Hope Today

Understanding and strengthening our most important virtue.

Keys to Building Hope in Children: Part 2 Self–Regulation

Every Parent Should be a Hope Provider

I blog on the subject of hope. Last week (2/6) I posted part one of a four-part series on building hope in children. As I mentioned in that post, hope derives from strong attachment, survival, mastery, and spiritual resources. To be hopeful, an individual must possess trust and openness, alternative ways of solving problems, the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors, a sense of purpose and empowerment, and some form of faith, religious or spiritual in nature.

The first post in this series focused on building attachment. The next two will focus on survival. In the course of human development, attachment is the first and most critical hope resource that must be established. After attachment, the next building block that must be cultivated is the capacity to sustain hope in the face of challenge or adversity.

When you finished reading this blog, you may wish to visit my hope website (www.gainhope.com). You will find a free, confidential, automatically scored Child Hope Test that is appropriate for children ages 7 to 17 years. Younger children will need some assistance but older children and teens can do it by themselves. The results include a Total Hope Score as well as sub-scores for Attachment, Survival, Mastery, and Spirituality (Each will be scored “low”, “medium” or “high”, as compared to a sample of children who have already taken this test. There is also a parallel adult hope test to gauge your own hope profile.

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When I refer to “survival hope”, I mean the kind of hope that you rely upon when confronting stressful situations, including illness, loss, and other threats to wellbeing. If you went to the Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) looking for “hope”, you would find several definitions, including, “an island in the middle of a wasteland”. Hope can serve as a “safe haven”, a kind of psychological bunker. (Spinoza argued that hope was the opposite of fear.) Hope is also derived from the word ‘hop” in the sense of jumping or moving from one place to another. This yields a second metaphor for hope, the idea of a bridge. These two ways of defining hope capture the dual nature of survival hope; the capacity for self–regulation and the belief in eventual liberation. In this post, I will focus on the safe haven, in the next post, the bridge.

Hope and Self – Regulation

I view self – regulation in terms of balance and integration. The self – regulated child is able to maintain a balanced physical and emotional internal environment. He or she is also able to balance the demands of the external world with the needs of his or her internal world.

To understand how hope aids in self-regulation and how this can be fostered it is important to distinguish between “hope as sustaining” and “sustaining hope”. Children (and adults) who maintain hope the face of adversity do not become “prisoners of the moment”. If a child believes that the pain of the present will never end, that it cannot be mitigated in any way, it will become unbearable.

If a child has hope, he or she can utilize temporal buffers, social buffers, and cognitive buffers. He or she can look back to better times and even previous successes in overcoming similar challenges. She can draw on these memories to imagine herself moving towards a better future. He can buffer himself by relying on families and friends for reassurance and advice. She can take comfort knowing that she can simultaneously absorb the negative realities of the present while holding onto the positive possibilities of the future

What I have just described is how hope sustains or works. But what sustains hope? How does a child acquire the kind of hope that buffers? Patrick Shade, a contemporary philosopher, has written an interesting book entitled Habits of hope. He argues that many virtues (he also calls them habits and means) are interrelated. To sustain hope, he believes than an individual needs the virtues of persistence, resourcefulness, and courage. (In turn, hope can fuel greater persistence, resourceful, and courage.) From my perspective, these hope sub-virtues could be used to sustain either mastery or survival. For now, I will keep the focus on survival and self –regulation. Below are three suggestions for building the kind of persistence, resourcefulness and courage that will fuel the self–regulatory processes that sustain hope.

Persistence: The Patience of Hope

Hope is often a matter of patience, even in the case of children. Just ask any young cancer survivor who has undergone rounds of chemotherapy or a learning disabled teen who needs two hours to complete a “one-hour” homework assignment.

Patience does not mean passivity. William Lynch, another philosopher, described the process of hoping as a matter of “active waiting”. An ancient Jewish theologian compared the hopeful state of mind to a stretched out rope, signifying an extended focus that is poised and ready for action.

Patience takes a while to develop. Children’s conceptions of time are fairly crude before the age of eight or nine. Children can become easily frustrated when they fail at a task and can find it difficult to imagine the end result of a multi-stage process. Nevertheless, patience can be showcased. A parent can practice what they preach, demonstrating patience whenever possible and even commenting on the fact that this is what they are doing, and why they are choosing patience, how it will help, and what might go wrong if it was not instituted.

Patience can be exercised. Parents should look for games and activities that require patience. Some examples would be building (gluing together) a model, assembling a large, complex puzzle, or building a simple piece of furniture that involves cutting, sanding, painting, drying time, etc. Patience can be rewarded. Parents can structure reward systems in which larger “payoffs” are given for a greater investment of time, diligence, care, etc.

Resourcefulness: Relaxation for Hope

Teach your child how to cultivate a relaxed body and a calm mind. Tension, high arousal, and worrying are enemies of hope. Hope requires mental and physical flexibility for gear shifting as well as attentiveness and clarity to scan the environment for the next opportunity. For relaxation, the simplest, most inexpensive, and yet effective way to stimulate the “relaxation response” is diaphragmatic breathing. Sometimes called “belly breathing”, it should produce a rhythmic rise and fall of the stomach. Teach the child to breathe in through the nose and out from the mouth. The lips should be pursed to control the output of air. Typically, the ideal rates are a four-count when breathing in and six-count when breathing out.

For children (and adults) who struggle with worries and obsessions, the best antidote is some form of meditation. There are now many meditation resources for children. While insight forms of meditation are best for facilitating problem–solving or mastery, calming meditations are best for enhancing self – regulation. One book that covers both and has been well received by experts is The Mindful Child, written by Susan K. Greenland.

Courage: Informed Risk

In a famous dialogue, Socrates taught one of his pupils that courage should not be confused with rashness or irresponsible risk–taking. Shade agrees. He refers to the courage that underlies hope as “informed risk taking”. When it comes to coping, parents need to help children gauge both their strengths and limitations. First take stock of your own level of resilience and courage and where it lies on the continuum between timidity and rashness. Ask someone who you trust to validate your self-assessment or suggest a correction. Perhaps you are not the best choice to cultivate this virtue in the child. Is there someone else who could better serve this function? Your child deserves to be guided by a proper frame of reference.

What is the ideal amount of courage? There is no easy answer, no simple formula, for parents looking for standards. Courage building is a process that requires sensitivity, careful observation, and honesty with oneself, the child, and the situation. Research with adults suggests that most individuals assess their chances of realizing their hopes as approximately 50-50. However, this is little help for a parent whose child is coping with cancer, a severe learning disability, or other challenges that may present long odds but which at the same time may not take into account mitigating positive factors unique to a particular child or family.

Another related strategy is to teach “informed risk” via stories, films, and anecdotes of courageous acts. These work best if the child can relate to the character, the challenge and/or the context. In my book, Hope in the age of anxiety, I listed the following possible selections. For younger children, I suggested the following books: The Bracelet (Uchida), Charlotte’s Webb (White), and Tuck Everlasting (Babbit). For teens I suggested Alive (Read), Anthem (Rand), and The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank). My films suggestions were as follows. For younger children, I chose Finding Nemo (2003), Pinocchio (1944), and the Wizard of Oz (1939). For teens I selected Captain Courageous (1937), Dead Poet’s Society (1989), and Spiderman (2002). For children or teens, I added Diary of Anne Frank (1959), The Karate Kid (1984), and Star Wars (1977).

Anthony Scioli is Professor of Clinical Psychology at Keene State College.

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