Several years ago, sitting in the waiting room of the therapist’s office with my middle-school child, I couldn’t figure out how we got here. It seemed impossible.
From the beginning of our marriage, my husband and I had focused our efforts on forming a faith-filled family, and raising strong, healthy, happy children. Like most Catholic parents, especially converts or reverts, we believed that by raising our children in the Faith, and loving them unconditionally, they would be protected from unhappiness and wounds.
But we watched with confusion and alarm as we saw our 13-year-old start to crumble before us in seventh grade; the light faded from their once bright eyes, in spite of our prayers, efforts and God’s promises. The pressures of middle school social drama and academics were heavy. Our child stopped seeing themself for who they are and instead internalized things other people said about them, or ways they thought they didn’t measure up to others, and began to believe this was the core of their idenity.
If someone said something mean, if they had lower grades than someone else, if they weren’t as good of an athlete, somehow these things spoke louder in their self-identity than the message of love and worth as a child of God that we had been trying to build in them for 13 years.
Paul and I felt like failures, but we had to put those emotions aside, trust God and walk into this darkness we had never imagined facing. We had somehow allowed our child to be wounded, something we thought we could prevent as “good parents.” We had thought that we could raise happy, successful children who were protected from wounds of the world by the sheer force of faith and love.
We realized that we couldn’t fix this, and that our child needed help to get the tools and skills that would help them see themselves and the world around them in a clear and healthy way. By the grace of God, we found a GREAT Christian therapist that our child connected with and had the courage to open up to.
It takes humility and a willingness to carry pain you can’t fix to walk through suffering with your son or daughter. The word compassion comes from Latin, meaning “to suffer with.” We lived compassion. And we had to live it quietly because this battle was not something our child wanted public. We turned to God and our spiritual directors for support.
Speaking with a priest about the terrifying new landscape before me, one in which I had neither protected my child nor prevented them from being wounded by the world, he looked at me and quietly said, “Kerrie, would you prevent them from having the experience of Mercy?”
This was a paradigm shift for me. I took it to prayer. I didn’t need to go farther than my Rosary to see the trauma that God himself suffered… in his passion and death, but also as a refugee child, when he was left behind in Jerusalem for three days (imagine Mary’s mom-guilt!!), and when St. Joseph died. And Mary’s trauma- threatened with divorce, having no place to give birth, fleeing to Egypt in the middle of the night, a sword piercing her heart.
After many, many days of much prayer, I came to realize that our faith does not make perfect people, it makes healed people.
Now, years later, that child still has battles, but they are strong and mature in ways that we realize developed through the course of their struggle, a struggle we would have given our lives to protect them from. Indeed, all things DO work for good in those who love the Lord (Romans 8:28).
Healed people experience difficulty, trauma, sin, weakness, and failure, and become strong through it, through the action of mercy. They become stronger than successful, they become resilient.
By trying to shield my child from challenges, difficulties, and failures, I would take away their chance to grow, develop the resiliency that they will need as adults, and experience the mercy of their Father.
“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Leonard Cohen
Resilient people understand that ultimately, they will be strengthened by the problems and challenges they face.
Our culture, even our Catholic culture, admires and holds up examples of families and kids that seem to have it all together more than it rallies around those who struggle. We need to fix that. It’s through struggle that we experience mercy that transforms us, and makes us wise and compassionate.
My parenting goals have shifted. Instead of trying to raise successful, protected children, I focus now on raising resilient children who, God-willing, will become resilient adults of Faith.
Here are some of the lessons I have learned and some great resources I have found to help us as parents in raising resilient kids. I am not a therapist, only a mom offering her experience, and encouraging you not to hesitate to find a good Christian therapist if your child could benefit from it.
Lesson 1. Don’t shield your kid from all challenges and failures. As parents we have an instinct to pave the road ahead of our child, eliminating obstacles and ensuring they have every advantage and opportunity given to them. The real world doesn’t work this way. It’s more loving to let them learn to navigate challenges as children and teenagers, while we are with them, walking by their side, than to have the big brick wall of reality hit them for the first time during their adult life.
Lesson 2. Be a safe place. Teenagers may blame you incessantly and spew words and eye-rolls at you that you never imagined would come from your beloved child. Don’t take it personally. In a difficult world, you, their family, may be the only place they feel safe enough to let it out. Stay calm, help them process it. Do not accept disrespectful behavior, but don’t let it ignite your emotions. Tell them when something is unacceptable and give them the consequence necessary for their actions, but with calm, and with love.
Lesson 3. Teach them to reframe. This is an excellent tool our child’s therapist gave them. Reframing involves recognizing negative thoughts, analyzing them, and seeing reality through a different, more positive frame or lens.
Catholic Psychologist, Dr. Gladys Sweeney, explains,
“ Often, in a case of depression, the feeling of hopelessness and helplessness takes control of the entire person, and the patient is not able to see reality objectively. It is as if they view the world through dark lenses. A depressed person might “interpret” a neutral event as negative, as personally offensive, when in reality it is not so. The treatment consists of helping the depressed individuals to restructure their thinking, of aiding them to reframe their distorted negative schemas. They are trained to order the emotions according to reason and to see situations more objectively. It has proven extremely effective in helping patients with this diagnosis.”
There’s a good description of this technique here.
Lesson 4. Model brave love that isn’t striving to “be the best” but to “give your best.” Resilient people are free to love. They are not crushed by failures, rejections, wounds, and traumas, but see how God heals us and builds through them.
That means they are unafraid (ok, less afraid) of being hurt, and more free to love bravely whatever circumstances they are in. Praise kids more for how they are loving, more for their bravery than for the results of an effort, which are not often in their control.
As parents, model selfless love that has an abiding peace, even in the face of pain and difficulty. Be honest about hurts, but recognize and articulate the good in the situation. If the situation is so dark that you can’t see the good, recognize, and verbalize to your children that it will come, and that sometimes we have to walk through darkness before we see light. Speak the hope that you have.
Lesson 5. Teach them that they are more than what they do. There is an anxiety epidemic in our adolescents. The pressure to succeed socially, academically, and athletically is enormous, and it’s crushing our kids.
Instinctively we tend to think we can protect them from this by shielding them from adversity and failure. Stop. Let them face dragons. Let them fail. But be there beside them. As parents, we need our kids to see that we value who they are more than what they achieve and that they can face obstacles, overcome failures and come up with solutions on their own. Show this by praising the EFFORTS of people, and the CHARACTER people do things with, instead of just their accomplishments.
Resilient people are positive and optimistic. In an angry, broken world, resilient people live with compassion and a clear view of reality, but also with mercy, hope and optimism. They look for solutions. Their optimism gives them the energy to do the hard work needed to make it through something difficult, or to help someone else through challenges.
Some kids are naturally optimistic. Encourage this. Some kids aren’t. Accept this and help them develop the skills needed to build their hope and optimism. Help them learn to look for the good in any situation and keep that as their focus. If they can’t find a good, help them think of a good they can create and encourage them to work on that, as St. John of the Cross said,
“Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.”
Yes, they may fail. And if they do it will be ok. Recently my 5th-grade son came home from school talking about a principle they were working on in the classroom. It’s this, “FAIL means first attempt in learning.” I love that. Maybe I should go back to 5th grade…
Pray a lot. Pray, let God guide you and let him guide your child. Sit in his arms and let Him love you through this. Ask for the gift of trust, and lay this burden at his feet. It’s for him to heal, not for you to carry and try to control. Here are a few spiritual resources that help me with this.
- Mary Un-doer of Knots: I put my children and their challenges in her hands.
- All things work for good in those that love the Lord (Romans 8:28)
- This illness is not to end in death, but for the glory of God. (John 11:4)
- I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil4:13)
- Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Whatever happens, give thanks, because it is God’s will in Christ Jesus that you do this. (1 Thes 5:16-18)
- Consider it pure joy, my brothers, when you are involved in various trials because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. But you must let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing (James 1: 2-4)
- The Guardian Angel Prayer- pray it for your kids. “Angel of God, his guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits thee near, ever this day, be at his side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”