Hope Today

Understanding and strengthening our most important virtue.

Keys to Building Hope in Children: Part One

How to be a Hope Provider

I blog on the subject of hope.  From my perspective, hope derives from strong attachment, survival, mastery, and spiritual resources.  To be deeply hopeful, an individual must possess trust and openness, alternative solutions for problem solving, the ability to regulate thoughts, feelings and behaviors, a sense of purpose and empowerment, and some form of faith, religious or spiritual.   

Only a complete hope can sustain an individual over the course of a lifetime.   

The past year or so has not been very hope inspiring for children.   At Penn State, Jerry Sandusky was convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse. Trust was compromised. In Colorado and Connecticut, children were shot watching a movie and going to school.   Beliefs in liberty and self-regulation were compromised.  In baseball, one of its greatest hitters, Ryan Braun, continues to deny persistent reports that he has used illegal substances.  Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah and the world that his 7 cycling championships were the result of cheating.  Role models were compromised. 

This seems to be good time to blog on nurturing hope in children.   In fact, I decided to do four of blogs over the next few days, one for each cornerstone of hope.  This one deals with attachment, the first developmental building block of hope, and perhaps the most critical. The goal in providing a good attachment experience is to engender appropriate trust, openness, and a continuing sense of connectedness. 

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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 score will be labeled “low”, “medium” or “high”, as compared to a sample of children who have already taken this test).  

Parents are a child’s first hope providers.  As the initial objects of attachment, they are also in a unique position to engender feelings of security and mastery. Some would add that parental bonds also lay the foundation for later spiritual development. In short, solid parenting can result in more hopeful offspring. In contrast, inadequate parenting has been associated with social withdrawal, poor stress tolerance, and learned helplessness.

As a parent or caregiver do an honest self-assessment.  Are you a hopeful person?  Do you feel a sense of connection with others? How strong are your feelings of competence and effectiveness?  Do you feel safe in the world?   Are you willing to shore up those areas in which you are less than hopeful?   Your outlook on life will invariably be transmitted to your child’s emotional core.

“Hope building” is a reciprocal process.  As your hope levels rise, so will your child’s.  In imparting hope to your son or daughter, you will experience a renewed sense of empowerment, connection, and peace. The basic principles discussed here are applicable not only to parents, but also to teachers, coaches, and others who are entrusted with the care of children.   

Availability (Access, Reliability, Anticipation):  Blueprints for Trust

Children need ready access to their caregivers. The work of child researchers such as René Spitz, Anna Freud, and John Bowlby has told us much about the effect of disrupted attachment.  Each found that the loss of hope was the greatest casualty of prolonged separation, the natural zest for life was replaced by cries and protest, and eventually empty gazes and silent resignation.    

Children thrive on reliability.  Erik Erikson theorized that infant trust was the single greatest factor in the development of hope.  In one study, he found that parents who consistently fed their offspring either on demand or on a set schedule produced more trusting children “who knew what to expect from the world”. 

The best caretakers anticipate the needs of children.  They are aware of the child’s communication style and emotional rhythm. (The child psychoanalyst Alfred Adler was once described as virtually “psychic” in his ability to read children.)  By comparison, research on attachment suggests that pleasant but “out of synch” mothers run the risk of rearing children who are clingy and anxious.

If you are finding it difficult to establish or maintain a positive relationship with your child do a “parent-child trait inventory”.  Get out a piece of paper and draw two lines, forming a cross.   In the top left quadrant, list your own four or five most striking characteristics (e.g., achiever, persistent, loyal).  In the top right quadrant, list your child’s four or five most striking characteristics.  In the bottom left quadrant, under your traits, list four or five possible ways that others might misjudge your intentions as a result of your characteristics. Might someone mistakenly view you as overly competitive because you like to achieve, or see you as hard-headed instead of persistent?  Do the same exercise on the bottom right quadrant, using your child’s traits.  Now reflect on how to address these potential sources of miscommunication involving you and your child.

Presence (Focus, Safeness, Authenticity):  Blueprints for Openness

Children sense when an adult is emotionally adrift.  Quality time is about being emotionally focused.  Surprisingly, when I scanned thousands of scientific publications on attachment, I found that less than five percent mentioned this factor.  Nevertheless, in those studies that did take quality time into account, it emerged as one of the most potent determinants of healthy child development.  Interestingly, children with emotionally withdrawn parents typically fair no better than those whose parents have spent little or no time with them.   

Children require a safe presence.  Cold, rejecting, or intrusive parents tend to raise avoidant children.  Fearful of rejection or criticism, they cannot risk being open with their caregivers.  The threat of physical or sexual abuse may also limit openness.  (In contrast, the risk of later abuse is lessened if there is a caring and nurturing bond established in infancy.  This is true for both biological and stepparents.) 

Children have limited defense mechanisms.  They are vulnerable to adult manipulations and find it hard to escape the clutches of twisted communications or so-called “double-binds.”   When parents say one thing but express another, they are leaving children few other options but to shut down and disengage or to act out in desperation.  Fostering openness requires a sincere, authentic presence. 

Contact (Involvement, Clarity, Rituals): Blueprints for Connectedness

The involved parent is attuned to a child’s emotions. Researchers distinguish between emotion-coaching and emotion-dismissing parenting styles. Parents with an emotion-coaching style are aware of their children’s feelings and value their expression of hopes, dreams, fears, and protests.  They help their children understand and regulate these feelings. In contrast, emotion-dismissing parents seem either unaware of their child’s feelings, or disapprove of emotional displays, viewing them as something to be limited or controlled.

As a parent, strive to provide the right sentiment, in the right way, at the right time, in a way that can be absorbed by your child. This requires clarity of perception (what does your child need right now?), clarity of intent (what is it appropriate to offer your child?), clarity of timing (what is the child ready to “take in”?), and clarity of ownership (who needs are being served?).  You will build lasting hope by responding to the true needs of a child.    

A hopeful inner life is enhanced in children by repeated encounters with positive rituals.  Ancient wisdom, as well as psychological science suggests that children benefit greatly from revisiting the traditions that their parents honor.  In addition to regular religious observances, these may include birthday parties, family outings, or visits with grandparents.  These “celebrations of faith” transfer a sense of hopefulness to the next generation while also strengthening the prevailing hopes of elders.

 

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

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