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August 5, 2018

How to Raise Resilient Children in an era of School Shootings.

Every neighborhood is a tough neighborhood now.

Each day, children go to school aware that a deadly incident might occur.

One morning, I checked my e-mail and there was a 30-minute-old message from my daughter’s high school principal telling parents not to be alarmed. He wanted us to know that there was a credible threat. The police had just informed him. The e-mail concluded with a hope that the school’s goal of maintaining order and calm would be shared by the parents.

My heart was already on the carpet.

For me, this was a pick-your-daughter-up-from-school-now situation.

We adults feel helplessness, looking for some level of civic engagement to undo this reality.

My four younger children have monthly lockdown drills at their elementary school. It is a surreal game, which the children play innocently because they believe that grownups have their back. The littlest ones are told they are preparing for a big dog running down the hallways.

The larger social problem will not be eliminated while my children are still in school. Laws restricting access to guns would help. Security in buildings is good. Adequate research on psychotropic drug treatment for children is necessary.

It’s always been a tall order to protect society from a lone gunman.

But there are steps we can take. Find out the gun laws of your state. Find out what legislation is up for votes. Learn which candidate supports your view.

In the meantime, we have the children of this moment, whose hearts should get as much ease and confidence as possible.

Here is a holistic approach to guiding our children through these times:

1. Provide learning and enrichment in other ways, so that learning is not only associated with a school environment.

Trained as a school teacher, I know that the greatest cognitive learning is always interpersonal. That interpersonal learning can be between an author and a reader. It can be between two people freely exploring a topic. Stories and art are also good ways for children to learn through expressive mediums.

2. At least once a month, go out into nature with your kids.

Spending time in nature releases endorphins and encourages humans to live from a deeper place in themselves. There are scientifically supported reasons, including vitamin D increase, sunlight, and sleep regulation.

3. Become more of an expert in mental health than you ever planned to be.

The science of neurology and the parasympathetic nervous system gives us tools to know joy while acknowledging pain. Meditation, yoga, prayer, and psychological counseling can be accessed for this purpose.

 

I recently spoke with a family therapist and a yoga educator about what advice they can offer for training resiliency and healing after traumatic events.

Vicki Hoskins, LMFT, explains how we can build resilience in children and how we can help them handle their anxieties:

“The best way to build resilience in children is to be age-appropriately honest with them, to be available to talk, answer their questions, and come up with your own observations to use reflectively in communicating with children. They also need a lot of reassurance and to know that their parents are there for them. In the worst situations, we can imagine children who survive relatively well have community—family, friends, etc.

The worst thing parents can do is deny their children’s reality and try to brush their concerns aside, believing somehow that denial will keep them safe. 

The same with anxiety, really. It’s fear of the unknown, the unknown future and not knowing what to expect. And of course, despite our best efforts we can’t protect our children from everything.”

Jenn Nelson, a yoga educator, speaks about the way that our adrenal glands can be habituated to more or less reactivity:

“A balanced system needs to be in place. [For example] a yoga practice, a routine around nourishment both physically and mentally. So, in simple terms, having consistent physical exercise, good sleep hygiene…sleeping during the time when the body naturally detoxifies (10-2 a.m.) and eating foods that speak to your constitution will cultivate resiliency. Building a new pattern of behavior on top of an old pattern is how we leave things behind, a traumatic event or chronic stress. If drama is held in the tissue, it will always be there to collect and hold onto stress. If it is released from the tissue, there is more space for new patterns or habits to form.”

A respected meditation teacher, Tara Brach, was asked at a summer conference at Omega Institute about how to introduce mindfulness to kids.

The young teacher said her students are so overstimulated that silence “freaks them out, and their ability to form real connections with people is so diminished. The hope for our world is that the practices and the teachings of coming into your heart is there for this next generation.” She pointed to a prototype teacher training organization, Minds, that has brought mindfulness to more than 10,000 children in the urban area of Washington, D.C.

There are also clinical approaches to PTSD that pull together different strands of treatment.

One such approach, Comprehensive Resource Model, builds resilience by developing an individual’s self-regulation resources (breath work, somatics, relationship with the natural world) and personal connections. School administrators can be helpful by allowing social workers and guidance counselors to be trained in this approach, or others like it.

I am grateful that my children’s schools are proactive. I am grateful that the adults around my kids have tools which are driven by neurobiological research. The threat at my daughter’s high school was neutralized. She was stoked to get a half day off school.

But at home, I am the one who has to be ready for worrying conversation with my second-grader or 16-year-old. It feels awkward to reassure them of my support, but I choose to trust the experts and just do it.

We need to stop avoiding our children’s painful questions, and we need to start thinking of age-appropriate answers.

We need to model personal practices—like yoga or gardening—that build new neural pathways. This not only builds relationships but also allows for healing in the emotional body (a yoga term for the parasympathetic nervous system).

A fierce energy emerges when we step forward to pay attention to gun control and mental health solutions. This energy moves us to build resilience within our families and communities.

With modern insight, our children’s hearts can grow big enough to live well in spite of the frightening landscapes they are being raised in.

Thanks to the collective wisdom of different disciplines, I can be a better parent in uncertain times.

author: Heidi Evans McArdle

Image: YouTube

Editor: Kelsey Michal

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Heidi Evans McArdle

Heidi Evans McArdle lives in the fertile valley of the Hudson River. She researches, teaches, and remembers the 1970s. Her favorite line of poetry is “let us gather in a flourishing way” by Juan Filipe Herrera.