Making Pearls: Managing Stress to Build Resilience

April 3, 2020

Written by Lauren Strickland, LICSW, PIP
Director of Whole Child Initiative 

Do you know how pearls are made? Stress.

When a tiny grain of sand works its way into the deepest parts of an oyster—between its shell and mantle, the oyster works to manage the stressor and protect itself, covering the painful grain of sand with layer after layer of nacre (mother of pearl). Over time, layering that irritating, disruptive grain of sand forms the pearl.

Stress is inevitable in life. It’s necessary for making pearls—and developing resilience.

 Stress is essential to healthy development, and it is the essential element of building resilience.  
-Dr. Bruce Perry

Resilience is a word used to describe strength under adversity. It is a word often used to describe children, and while children are moldable and impressionable; it’s arguable that they are inherently resilient.

Just as a grain of sand alone cannot in and of itself become a pearl, adversity alone does not develop resilience. Two primary factors determine whether stress is helpful or harmful: the pattern of stress experienced and the relational support provided to manage it.

Let’s explore those further.

The Pattern of Stress

When stress is severe, prolonged and unmediated, our bodies become sensitized to it. Like a child waiting for the Jack-in-the-Box to pop—we live braced for it. Our bodies and brains stay on edge and out of sorts all the time. Our window of tolerance for stressful experiences becomes much smaller and even molehill kinds of challenges feel insurmountable in our lives. We exist in survival mode and have much less access to the more thoughtful, logical, social parts of our brains.

On the other hand, when stress is experienced as moderate, controllable and predictable—and when a relational buffer is present to support us through it, pearls of resilience form. We still experience stressful feelings, but because we have help to cope with them successfully, we feel a sense of safety and security in the midst of adversity. Then, in the future, when we face stress again, we have developed the know-how and confidence to cope and the security of knowing we can ask for help when we need some. This is the essence of support that comes through a healthy relationship.

Relational Support

Dr. Mark Katz says of resilience, “the strength to withstand adversity is not innately inside of us, but between us.” Dr. Bruce Perry reiterates, “The most powerful buffer in times of stress and distress is our social connectedness.”

Resilience is the outcome of relational support in times of adversity.

Resilience develops as kids feel supported by trustworthy adults in times of stress and adversity—times like these.

Below are several strategies caregivers can use to help children manage stress and build resilience in the coming months.

1. Spot Signs of Stress

Children do not often have the vocabulary to tell us how they feel, or how intensely they feel it. Instead, they show us. When a child is stressed, you might notice patterns of change in any of the following:

Appetite or Sleep
Behavior (increase in challenges)
Tics (blinking, clenching fists, locking lips or gritting teeth, raising brows)
Physical Body Tension
Excessive Tearfulness or Crying
Tantrums or Meltdowns
Isolation or Withdrawal
Fearfulness or Anxiety
Clinginess, Whining or Regression
Changes in Play

2. Seek to Understand and Meet Underlying Needs. Changes in mood and behavior indicate underlying needs. Behavior tells us something about the state your child is in and needs your child has. When caregivers resist reacting to challenging or puzzling behaviors and instead seek to understand where they may be coming from, they are better able to respond appropriately—meeting the underlying needs driving those behaviors. When this happens, challenging and misunderstood behaviors tend to decrease with time.

When your child is in a state of dysregulation (which simply means any state other than calm and settled), caregivers have three tasks: calm, connect, coach (in that order). First, help your child to calm by meeting needs. This may look like meeting biological needs, providing information or offering a safe place to fall apart. Then, focus all your energy on connection! Ensure your child feels seen and heard, and that his or her experience is validated. No problem solving, just connection! After your child is calm and connected to you, they are much more capable of accessing the thoughtful, logical, social parts of their brains. Only then can you coach them (problem solve and brainstorm, understand missteps and consider others’ perspectives). Only then can you help them learn to cope in helpful, positive ways!

3. Set Out To Control What Can Be Controlled. While many stressors are outside of our control in this season, by adding layers of support like the ones below, trustworthy adults can mediate this stressful season in ways that feel more moderate, predictable and controlled.

Prioritize and Meet Basic Needs Consistently
Provide healthy snacks/meals and water breaks every three hours. Ensure regular sleep and exercise.

Provide Developmentally Appropriate Information about COVID-19
This includes information about personal safety/wellness and assurance about what happens should they or a household member contract the virus. Allow space and time for questions/worries. Limit social media, news and casual conversation about the virus. When overheard, be intentional to debrief the information children may hear.

Provide Predictable Routines
Routines anchor children in times of stress. Include daily unstructured and structured time, active and quiet times, individual and family time, maintain bedtime routines and prioritize family meals.

Prioritize Family Rituals
While routines anchor, rituals strengthen connection. Consider intentional, relational check-ins throughout each day; times when adults ask questions like, “How are you feeling?” “What do you need?” “How can I help?”

Establish Clear Expectations
It’s not likely your family has spent this much time at home before. Just as you have expectations at work and children have expectations at school, it’s important to set clear expectations during this season. Consider expectations about house rules, daily schedules, responsibilities, behaviors—all the things that help your family stick together and thrive in this season. Allow your children to help determine them, talk about them regularly and post them in the home to help your family remember!

Ensure Predictable Responses—in Calm and Challenging Moments
Pay attention to your words, tone of voice and body language. Stress has a way of influencing responses in our children, and in us! In the most challenging of moments with our children (and with our spouses), stay calm. It’s also important to provide regular encouragement and lots of praise—and maintain a healthy, reassuring touch.

Maintain a Spirit of Playfulness
Play disarms fear. Work to incorporate playfulness in your responses, especially in challenging moments. Carve out time for everyday indoor/outdoor play. When you think of play, think of structured play (board games and directional games), child-led play (where your kiddo takes the lead—and you follow), messy and creative play (which call for all the glitter and glue and paint, mud pies in the dirt or clothes soaked in the water) and imaginative play (where you both dream up the impossible and play pretend).

Balance Structure and Nurture
This balance supports children and helps them feel secure. Your child needs you to be empathetic to his struggles and at the same time, needs to perceive you as strong enough to handle them. It is likely that you have increased structure at this time. Be sure to increase nurture right along with it. Watch where you set the bar of expectation and provide lots of support to succeed.

Provide Opportunities for Meaningful Family Work
Every part makes the whole. Miss a part, make a hole. Your children need to know they are vital to the family, especially in this season! When children have specific family responsibilities (roles/jobs, tasks), they feel part of something bigger than themselves. This helps your family stick together!

Encourage Others Around You
Like opportunities for meaningful family work, serving others helps children remember they are part of a big world, that they matter to this world and can make a difference in it. Think about ways your family can serve and encourage others during this time—then make it happen.

Look To The Future
This too shall pass. Be intentional to talk about the future! Use phrases like “when this passes” and “when you return to _______” as you talk about the future. Talk about plans for family and travel, plans for school and work—plan for life together in the future!

Care for Yourself
If relational support is the most powerful buffer in stressful times, we must care for ourselves. We cannot give what we do not possess. Prioritize sleep and physical activity, nutrition and hydration, daily. Disconnect from social media and the news for a stretch of time each day. Make time to pause and connect with significant others in your life. Pause to pray, reflect and meditate. 

Our children are watching us—they will respond to this experience the way that we respond. As they watch us, may they see caregivers who choose connection first and while balancing “nurture and structure, may (we) say ‘Yes’ to what matters and ‘No’ to fear. May (we) always meet the need, without neglecting (our) own.” —Scott Watters

When they see us respond in this way, they will too. When they face the next hard thing in life, they will remember this time and how we made it through—and then with great resilience, they will too.

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