Building Spiritual Resilience

As new Covid-19 cases decline in the U.S., families are embracing opportunities to reconnect and restart communal activities. Yet conflicting advice and the lack of an approved vaccination for children mean that the disruptions associated with living through a global pandemic are far from over. Parents and caregivers wonder how to help children cope with the uncertainties, shortages, and limitations that still characterize pandemic life. They need support as they try to teach children how to manage ongoing adversity in spiritually healthy ways.

Managing adversity well depends upon a child’s ability to develop resilience in the face of obstacles. Psychologists Marilyn Price-Mitchell and Mary Alvord point out that resilience depends upon a positive sense of self and a belief that one is in charge of one’s own attitude, even if most other aspects of life are out of control. Spiritual resilience, then, develops when adults help children cultivate a positive spiritual identity and sense of spiritual empowerment.

As summer programs kick off and planning begins for familiar back-to-school rituals and routines, consider how you can incorporate these four strategies for building spiritual resilience into your work with children:

Challenge children to set brave goals. One way children develop spiritual resilience is by setting and working toward personal spiritual goals. Ask children what kind of person they hope to be. Do they want to be kind or approach new challenges with curiosity rather than fear? Once they identify a desired trait, help children come up with a specific goal toward which they can track their progress, such as making a kind comment every day to a peer who usually annoys them or spending 15 minutes a day researching anticipated challenges.

Model using setbacks as a learning opportunity. Instead of pretending that you are an expert at all things spiritual, share with them the messiness of boldly trying a new spiritual practice. Talk about your confusion with complicated instructions (and how you persevered until you figured them out). Acknowledge the reality of distractions when trying out practices involving silence and brainstorm ways to refocus attention. Since not everyone finds the same spiritual practices helpful, encourage children to share their failures (and what they’ve learned from them) as well as their successes. Celebrate their willingness to try something new, even when it doesn’t work out.

Encourage children to pre-plan their responses. Many children act before they think, especially when stressed. Help them identify some specific spiritual tools to use in stressful situations. They might take three deep breaths before they speak to avoid lashing out with hurtful words. They could picture themselves deeply rooted in the earth or wrapped in puffy clouds when they need to calm down. They might signal that they need to walk away and then return once they’ve taken a meditative lap around the room or the yard. Acknowledge and affirm their efforts.

Name the big emotions children are feeling. Spiritual resilience depends on emotional self-awareness. In order to manage their emotions, children need to recognize and understand what they are. What looks like anger might actually be fear, or anxiety as timidity. Invite children to talk about how they are feeling and offer them more refined choices to describe their emotions. Use descriptive language to distinguish between similar emotions: anger makes your face flush or feels like a volcano erupting, whereas fear turns your face pale and feels like you want to pee your pants.

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