Building Capacity in the Families We Serve

The old fish and the young fish passed each other while respectively out for a swim. “Hi Sonny, how’s the water?” the old fish asked. The young fish’s face shifted from blank to curious as he asked in return, “What’s water?”

I love this story because it captures so much of our daily experience. In many ways, our environment is invisible to us, yet is critical to every aspect of our lives. The health and quality of the water are crucial for healthy fish. Our fish discovered this when my son decided the fish tank was perfect for a combination of his more autism-like behaviors. He combined his delight for pouring substances and hiding items into one grand event, depositing toys (big and small) and liquids, powders, etc., into the fish tank. I think we were able to rescue the fish in time, but I’m not sure.  We gave up on having a fish tank after the last one died from the stresses of life in the Clarke household.

Tip the Nurture Scale

Psychologists continue to argue about nature versus nurture when considering human behavior. Was she born that way or was she made that way? Of course, the answer is BOTH. Genetic influences have a say and environmental factors play a part.  Environmental factors also influence how biology and genes show up in daily life and behavior. That’s why early intervention matters for children with developmental differences and medical challenges and why lifestyle changes lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

So in the case of our families who care for children with medical needs, learning and developmental differences, we must ask, How is the water? What kind of environment can we create around them to help our children thrive? As the church, the expression of God in the world, we have the opportunity to tip the ‘nurture’ side of the scale and create communities that envelop, nourish and support in holistic ways (Acts 4:32-35)

Energized to Act

My daughter wrestles with the relentless thought that her 17-year old brother, who is on the autism spectrum, may be lonely or bored. The idea is terrifying because she feels everything very deeply, including compassion, and can be buffeted by the over-responsible thought ‘I have to do something!!’ This is complicated by her current struggle with chronic anxiety. She can often feel stuck, powerless to do more than panic. Wisdom, logic, even prayer sometimes seem to be no match in her struggle to regulate her feelings and maintain genuine calm and control. So, when I heard her reading an age appropriate novel about a young adult adventurer to her brother (something she’s never done before), I was moved, grateful and curious. How did she build the capacity to shift from debilitating inaction to positive, purposeful action?

We’ve all experienced that shift, and yet, it seems to be outside our control. If we could only do it every time we wanted to! Personally, I'm only aware that something changes and I have the energy and will to move again. Psychologists define an internal state that I think captures my shift. It’s positive psychological capital, a combination of self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resilience. The use of the word ‘capital’ is interesting to me. It speaks of money and strength and resources and wealth. Capacity.

The Miracle of Capacity

I remember one of my clearest experiences of No Capacity. I was failing to come to terms with what having a child with autism meant and who I would need to be. Our son’s diagnosis was fresh and I was 8 months pregnant with our daughter. His custom made, adjustable as he grows, will last forever, brightly colored and re-paintable furniture was an outward representation of my inner parenting pragmatism. I had many ideas about how I should engage this parenting journey. Yet, 2 years in, I had no idea and no energy to even have an idea. In the middle of this crisis, I remember being jolted by the thought: “You want the one-time expression of My power to heal your son. What about the ongoing expression of My power in building your capacity?” It rocked my world.  I determined it to be God’s voice since it was too wise for me to have made it up.

Part of the miracle I get to experience daily is the inflow of capacity, ability, wisdom, mindset, resilience and hope. When I share with parents and professionals, I get to talk about a variety of challenges with tantrumming and body functions and food and self-stimulating or self-injurious behaviors.  I listen to stories of isolation and loss and panic and of life in the Twilight Zone.  Behind the stories is the deeper question: ‘How do I build my muscles for this??’ I know it means they need more hope, more optimism, more resilience, more confidence.  And I wish…. I wish the water we swam in, the soil we are all planted in, the air that we all breathed, helped us build more capacity.

Not Wishing, but Building

The experiences that many parents of children with various challenges face have helped to erode and crumble their spiritual, emotional, psychological selves (read 'a LOT'). As part of their community, we are the water and the soil that nourishes their whole person. We get to grab a shovel and a sword, to build and to fight (Nehemiah 4:18), to be a conduit for the miracle of daily capacity building. We are the conduits of grace, the elements of love, the hands that hold and the energy that sustains. There’s a lot to build. Psychological wealth is just one part of the picture.

What is it?

Specifically, psychological capital is

“an individual’s positive psychological state of development that is characterized by:

  1. having confidence (self-efficacy) to take on and put in the necessary effort to succeed at challenging tasks;
  2. making a positive attribution (optimism) about succeeding now and in the future;
  3. persevering toward goals and, when necessary, redirecting paths to goals (hope) in order to succeed;
  4. when beset by problems and adversity, sustaining and bouncing back and even beyond (resilience) to attain success” (Luthans, Youssef, Avolio, 2007, p. 3).

In short, this wealth is a mindset that says:

I know I can do it
I believe there's a positive outcome
I'm motivated to move forward in executing my goals
I maintain passion and persistence in the face of obstacles

Building Foundations

Everyone needs a considerable stash of these capacities, whether they be family member, volunteer or child.  In future posts, I’ll talk about strategies for adding hope, optimism, confidence and resilience building to the proverbial water we all swim in. For now, I just want to throw out some general ideas.

  • It starts with us. The families we serve need capacity and so do we. Prioritizing our own spiritual and personal growth helps us build the wealth that we serve from. Optimism, hope, resilience and confidence starts with us.
  • Infiltrate to understand. Get inside of the family’s head. Look at life through their eyes. Try to understand through the eyes of the child.  As a mommy, there’s something so liberating about being understood in my chaos. I can just be myself. It’s so much easier to ask for help when I know I'm understood. It’s so much easier to recognize my own capacity.
  • Model first, Teach after. The water is changed by what we do, not just by our words. The unconditional love and service we offer to a sibling who is embarrassed by his older brother’s childish behavior teaches so much more than talking about unconditional love.
  • Do hard things. Jump into the confusion and mess of life as lived by the family. Show up and help. Ask questions. Yes, we don’t know exactly what to do to help. Sometimes, neither does the parent. When we stop letting that slow us down, we’ll have access to what He knows. And the fact that it’s hard means nothing about you, your ministry, calling or anything. It just means that you get to authentically be a conduit of grace to the families you serve. It’s hard for them too. The miracle in the micro moments starts with you.

Hopeful Children

One last thought: The children with the medical diagnosis or developmental challenge need positive psychological capital too. If mom and dad and siblings are overtaxed, our special kids are also struggling with disappointment, frustration and anger. They are tempted to give up too. They live in the water we create. My son (minimally verbal, just beginning to communicate by typing at home, but not at school) recently typed, ‘I’m sad. They said I was hard to learn’. That started a long monologue about hope. Our kids can’t give up. They have to hope, to build optimism, confidence and resilience.

So, how’s the water that you’re swimming in? How are you affecting that water?

Luthans, F., Youssef, C.M., & Avolio, B.J. (2007). Psychological capital: Developing the human competitive edge. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.