bear more more weight, the foundations need strengthening first.
My foundations collapsed and the house fell down. I maintained the bravest face I could but all my inner-resources were consumed by avoiding the quicksand. I felt incompetent and inadequate. The feeling that ‘everyone else is doing this better that me’ domineered for long enough that those beliefs became my ‘path of least resistance’.
This experience of ‘not good enough’ resonates for so many of us whose adolescences blighted by ‘fish out of water’ syndrome-because no one saw fit to help put us back in.
So how do we cultivate resilience in our children? How do we help them deal with whatever comes their way, well?
What I notice about this world of ‘change-readiness’ is that adults are fairly invisible in it… I’ve seen a hundred social media articles and infographics, all echoing the same ‘help your kids back to school’ message. I haven’t seen one that says ‘This one’s to help you manage, mum and dad’, ‘Let’s think about your feelings about this.’
But when our kids experience significant change-almost always-so do we. The joy we feel at our little (or not so little) ones posing in their new ‘room to grow into’ uniforms; is usually accompanied by a healthy measure of sadness, fear or loss...
Not always, but sometimes, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine’ is our favoured response because the alternatives; listening to the voices of our anxiety, panic and grief, and feeling the pain they bring; make us feel very vulnerable. ‘The power of vulnerability’ has become a bit cliched, but it certainly exists.
A year ago, my then 4 year old started school. Not only did I grieve for him, I made a conscious decision to let grief in a year before ‘the separation’ and swish around in it.
Everyone’s experiences are different, of course, but; much as it had pained me; but by the time school arrived, I was through the worst. I adapted to a child-free house for 6.5 hours a day without too much mourning.
Of course, change is often positive, and so we don’t want our kids to have an unhealthy relationship with change. But can we be honest enough with them to say that ‘change is hard’ without adding the ‘but everything’s going to be fine’ caveat? (And it probably will be, but it can-and often does-take a LONG time)…
We instinctively want to alleviate every drop of our child’s discomfort, but rushing in to ensure their happiness doesn’t give them tools to manage change well.
But kids are wired to follow our lead; not just when they are babies and toddlers, but until they are ready to break free; and herein lies our golden opportunity.
Whatever our own emotions are (even the bad and ugly) when we are able to sit with them-rather than avoiding the discomfort they often bring-our kids soak a little bit of that up from us. We don’t have to handle every situation brilliantly in order for us to teach them how. Because, as long as we believe we can handle it, we gift our kids with a bit of this mindset.
And then comes the time when it’s our kids’' turn face their own struggles; many of which they don’t have the tools to overcome; and we feel compelled to step in; To ameliorate any flicker of suffering immediately; to solve their problems, to advise and repair. But their worlds will not automatically fall apart if we don’t. We can be supportive without succumbing to the desire to fix them.
Simply ‘holding the spacing’ while they unpack their angst; sit with their feelings, get to know their emotions, feel and process them; can be transformational. Because it is when children fully experience the minefield of change, and carve their own path through it-albeit slowly-that helps their brains to form new, adaptive pathways. Pathways which get a little stronger and resilient each time our kids use them. Pathways that, activated often enough and for long enough, become established for maximum efficiency. Because the brain is basically a very lazy organ…