Strengthening Family Resilience
The demands of work, school, and activities can weigh us down. At times we all struggle with finding balance in our lives. However, in the midst of our challenges we also have opportunities to work through conflict and build healthy connections. What are the signs that your family is under stress? For us, there are clear signals. The kids start pushing back, I yell more often, and my husband and I begin arguing. We become irritable.
It is important to know how and when to press the pause button on the relentless pace of life. But often our rest involves over-reliance on other forms of stimulation that can further contribute to overwhelm. I enjoy my evening scrolls through Facebook, the sound of my favorite radio station playing in the background, or a good movie. However, when a total system reboot is necessary–it is important to turn off the electronics and screens. This can be an afternoon stroll on the local trails, weeding the garden, or an adventurous week in the wilderness. The natural world offers a place to reflect and refocus. This tribute to the trail is a story of family resilience drawn from our trip to the desert and canyons of Southern Utah.
“The truth is, all families hit rough patches at times. More important is that you know how to nourish and replenish your family’s soul when you get burnt out on life’s demands. Having consistent strategies to bring balance back into your home is important to raising resilient children.”
Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Navigating the Narrows
Navigating through the demands of work, maintaining a household, and raising children can be trying. Getting caught in the narrows of our daily lives often involves our son becoming defiant, my husband losing patience, me yelling at my husband, and our daughter shutting down. Not a pretty picture. We are aware of our painful stress cycle (half the battle) but it can be challenging to focus on creating a new pattern when we have basketball practice, dinner, and homework still ahead of us.
When we come across he narrows of our daily lives it is important to remember that there is an opening just on the other side. In the midst of our challenges we have opportunities to work through conflict and build stronger connections. Maybe this requires that we put the homework down, skip practice, or let the dishes wait. We create the openings out of the narrows by taking time to unpack the stressful day. We check in and we repair the unintended wounds.
Years ago I worked in wilderness therapy where I took groups of kids out into nature and allowed the healing powers of community and nature to work their magic. There was an important rule of the trail; when the group was in conflict we stopped, circled up, and talked about it. We stayed with the process until the distress was resolved and only then did we proceed towards our destination.
During our family’s recent trip our habitual stress pattern showed up in the midst of an 8 mile hike through slot canyons loaded with challenges. Early on in the hike we came across a large boulder blocking our path. My husband scooted on through, our agile older daughter slithered her way up and over, and my son stood there stumped. The youngest and shortest of our group asked for help. My well-intentioned husband stepped back to see if our son could work his own way through the problem. My response as I was standing down below was to give him a leg up. We bumped up against our different approaches to parenting and grew critical of each other. Quickly we became impatient, scared, angry, and stuck.
Initially I was frustrated that our peaceful venture into nature was interrupted by our argument. However, I focused on the challenge as an opportunity. “Circle up!” I requested, and we sat on a rock to discuss what happened. Listening to everyone’s experience we concluded that successful completion of this hike required teamwork; a process of working with instead of against each other.
Once back on the trail, our son excitedly recalled this story from Aesop’s fables about the importance of teamwork.
A father asks his quarreling children to gather sticks in the forest. He handed the bundled sticks to his children and asks them to break them in half. Although, each tried their best, the sturdy bundle was unbreakable. Then he asks them to each take sticks out of the bundle and break them one by one. Of course they did this easily. “My children,” said the father, “do you see that when you are divided among yourselves you are no stronger than a single stick? But when you help each other you will be stronger, together.”
Continuing on the hike our teamwork became increasingly necessary as we negotiated larger obstacles such as lowering each other into the canyon on a rope and guiding each other over pools of water. What became apparent is that we each had different assets to bring to our family team. For example, in our family, my husband brings his ability to plan an approach to overcoming obstacles and his capacity to encourage us to face our fears. Our daughter’s agility and fearlessness allows her to forge ahead and then from her vantage point she can help guide the rest of us. Our son’s emotional vulnerability creates an invitation for all of us to express our feelings authentically, whether that be fear, anger, or joy. I offer empathy and reflections about our process. Celebrating strengths rather than emphasizing deficits helps identify the gifts that each family member has to offer.
Gaining New Ground
Getting out into the wilderness takes the intensity of our family stress pattern into a much larger container. The wide open vistas, the panoramic views, and the vast night sky put things into perspective. We are only a small part of this extraordinary universe. In the wilderness there are vast metaphors and resources available. Delicate flowers remind me to tread lightly and to be aware of my impact in the world. Sunsets remind us that all things pass and to enjoy the moment. Shooting stars remind us to keep looking up; that life offers unexpected surprises.
Living the Lessons
We can all lose our bearings and there is no single right way to chart your family’s course towards resilience. However, having multiple strategies to navigate life’s obstacles is valuable:
- Identify your pattern: Does your family gets stuck in the narrows sometimes? Can you identify a pattern to your conflicts? What are the triggers? How does it typically play out? Knowing your habitual stress responses is half of the battle and a key to learning how to change.
- Call a family meeting: When your family is in distress try calling a family meeting. Circle up. Give everyone a chance to express their viewpoint and feelings. If emotions are too hot you may need to regroup once everyone has cooled down. However, make a commitment to come back later and talk about it. We try and make our family meetings inviting. We place a bowl of berries in the middle of the table. We take turns speaking and have a sweet reward.
- Create a code word: During a family meeting challenge yourselves to come up with a code word. This word can be used by anyone in the family if they identify that the habitual stress pattern is building. The intention of the code word is to press the pause button and call a time out. Maybe this is an opportunity to circle up or maybe the focus needs to be getting out the door to the school bus but using a code word can stop a pattern in its tracks.
- Change your environment: Go outside, take a walk, or when that is not possible move into a different room. Changing our external environment can create an important shift inside. Find a space that helps you put things into perspective. Find a nourishing resource in your environment. This can be a tree, a rock, a vase of flowers, a plant, or a pet. Turn toward your resource and tune in. Focus on slowing down your mind, breathe deeply, and stretch your body. This too shall pass.
- Celebrate your strengths: What are the assets that each of your family members bring to your team? Everyone has a strong suit, take the time to give each other feedback about each persons strengths. Take turns to invite each family member to share appreciations for each other as a way to gain insight into the gifts that each person has to offer.
The truth is, all families hit rough patches at times. More important is that you know how to nourish and replenish your family’s soul when you get burnt out on life’s demands. What helps your family stay on track? What helps place your challenges into perspective? What nourishes your family’s soul?
- The healing power of nature-Wilderness as therapy
- Resilience informed parenting from the lens of one summer vacation
- Are children naturally resilient?
About Dr. Arielle Schwartz
Dr. Arielle Schwartz is a licensed clinical psychologist, wife, and mother in Boulder, CO. She offers trainings for therapists, maintains a private practice, and has passions for the outdoors, yoga, and writing. She is the developer of Resilience-Informed Therapy which applies research on trauma recovery to form a strength-based, trauma treatment model that includes Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), somatic (body-centered) psychology and time-tested relational psychotherapy. Like Dr. Arielle Schwartz on Facebook or sign up for email updates to stay up to date with all my posts.