Building resilience in children and adolescents
Life is tougher for children today than it ever was. In our childhood, with lesser pressure in schools and competitiveness, children had more time for leisure and play, or even had time for benign boredom. Life allowed them to be, and this time and space allowed for an unfolding of a bud, without being rushed into becoming the biggest rose in the garden. With families becoming smaller in size, the responsibility of parents has also increased manifold. In larger families or in a community setting, parenting was a shared responsibility not only between the biological mother and father, but aunts and uncles, grandparents, older siblings and cousins and even neighbours. Today, parenting is a 24X7 job, and ensuring that a child remains healthy, becomes successful and happy, remains safe and does not come into harms way - is entirely the responsibility of the parent, sometimes even single. Thus, the child must live by more rules for the parent to ensure all of that and 'discipline' becomes very important. The same is in schools - though of course, schools where discipline, rules and codes of conduct are paramount. Some of the well known missionary and public schools in India have class sizes between 40 and 50, while the International and more expensive schools can afford smaller classes.
Children today have a much smaller experience of being loved unconditionally. No parent of course intends to be conditional in his or her love, but by default, in the child's experience, he or she must do her schoolwork well, or behave as expected socially, to gain parents' approval. In a day and age, where even 90% in the board exams does not secure a seat in the good colleges, one can hardly blame middle class parents - who themselves struggle with professional competitiveness - for being super anxious about their children's performances. Grandparents are rarely part of children's lives as integrally as it used to be. They live in different cities, apart and their lives too may not be as sedentary and focussed on grand-parenting. Thus, the television and computers have replaced them as storytellers.
There is a paradox between the outer face and inner face in children today. Today's children and adolescents are much more confident than we were a couple of generations ago. They seem to know their minds, they are far more conscious of their individuality, how they are perceived and experienced. If you asked a child today 3 things that make him/her apart from his/her peers, or things she likes or does not like about the parent you would find answers startlingly clear. They are analytical, logical and rational. All of this comes at a cost - the prize is that of fuzziness. Emotions are fuzzy, one cannot define 'care' or 'love' in tangible terms, feelings can be experienced but not defined. So, while the rational, logical and analytical mind is developed, one's ability to hold that which is a-rational, one's ability to deal with the emotional and inter-personal relationships which are complex and deep is less developed. Friendships are expedient, people look for 'likeminded people' as friends, diversity and differences are managed through tightly held boundaries and the worldview 'to each his own'.
Lack of emotional maturity has many manifests. One hears of sudden suicides amongst children over what would seem to be trivial to parents or others. Depressions are not uncommon even amongst adolescents and they are anxious about peer acceptance and judgement, trolling has replaced more direct bullying, youngsters are scared of evaluations and touchy about critical feedback. We also teach children that they must learn to be strong and tough, and learn to deal with the ways of the world without breaking down over betrayals, withhold emotions and not be 'gullible and naive' (trust anyone easily). All of this may sound like hard-core nostalgia - longing for the good old days and lamenting modern life. That is certainly not what I am saying - lives of the past had its own set of problems and downsides. The point I am making is that there is a paradox you would find in children and adolescents today - that they are very confident on the one hand and at the same time, they can be very fragile - and this is because of eroding resources for emotional infrastructure in their lives.
There are no easy solutions to these problems. The social structure of our lives are not going to change drastically - and we have to discover new ways of living. Here are two programmes I have come across which could help children in building their emotional strength.
1. Process work for children - Sumedhas: Process work is a practice of building self awareness and consciousness about one's internal psychological world, of learning to be aware of one's emotions and its link with our thoughts and actions, of therefore being aware of our engagements with others and the world. While Process Work is often used in leadership development programmes for managers and professionals, or as a personal growth work, its use has mostly been focussed on adults. Sumedhas (www.sumedhas.org) has, however, also offered labs (which are like unstructured workshops) for children and adolescents. The focus of young children's labs are to help them express and by working in a group of their peers, play out their mind-maps of power, hierarchy, rules and norms, and the associated sadness, anger, joys and happiness, becoming aware of what makes them feel safe or unsafe, learning to articulate emotions through words, pictures and art, movement and dance, touch and play and also becoming aware of their own boundaries and boundaries of others. They learn how they are distinctive and unique and also how they identify with others, and they become aware of biases, stigma and prejudices that they have unconsciously picked up from their environment. Its a personal growth programme for children that I have not seen anywhere else. Vandana Menon, has facilitated these labs for several years in Sumedhas, is an OD consultant by profession and an expert in using theatre techniques in her consulting work. Sophie Christopher is a Bangalore based therapist who has facilitated labs with adolescents where the work delves into issues that are common in adolescence - their individuation, finding their own identities, negotiating boundaries with parents and siblings and others, negotiating through peerage and the stressors therein. Living in small families, adolescents today partake emotional impact of their parents' lives - be it professional, or issues within their marriage, or issues that the family may be experiencing externally. Sumedhas offers these labs in The Summer Programme, which is usually slated in May every year. This year, the Summer Programme is set in Hyderabad. You can find more information at www.sumedhas.org.
2. The Bamboo Project, by Cape: Radhika Bose, based in Calcutta, who runs a one-woman non-profit called Cape - has been toying with the idea of what was initially a pet club - because she could see that while there is a robust demand for animals as pets amongst children, there were also increasing number of cases of abandonment and cruelty. Over the years, as she conducted workshops in schools with children to familiarise them with animals and break fears and inhibitions, help them bond with animals, she also noticed children's non verbal communication with animals, their feeling of being unconditionally accepted and loved by animals and how this impacted their own well being. When children are asked why they like animals, they often say because they are so cute, loveable, or that 'they play with me, I like playing with them' or 'because they belong to me, and they love me unconditionally'. "But what really happens is that children, when they spend time with animals, even if it is not a personal pet - start communicating with them non verbally, through touch, play and expression - a completely opposite way of expression and communication than what is demanded in all other spaces for them. As they experience unconditional acceptance, they also are able to accept themselves better - they love themselves more for who they are, regardless of their skills, capacities, wealth, power and other parameters. They learn kindness not as an act of charity or welfare, but as a language of communication - through emotions. The Bamboo Project is not a pet club, it is a long term programme that nurtures emotional health and well being in children by fostering children's relationship with animals. It involves children's play with animals and techniques involving art, story telling and camps that children should enjoy and look forward to. I believe the programme is a gift and opportunity to children who have little other than computers and mobile phones as friends. You may wonder why this is called a Bamboo Project - because bamboos are the most resilient beings in this world - even in the strongest of storms, they can bend 90 degrees without breaking, and will stand up straight. Their bodies are flexible and can stand stress, trauma and shock without injury. "I believe this programme will help children also stand tall, and face adversity in life without breaking down.'