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Resilience

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Your Child, Stronger

My then 13-year-old and I sat across a sticky table from each other at the local donut shop. If I remember right, he held a maple-frosted thing that was the size of a small planet, totally at my permission (unusual for my sugar-nazi tendencies). His tears had dried by now, leaving a whisper of salt on ruddy cheeks.

“I just feel like I have more setbacks than wins.” He shrugged heavily, as if wearing a backpack of rocks.

He wasn’t entirely wrong. That was the day when out of the four saxophonists who auditioned for advanced band, three made it in. And it stunk to be number four.

Add to that the fact that he is my kid with a couple of learning disorders. He’s come so far, people. But that means that out of my four kids, three of them find school relatively easy. One doesn’t. (Sensing a pattern here?) And junior highers aren’t particularly merciful when your ADHD lapses into annoying territory.

All that to say, my son was becoming good friends with striking out. Watching him across the table from me, I glimpsed a sense of powerlessness. He was working out an answer to that lifelong question, “Where is God in my pain?”

Permanent Truth

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Resilience is about:

•pressing through pain—and into it—with gratitude and trust, rather than avoiding or denying it

•valuing and pursuing the sizable gifts and character acquired in darkness

•waiting patiently to see God’s goodness and character we know is there

•preparing kids to fully grieve and yet get up again after life’s inevitable losses—including those we can’t see yet

My heart wanted to scoop him up like when he was little, cuddle him, and let him laugh out loud at Clifford the Big Red Dog on TV. (But maybe that would contribute to a teenager’s sense of failure. Ya know.)

How can we help our kids deal? By teaching resilience. And allowing what precedes it.

Wrestlers, Cancer, and How Your Child’s Pain Could Be a Gift

A friend of mine, Marshall, is six foot three. He was upward of 190 pounds as a high school wrestler back in the day. Maybe that’s why I was surprised at who he said were the most formidable in the sport: the kids from the school for the blind. In fact, one of them was the state champ during Marshall’s years in competition. At the time, wrestling and swimming were the only sports available to those students; baseball, basketball, and football were all out. So they practiced and competed year-round.

What mattered even more, though, was that wrestlers who are blind have a heightened sense of touch. We’ve all heard that with the loss of one of our senses, our other senses rally to compensate (think of Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles). Scientific American reports that the brain rewires itself to boost the other senses. It’s a phenomenon now known as cross-modal neuroplasticity: “If one sense is lost, the areas of the brain normally devoted to handling that sensory information do not go unused—they get rewired and put to work processing other senses.”1

This got me thinking. Could the loss of something we desperately want gain something we don’t yet know we desperately need?

Rewired in Struggle

This conversation about wrestling caught me bewildered at a soul level from a cancer scare with our son Will, which happened around his thirteenth birthday. But I was also reflecting on his remarkable response of faith like a lion, which occasionally outpaced my own belief. Even as we wept together, that boy started talking about what he was thankful for. He said things like, “God has a good plan for this. And even if I die, I get to be with Jesus, right?” Or when I couldn’t stop crying the next morning: “I have complete faith that God has a good plan for this. God had a plan for Henry (our recently passed toddler friend). And God has a plan for me. I mean, he’s not the kind of God who goes around giving people tumors for fun.”

Someone had once told me that Abraham, when asked to sacrifice his son, hadn’t received the faith he needed like some supernatural shot in the arm. Faith was something built. Though a lot of people liken faith to a muscle, John pointed out that maybe it’s more like rappelling. Perhaps faith is more about loosening our death grip on the rope and realizing the breathtaking freedom of leaning back into trust.

The day Will, John, and I traveled for the MRI and oncologist consultation, I felt like Abraham going up the mountain. Lord, he is yours. But why this? I kept waiting for a rustle in the bushes, some sort of ram I wasn’t promised to receive.

Will slumped as we waited for the necessary two hours, whining about drinking the chalky oral contrast. Into my red journal, I copied words from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, their words of trust-filled release: “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up” (Daniel 3:17-18, emphasis added).

Following the longest six weeks of my life, doctors concluded our son actually had an extra cervical rib—not, as they thought, lymphoma. Something thought to be a lymph node was a muscle; another swelling was a normal thymus gland. (Did you even know you had a thymus gland?) Will decided to affectionately name his newly discovered rib “Eve.”

But John and I had already wondered in conversation, Where did this kid develop such a capability to place this in God’s arms?

As we talked, the most obvious was Will’s diagnosis of ADHD at age five, followed later by dysgraphia. (Irony: The son of a writer labors painfully to write or spell anything. He has been counseled to strictly type any future love letters.) No book has a word count high enough to communicate the tears (his and mine) over his former mortifying lack of self-control, and his playdates where I doled out strategized rewards for not melting down or hitting anyone. He and I muscled through spelling lists two years behind his grade level. Countless prayers were offered, pleadings made, and systems established.

Mind you, we are still a work in progress. But Will is now my most resilient child. I have discovered such gratitude for the ways these disorders have grown our family.

Imagine the tears I swallowed when his eyes lit up with the topic choice for his first school speech: “The Treasures of ADHD.” His conclusion? I am glad for the way I am. I am still amazed by the way God made me.

Less than six months after that diagnosis, our family moved to Africa. We were maddeningly, frequently without power or Internet or water—built-in delays of gratification (for all of us, doggone it). If my kids purchased a Lego set, it would arrive in three or four months with an intern.

I tell you this not to glorify suffering. But you’ve likely read of “snowplow parents” aiming to bulldoze every obstacle from a child’s path. Experts speculate that this approach results in kids ill-prepared for adulthood.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

I had to learn early on to watch my language, so to speak, when it came to tough stuff—because the narratives we tell ourselves and our kids do matter, especially in the tough times. And in Tim Keller’s words, if we get the story wrong, we get our response wrong.2

So until my son was old enough to more fully appreciate his strengths and uniqueness—and not to use his disorders as a crutch—we referred (with attempted hope and a neutral-to-positive tone of voice) to “the way God made your brain.”

Your kids pick up on a lot of what you think about something by the ways you talk about it. Your goal shouldn’t be to move your child into denial or overlook their anguish, but rather to communicate hope and trust in the way God is writing their story.

We attach different values based on story. Take some collectors’ computers from 1977 that were assembled in a garage and signed inside by Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. Obsolete—even useless—as the actual computers may be, one sold for $650,000.3

Story often equals value.

How we respond to our kids’ experience of hardship helps shape that story. Sometimes this means acknowledging our kids’ core emotion, giving them permission to grieve. One night in Uganda, my kids watched their grandparents swallowed into yet another airport. Our kids were weeping. John leaned over. “Some people told me when I was a kid not to be sad. But I want you to cry. It says something about how valuable your grandparents are to you, and that’s a good thing.”

Songwriter Michael Card remarks, “Jesus understood that lament was the only true response of faith to the brokenness and fallenness of the world.”4 Sometimes kids need to hear, “It is right and just that you should be upset about something that’s wrong.”

Sure, some kids will tend toward waterworks rather than resilience. But when the grief or anger or outright fear is real, take a beat to recognize what isn’t right about this world.

Outside Lazarus’s tomb, Jesus was well aware of what God purposed to do in the next few minutes. But first he rage-cried (as per the meaning of the Greek word, elsewhere used to express indignance, rage, and stern warning). He didn’t say that because God was going to do something good, and therefore Lazarus’s death was good.5

At times, I have not fully grieved what is wrong about this world—not mourned with God—because somehow I’ve become convinced a joyful Christian is not sad or discouraged or ticked. In all honesty, I think this has stilted my relationship with God, my wholehearted worship of him, because I could bring only the parts of me that had their act together (we’re getting down to the single percentages that qualify, people). I have been a plasticky sort of Christian—one that even my kids could see right through.

Christian joy isn’t some version of looking like Barbie, with the eternal smile that can’t be wiped off: Well, God said to rejoice! Have a cookie. It acknowledges that “we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 ESV). It says, I have deep, abiding happiness in God that surrounds me in hope and peace and belief, even when I can’t see through my own tears. These seeds of God’s presence with us in pain sprout the monumental gift of compassion in our kids, of comforting others with the comfort we’ve received (2 Corinthians 1:4).

Instead of choosing to believe God’s goodness and make an offering of worship in the midst of uncomfortable, even piercing emotion, I have been guilty of pretending that pain isn’t there. That’s when I haven’t modeled for my kids what honoring God looks like in the full spectrum of emotion. We want instead to invite kids to bring their most intense questions about God right to him and right into our worship. (Suffering, after all, is a big part of God’s own identity—because he loves much. I don’t want to keep my kids from that aspect of understanding him, either.)

Will our kids tell their stories as recipients of a bad rap, considering what they “deserve”? Overlooked, suck-it-up-buttercup pawns of a cosmic Being’s plans that care nothing for them? Or will they tell their stories as beloved children of God, laden with purpose, his heart breaking first in their pain?

Hunting for Plan B

Kids need our help to gain perspective on failure or loss. That said, failing an advanced band audition does not mean one’s primary life path is closed.

In our conversation at the donut shop, I asked my son if he remembered the waterslide we screamed down the previous summer.

Where had the engineer designed all the water to go? (The pool at the bottom.) Did it all end up there? (Mom, c’mon.) We talked about the verse from Proverbs: “In the LORD’s hand the king’s heart is a stream of water that he channels toward all who please him” (21:1). If there had been a hole in the waterslide, the water would have drained out to the wrong place. God shuts doors—boarding up the slide, so to speak—so the water of our life goes to all the right places.

My son and I dreamed a little bit. What could my son be good at instead? What other possibilities might be open because this door closed? My son needed a little help from a more developed frontal lobe (that is, mine), so we talked about what was going right, things in which he hadn’t failed. We talked about life-altering things that, by the grace of God, my son has going for him. He has thriving health, a family who’s crazy about him, a warm home, a love for cooking mouthwatering food, and killer compassion.

Honesty is critical here but can get tricky. Obviously, we don’t want to go with a shrug and say, “Well, if you would have practiced more…” But part of the gift of failure (yes, I called it that) is our human ability to change. After the dreaming together and accumulated positive rapport, I asked, “Is there something you wish you would have done differently?” Or you could say, “Is there something you wish you could go back and change?”

It’s that classic adage of parents around the world: You can’t change their action; you can only change your reaction.

Kids who expect that the world should rightfully hand them perfection are in for a rude awakening. We want to raise resilient kids—problem-solvers who seize responsibility for their own capacity to change.

So help them dream about plan B. I asked my son questions about what he hoped to do in life with his instrument. What was his end game? What did he like about band? Should he try another elective better suited to what he’s good at? Should he try out for jazz band instead? What practical steps would it take to get to plan B? He decided to talk with his teacher about what went wrong and about what he’d need to do if he wanted to do band in high school.

Maybe Don’t Do This: A Beginning List

Don’t just distract them. Yes, sometimes they’ll need help to snap out of it. (A donut? Did I suggest that?) But communicate that being angry, sad, or afraid is okay, and that you’ll sit with them through those feelings.

That said, don’t let them wallow. In a way still respectful of their grief, provide your kids with healthy strategies for taking captive their thoughts (2 Corinthians 10:5). You’re establishing patterns for how to deal with painful days in the future: the unfair boss, the project that blows up in their face, the kids who won’t listen.

Don’t focus on what everyone else did wrong. “I wish that teacher had seen your talent” makes the problem about someone else and surrenders our kids’ capacity to change, grow, and learn. Imagine being that parent who, when the school calls about what’s not going right, refrains from excuses or blaming in favor of working together toward more character in your child.

Don’t always shield them from disappointments (“Oh, shoot! Her grandparents can’t take her to the movies! I’d better think of a great stand-in!”) or others’ suffering. Take them to the funeral, the shelter, the sick person’s bedside. Age-appropriately, talk about situations where you have no answers for your kids’ whys—and your pervasive trust in God amid situations he chooses not to “fix.”

Don’t be afraid to fix your mind on the future (Colossians 3:2-3). Create heaven-lovers. Read books about heaven. Talk about it. Imagine a little. In the car or eating dinner, we used to play “I wonder if heaven has…”—which with little kids meant everything from puppies to rainbow slides to swimming pools of whipped cream. Either way, heaven will be better than whatever they dream up (see 1 Corinthians 2:9). This meant when a relative passed away, one of my kids talked like that person was one lucky dog. Another child simply talked about him in heaven as if the relative were visiting Disneyland.

This is not to spare kids internalizing the pain of losing someone. But our suffering on planet Earth is mitigated by the greatness of our reward. It’s a reward God doesn’t blush about or cover up. Let’s talk up that reward to our kids, helping them visualize it while they’re most able.

Don’t accomplish plan B for them. Restore their sense of “I can” by showing them they have the ability to dig themselves out of whatever hole they fall into. I agreed to e-mail my son’s band teacher (without a guilt trip) so we could devise strategies, but my son had a list of action points all his own.

Plan B

Whether on the mountaintops or in the valleys, we want our kids to have hope. Dr. Brené Brown calls hope “a function of struggle.”6 This echoes Scripture: “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Our plan B may just be God’s plan A. In truth, he is all over our plan B. He’s why we hope at all. Hope in God, the psalms compel us over and over.

God makes plan B airtight because even if plan B doesn’t materialize, he channels me right where I’m created to be. He’s going to be there, rooting for me and his glory even if it all unspools to plan Q (see Romans 8:31). Plan B (or Q) happens not because I ducked and let God kick me there. He uses the way I’m made, the things I long for, the passions that fuel me.

Grieving and disappointment set up our kids for a lifetime of walking with God as we follow Jesus into death—the death of ourselves. Father Thomas Keating remarks, “The spiritual journey is not a career or a success story. It is a series of humiliations of the false self that become more and more profound.”7 We see the example of Jesus, who turned toward his cross and its eventual joy (Hebrews 12:2) rather than sprinting from it. In Luke 9:51, as he moved into the week before his death, he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.”

Understandably, you’ll choose at times whether to remove your child from a challenging, destructive situation or allow them the critical teaching experience—and emotional muscle—of learning from hard stuff as they work each situation out.

What gifts could God long to fold into your child’s palms?

What if our children not having something, or encountering barriers or pain, causes faith and gratitude and perseverance to cycle into high gear? Will’s habit of trusting God, I understand now, was just ratcheted up a level.

By all means, my son is not getting it all right. But this is what I want more than a straight-A student, or even one who makes the first cut in advanced band: a child with a heightened sense of God.

I watched my friend progress through the nightmare of her husband’s stage-four kidney cancer this year. From diagnosis to the day she became a widow—and single mother of three—took just over 100 days. One night, as I transferred the children to their grandparents and we lamented the agony of their reality, her mother remarked she could still see my friend running around in footie pajamas as a child. I realized we never know what resilience our kids might need in the future for which today must prepare them.

Writing on the Wall: Practical Ideas

Encourage your kids to develop a “courage playlist.”

Explain that this will be for days that require a little extra strength. As long as our songs have solid theology, this isn’t just bravado and puffing up emotion; music is a great way to catechize ourselves as we rehearse truth.

Pop popcorn.

Have kids smell and maybe taste uncooked kernels. How does popcorn start tasting and smelling so good? Ask, “What in life can be compared to the heat needed to make the popcorn burst open?” Pop the corn, and as you enjoy it, talk about how heat helps us “blossom”—and even nurture those around us.8

Use modeling clay to teach flexibility.

Roll three small balls and one larger ball of modeling clay (not Play-Doh).9 Give the smaller balls three names to represent people, and explain the struggles in their lives. (“People make fun of Emilio at school.”) I think it could be visually useful to squash the balls a little bit! Shape the bigger ball into a simple canoe, put it in water, and watch it float—explaining that by staying flexible and open to stretching, we can help other people. (Drop the other poor little squashed clay balls in the canoe.)

Write hidden messages.

Using a cotton swab and milk or lemon juice, write “God is my strength” on a piece of white paper. (If you have multiple kids, you could give each a paper with a hidden message: “God’s plans are always good.” “God cares for me.” “God is my safe place.”) Allow it to dry. Talk to your kids about how tough times expose what’s in us—and hopefully, the “hidden truths” God has written on our hearts. Do they see anything that makes this piece of paper different from another? (No.) When they hold the paper over a lightbulb—the heat, literally and metaphorically—can they read the hidden message?

Reward courageous steps.

A small step for a child without challenges may be a giant leap for a struggling child (“You went to church today without throwing a fit!” “You had an entire day without an outburst!”). Together, adjust your expectations for a challenged child’s new “normal.” Cheer them on! Look up and write down all the staggering promises in Revelation 2–3 for overcomers. And get ready to be conquerors together.

Ask kids to create their own board game.

This could be similar to Life or Chutes and Ladders and include obstacles they face socially, physically, and intellectually. Perhaps players have to surmount these obstacles by fulfilling a small challenge.

Watch for clues about emotional difficulties.

Kids’ behavior can signal their need for support with emotional difficulties. Watch for clues about those difficulties, asking yourself…

•What brings tears to their eyes? I watch for even the exact triggering phrase. Help your kids learn to acknowledge what they feel and to know their own signals: “I see that you’re getting easily frustrated. Sometimes I get cranky when I’m tired. Think you might be feeling tired?”

•What reactions seem disproportionate? These can be indicators of the iceberg hovering beneath the surface. If I see someone acting in a more powerful way than the situation demands, I could get distracted by the way they’re expressing themselves and miss the why throbbing beneath.

•What statements do they repeat? How do you know when they’re tired? When you were a new parent, you learned to distinguish their tired, angry, and hungry cries. Do the same for them now.

•What do they not want to talk about? Pray about when to press in and when to give space, particularly when they could use time to cool off.

•What is precious to my child that’s being lost or trampled on? Ask gently probing questions to help your child uncover the answer. Asking questions helps us isolate the pain point (and sometimes, in anger, the heart idol that has become too precious, morphing from desire to demand).

•What stories do they tell? This can be tough with kids who tell a lot of mundane stories crowded with belabored details. But stories are hand-selected pieces of their day that feel meaningful. Why did they choose to tell these stories? Are the common threads people they admire or moments they find memorable? What are you learning about your kids’ values, social skills, and their curated world?

•What could their bodies be telling you? Sometimes a tummy ache is just a tummy ache, insomnia means lying awake like any other kid in town might be, and a fit is a call for discipline. But when does a tummy ache signal anxiety or a fake sickness? How late has a child been on screens? Could that angry outburst be a hangry or exhausted, at-my-limits outburst?

Fresh Ink: Resources for Vibrant Faith

•I like Beverly Lewis’s beautifully illustrated What Is Heaven Like? as well as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven for Kids and Tell Me About Heaven.

•Another to try out: Lysa TerKeurst’s It Will Be Okay: Trusting God Through Fear and Change.

True Colors: Discussion Questions for Kids

•How do you think God feels when we’re hurt or sad?

•What are some of the reasons he still allows difficult things to happen? (Check out John 9:1-3; 11:1-7,32-45; James 1:2-4; and Romans 5:3-5. Job 1 is a fascinating chapter to go through with older kids.)

Think Ink: Contemplative Questions for Parents

•In the story of Jesus raising Lazarus, in John 11:38, the Greek term embrimáomai is often translated “deeply moved” (NIV, HCSB, ESV). Yet the use of the term elsewhere in Scripture and in the immediate context suggests a different meaning: typically, an expression of rage, rebuke, indignation, and anger.10 Take a minute to revisit a time when you did not feel like God showed up: a situation where the outcome felt dead, maybe with a huge rock thrown in front.

•How does this picture of Jesus, angry at what is wrong in this world (despite knowing he would conquer what’s wrong, creating beauty from it), affect your interpretation of what happened? What if Christ was angry and weeping with you?

•How does your past pain affect how you guide your kids to deal with failure, loss, and hurt?

Prayer of the Dependent Parent

Lord, as much as this walk with you is full of goodness, we follow you into death of ourselves (Galatians 2:20). On this planet, we can anticipate loss, pain, suffering, persecution, and failure. Shape us in readiness for adversity—to weather it with strength and trust and wholehearted honesty, turning toward you rather than away.

We sense this even in parenting: suffocating disappointment, fear, some of our most terrifying nightmares materializing into reality. The pain of parenting, as you well know, is real.

Thank you that our suffering is not purposeless. Thank you that your way is to give more than you take, that your way is always and ultimately resurrection and restoration of far more than you ask of us. Cause us to love you for more than your gifts. Create in us and train us in your unfailing hope.

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