by Holly Catterton Allen, PhD
People who have survived a variety of adversities often identify hope and meaning as protective influences in their lives. Children in hard places need hope, and they need the people around them to have hope as well.
Jerome Berryman (creator of Godly Play) came to believe that children and adolescents dealing with hardship grapple with existential limits such as death, the threat to freedom, aloneness, and the need for meaning. During this pandemic, the children and adolescents of Generation Z have peered into these limits—either consciously or unconsciously.
One key role for parents and those working with children and adolescents living through this troubling season is to help them acquire language to address the existential concerns Berryman describes. And the spiritual language supported by resilience research includes meaning making, a sense of belonging, and a sense of hope. Leaning into these concepts can provide language for discussing the experiences these young people have been navigating for months.
Most important is to help this generation lean into hope—that is, to see into a different future, one that is not circumscribed by a virus but that lives more wisely in light of what we have learned from the events and circumstances of this current season.
After forty-two years of direct clinical work with traumatized children, David Crenshaw says hope is necessary to health and healing for these children. For children to live into a better future, they must begin to believe the possibility that that there is a good future—and that is hope. In Crenshaw’s opinion, resilience cannot function without hope.
Ishmael Beah was twelve years old when Sierra Leone’s brutal, decade-long civil war reached his village in the 1990s. He was swept up into the army as a child soldier for three years. Beah was eventually rescued by a rehab organization where he spent eight months recovering from his experiences.
In an interview, Beah was asked how he coped and how he survived during his time as a soldier. In his response, Beah spoke of his friend Saidu who had simply given up and died as the boys were running and hiding from soldiers who wanted to re-capture them; the interviewer then asked Beah: “What was the difference between you and Saidu?” Beah responded:
We had to have hope, regardless of how little it was. Even if it meant celebrating just having a chance to stop and drink clean water. Once you lose hope, you lose the determination to continue running, during the context of war. You are happy just to receive a loaf of bread because holding on to that hope gives you strength to live through the next thing.
Resilience is integrally tied to hope, especially in children and adolescents. And hope is tied to a future—to the ability to push through the present believing in a better future. God ties those two ideas together explicitly in the well-known passage, “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’” (Jeremiah 29:11). Coming to see oneself as a child of God and believing in a God who is present, who sees, who cares, and who weeps with us can be the anchor of hope that we and the children we serve need.
And as we walk with children on their spiritual journeys, we can embody that hope for them and with them. So when a child looks at you with heart-rending sadness and says, “I don’t know if I believe in God anymore,” you can say, “Then I will believe for you until you can believe again.”
And when a child says, “This hurts too much; I just hurt, and hurt, and hurt. Won’t it ever go away?” you can say, “It does hurt, but it will not always be so. You will not always hurt like you do today.”
“Do you really think so?” the child may respond.
And you can say, “I know so.”
Most of us will not spend time with children who have survived life as a child soldier; however, it is very likely that we will come to know children who have encountered racial epithets, who are chronically or terminally ill, who have been bullied, who have lived in generational poverty, or who have lost a sibling or parent to death.
One of the unexpected findings in resilience literature is that resilience is not typically the result of extraordinary qualities or surprising interventions. Rather, children who make it usually have ordinary resources and protective factors in their lives. Good support systems, strong relationships with caring adults, and a spirituality that entails faith, hope, and the belief that life has meaning can uphold and sustain children in the common troubles of life as well as the more serious adversities that may come.
As adults, we are invited to support the children around us in their journeys to wholeness in many ways, especially as we nurture their relationships with themselves, with others, and with God. Let us embrace the role of being among the ordinary resources and protective factors in their lives.
To listen to the God's Story podcast interview Dr. Allen on Forming Resilient Children, click the link below!
Adapted from Forming Resilient Children: The Role of Spiritual Formation for Healthy Development by Holly Catterton Allen. 2021. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. Link to book: https://www.ivpress.com/forming-resilient-children
Contributed by Holly Catterton Allen, PhD, Professor of Family Science and Christian Ministries, Lipscomb University (Nashville, TN). Her books include Forming Resilient Children: The Role of Spiritual Formation for Healthy Development (2021); InterGenerate: Transforming Churches through Intergenerational Ministry (2018); and Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community, and Worship (2012).