As parents, we want our children to navigate life’s ups and downs with grace and confidence. To this end, and from an early age, children need to be supported when dealing with adversity so they can mature in a healthy way and increase their resilience. So, how can we support them to grow into resilient adults?
We turned to Sunrise Waldorf School (Sunrise) teacher Katia Rheault for her insights on this important topic. Ms. Rheault has been studying resilience and presented some of her findings in a parent enrichment evening last year.
With her assistance, we are taking a closer look at how parents can help their children become resilient adults, and how Waldorf education supports this.
What is Resilience?
Resilience is the ability to bounce back after a crisis or stressful event. Thanks to resilience, people can go from a stressed state and return to a calmer and more regulated one.
Our nervous system has evolved to keep us safe. When a threat or a stressor is identified, our nervous system shifts and mobilizes our inner resources (oxygen, nutrients, blood flow) to either attack, escape, or “play dead”. This is the normal fight/ flight/freeze response also called the trauma response. After we have successfully dealt with the threat, we can return to our normal resting state (aka “rest and digest”), and homeostasis (physiological balance) is re-established.
“The faster you can recover from stress, the more resilience you have. That’s why trauma is so debilitating,” said Rheault. “The problem is when [the trauma response] is not disconnected, even after the stressful event is over, and the cues for safety have not returned. Then our ability to recover from stress is undermined, therefore our capacity for resilience is diminished.”
Starting from birth, all children experience both stress and relaxation, and need to be supported to move from a stressed state to a more regulated one. An article out of Harvard University explained that when children experience “manageable stress” and learn to deal with it, they “become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships, both physically and mentally.”
One of our main tasks as parents, then, is to do our best to help our children work through life’s everyday stresses while protecting them from significant traumas as much as possible. It’s important to remember that life can be messy and unforeseen challenges do come up. When they do, it may not be the trauma itself, but how we deal with it that matters the most.
“Parents who support children to recover from stress in a healthy, functional way, will make them more resilient as they grow up,” said Rheault.
How Parents Can Support Resilience in Their Children
Although some children are simply born more resilient than others, there are things we can do as parents to support our children’s ability to recover from stressful events, no matter their temperament or basic constitution.
Taking Care of the Basics
Every parent knows what can happen to children’s emotional states when they are tired, hungry, or haven’t had enough exercise. They often become cranky, demanding, upset, or prone to tantrums: they become dysregulated. Resilience requires a solid base, and if a child’s core needs aren’t met, it can be much more difficult for them to deal with stress.
Rheault wrote, “Children need to receive adequate nutrition, sleep, and rest according to a predictable and consistent rhythm.”
And in addition to their physical needs, children also have core emotional needs that have to be met: safety (boundaries, emotional security), connection (reciprocity and love), predictability, and play.
Attachment and Connection
Children need to feel attached to at least one caregiver. This appears over and over in literature on resilience. Of course, having more loving caregivers is wonderful, but at least one stable and consistent attachment is necessary.
Rheault explained, “Children need to feel safe and secure in the presence of caregivers. Connection means ‘I need to be fully seen, heard, and accepted by you’.”
The Harvard University article explains that these relationships “also build key capacities—such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior—that enable children to respond adaptively to adversity and thrive.”
At birth, our nervous systems are far from being fully developed. That is why children need to regulate their own emotional and physiological states with their parents’ help. This is called co-regulation.
Rheault wrote, “When babies become stressed and dysregulated, they are unable to self-regulate on their own.”
Over time, when provided with enough consistent nurturance, children eventually become capable of soothing themselves. This article on “Parenting for Brain” compares the process of learning to self-soothe to teaching a child how to ride a bike. In the beginning, the parent holds the bike steady without letting go. This is the support babies and young children need with their feelings. Then, as children develop, parents can provide less and less support. “Each child has a different timeline, depending on temperament, constitution, and sensitivity,” wrote Rheault.
When co-regulating, parents need to remain calm and present as much as possible in the face of their children’s distress. This is not always easy to do, but the more we can stay in an unstressed state, the easier it is for children to find their way back to homeostasis. According to Rheault, co-regulation may include, “Safe, nurturing, appropriate touch (physical holding, a soft voice, kind eyes), and providing space for a child to take the time to become regulated at their own pace.”
She went on to explain that children all have their unique paths back to regulation. Parents need to attune to their children and experiment to identify the types of support that work best.
“Children integrate what they receive from outside, and are affirmed by the certainty of habit,” wrote Rheault. If we want our children to learn resilience, we as parents have to model it to them.
Every time we take a few deep breaths before losing our tempers, or recover from stress in our own lives by taking care of ourselves, we are teaching our children to do the same.
As parents, we also need a strong support network. Children require a lot of time and energy. For parents to be resilient, they too must attend to their needs, getting plenty of nutrition, sleep, exercise, and downtime as much as possible.
This is a staple of all parenting advice, but it’s good for developing resilience too. Predictability and rhythmic routines give children a sense of security which helps build resilience.
“The more rhythmic life is for a child, the more their energetic (etheric) body is supported,” said Rheault. “The more that is supported at home, the better it is for children.”
Rheault explained children do best when living by “event time,” not “clock time.” In event time, the start and the end of any activity is determined by the experience itself, not by the time on the clock.
“Living according to ‘event time’ is healthy in that one can breathe more easily through any activity – flexibility is allowed, spontaneity can take place, and taking one’s time is socially acceptable; all of this keeps stress levels low,” wrote Rheault.
Even as adults, too much activity can lead to excessive stress. We all need time to rest, reflect, or just be with ourselves. This is especially true for children.
The American Psychological Association describes this as a key to resilience, as does Rheault. She explained that children “require a lot of unstructured time to be able to process their environment according to their own needs and emerging interests. There should be no busyness and no rushing inasmuch as possible.”
In a 2016 lecture, author and educator Kim John Payne related the story of a boy who was bullying others. While we usually focus on victims of bullying in terms of resilience, it is also true that bullies aren’t at their most resilient either.
Payne asked the boy what his sources of stress were. He discovered the boy was on a very competitive sports team and was also under a lot of pressure from parents and teachers to excel in his school work.
Payne recommended the boy be put on a recreational sports team that only practiced once per week. His activities on the schoolground were also limited.
The boy’s behaviour changed dramatically. He began asking for homework, and started standing up for more vulnerable children on the playground. The downtime he so badly needed ultimately increased his capacity for resilience.
How Waldorf Education Fosters Resilience
Many of the factors that nurture resilience at home are also found in Waldorf schools.
“In the first seven years of life, children need to feel that the world is good. Not just that it’s safe, but that they feel nurtured and supported by the world”, explained Rheault.
Waldorf teachers strive to create this environment for all their students, but especially so in the early years. A Kindergarten class feels like a welcoming home where children do focused work, socialize, play, practice chores, enjoy healthy and nutritious food, and down-time according to a predictable rhythm.
In every Waldorf school, lessons, daily and weekly schedules, as well as school festivals have a rhythm that contributes to a sense of safety and predictability. Teachers craft their lessons and plan the time students spend at school in order to create balance between focused tasks and unstructured activities. Time spent inside is balanced with time spent outside, individual work with group work. This is sometimes referred to as the “breathing rhythm”, where the inhalation is as important as the exhalation.
Contact with nature has been identified as one of the staples of mental health because it is one of the main ways in which human beings regulate and thus build resilience. Waldorf education cultivates a sense of reverence for the natural world, and students have daily opportunities to be outside, garden, and have unstructured play time in beautiful natural settings.
In a Waldorf elementary school, class teachers and specialty teachers embody “loving authority” and cultivate strong, long-term, and caring relationships with their students.
And at Sunrise, regular practices like Council help students express their feelings and thoughts in a safe environment, and thus help nurture group resilience in the class as a whole.
To Sum it All Up
Life is unpredictable, and no one can prepare us for the challenges that may come our way. But when children are provided with a solid foundation, they can weather the storms of life and flourish.
It may be a relief for parents to know that the keys to building resilience in children are likely things they are doing already. With care, love, and connection, even sensitive children who seem to feel life’s blows more than others can grow into resilient adults.
· Ms. Rheault’s full presentation on resilience
· The Healthy Mind Platter: Article by Dr. Daniel J. Siegel and Dr. David Rock
· Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents' Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience: Book by Peter A. Levine and Maggie Kline
· Hold On to Your Kids: Book by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté.
· The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness, and Healing in a Toxic Culture: Book by Gabor Maté