Ep. 16 | Maggie Dent | The Road To Resilience Pt. 2
~ Maggie Dent
In this episode, author and parenting educator Maggie Dent explains, “Resilience isn’t a trait you are born with, it is determined by the systems we live within.” These systems include family, school and faith systems alongside a capacity to help others and ask for help ourselves. Maggie is an advocate for the simple things in life, believing nothing replaces human connection in building children and adults who thrive.
Maggie DentThis is the second of a 2 part series with author and parenting specialist Maggie Dent. If you’ve not listened to part 1, we encourage you to go to our previous episode as it sets the stage for today’s conversation.
In addition to her work as a parenting educator, Maggie extends her practice into palliative care and suicide prevention through her life giving work as a death doula. In part 2 of our interview with Maggie, we continue to discuss building resilience through routines and rituals, including practices around the universal observance of death.
Transcript | Ep. 16 | Maggie Dent | The Road To Resilience Pt. 2
Rachel Cram – So Maggie, let’s continue to talk about building resilience. We want our children to know that life is filled with inconsistencies, unfairness, stressors and to prepare them we need the balance of protective factors. In your books you highlight routines and the importance of rituals in building resilience in children.
Maggie Dent – Yes. So the balance to learning that life can suck at times, is I need to give you experiences where life is full of beautiful joy and exquisite connection. So I love reminding families about the importance of rituals, welcoming and farewell rituals, as we leave the house each day. If you’ve got young children, what is your farewell ritual? Quite often with separation, distress is a very normal part of children’s development.
Rachel Cram – So you’re thinking as children are going off to school?
Maggie Dent – Yes. Yes. So Mummy kisses inside the left hand and Daddy kisses inside the right hand. And so when they put the hands together they’ve got mommy and daddy kissing as well, which is pretty cool. And anytime they feel sad, they put those hands near their heart, and in that lovely imaginary world of young children, that’s real. For others, we recommend drawing the little heart in their hand. And Mom and Dad have it. So later, you put them back together. So it’s kind of like, how do I create connection when we’re apart?
Rachel Cram – Do older children need that as well?
Maggie Dent – In a different way. Just the farewell thing. Just basically as they’re leaving it’s a sense,“I’m going to miss you! Have a good day!” And even with adolescents, even if they’re grumpy and rolling their eyes at you, not wanting to talk to you, every single day do the same thing, even when they don’t deserve it.
Rachel Cram – Even more so then, I think.
Maggie Dent – Even more so then. Because can we love them when they can’t love themselves? It’s a really bumpy ride.
Another one is, what are your meal times like? What are your birthday celebrations like? What are we doing each day of the week that reminds our children of our love? So I encourage things like, ‘Pancake Thursday,’ or ‘Fry Up Sunday breakfast,’ where we linger in our pajamas if we can. Whatever day you can work it, do a ritual that is sometimes centered around food because we do know as humans we’re biologically wired together around meals. Do it so that when they’re older they remember it, and they can’t wait to get home for it, because our hunger to connect has to work when we’re not in the same space. So those work beautifully. And the other one I absolutely love is the bedtime ritual you do most days of the week.
They need to know how big your love is for them because love is a difficult concept. And in my work I know around with boys; boys are incredibly sensitive to when mommy or daddy yell at them. They actually think you aren’t loving them then.
Rachel Cram – That’s really important to be aware of as a parent. That is how they’re interpreting that.
Maggie Dent – That’s how they often interpret it. Girls? No! They know you’re just losing it. They’ll be fine. They’ve got it sorted. They’re a bit more emotionally savvy. Boys? They think, “Oh my God! They’ve stopped loving me!” So if they don’t get a bedtime ritual somewhere in that week, you’re running a boy under intense stress!
Rachel Cram – Of disconnection…
Maggie Dent – Absolutely! So he’s in panic mode because, “Until I get that heart thing going again, no one’s out here looking after me!” And often that comes out in really awful behavior.
So boys often channel that sense of feeling unloved, and being judged as naughty or bad, in their behavior because they haven’t got the words. They can’t articulate it. So basically, so much of a boy’s inappropriate behavior is a sense of feeling disconnected from the key caregivers in their life. So that’s why we talk about, ‘what are the nonverbal ways that you can connect to your boys,’ with the gentle punch on the arm and the tussle on the head, that is huge. A girl may love to hear the words. But a boy? Often it’s, ‘What’s your gesture? Are you looking at me in the eye? Are you smiling at me? Are you winking at me? Because those things make me feel you’re still with me. And of course these are the little rituals. Handshakes can be rituals; secret ones.
Rachel Cram – I want to come back to the concept that a ritual has nothing to do with the deservedness or not.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely.
Rachel Cram – And it takes off the necessity for us as parents to be deciding on it because every decision that we make takes something out of us in the day. It just becomes something that we do. That can be expected. And that carries over a lot of disappointments that are going to happen. Times that we lose. Because those things will show up.
Maggie Dent – This will work for lots of teens. Sometimes coming home into the home space with they’re stressors, guess where the protective factors are? Home. The safe space. But if they’ve got nothing left to be able to offer us, a warm cheery welcome, because they’re just drowning in cortisol with the stress they’re living in, then they’re less likely to be pleasant. And sometimes we have to be the big person that knows this is another stage of us being their safe grown up. And if one of my boys has done that in those days and slammed the door at me or something, twenty/twenty five minutes later, I’d go down, knock on his door and lean in with a lovely hot chocolate, a home baked cookie, and I’d shove the dog in and then shut the door. Because I need him to know we’re okay while he’s not okay. And it kind of became like the olive branch. If I can’t put things into them even when they don’t deserve it, who will?
Rachel Cram -And it doesn’t have to be a big conversation,
Maggie Dent – No
Rachel Cram – In fact it’s better if it’s not.
Maggie Dent – Well, particularly boys. They don’t want to talk. But even in the heat of the moment, we’ve got to realize, ‘What can I do right now that can add to the coping capacity of my son or daughter, right now,’ because they are struggling. They still haven’t the prefrontal cortex that can make sense of this, which is your finished brain. I mean, we’ve got a finished brain and we can still struggle and traffic. So can you imagine, with the underdeveloped brain that is in massive growth mode, why sometimes the loving gestures of those they love the most can be actually fundamentally life saving.
Rachel Cram – The finished brain. When does that kick in for us?
Maggie Dent – Well, this is kind of not all good news really. We used to think 18. See you later. Out the door! You know, you’re not a teenager. It’s great! No, no, no!
So what we now know is, girls again, because they go into puberty before boys, tend to come out with a complete brain a little earlier; around twenty-two to twenty-four. Boys. Now they’re thinking around twenty-six/twenty-seven. So sometimes our expectations of a 6’ foot 4” boy, who might be doing really well in his sport, in school,
Rachel Cram – Adult body.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. He isn’t going make a mistake driving that car. Oh! That’s the whole point! Impulsivity and inability to plan for the future. Being mindful of how my actions impact others. Empathy. Motivation. Delaying gratification. None of these are really good in our kids until their 20’s.
Rachel Cram – Which can be so confusing for them and for us because we’re getting angry for something they can’t control.
Maggie Dent – Very much like a toddler. It’s very very similar. The regression in that particular stage of 12 to 15 is they go almost back into toddler mode. Egocentric. About me. And then the changes mean, “I want to learn. I want to grow. I want to be brave. I’m going to be fearless and I don’t care much.” And then on top of that, just the mood swings. So while the brain is trying to grow really fast, it’s not doing it evenly.
Rachel Cram – So as parents, we need a bit of a plan so we don’t lose our bearings, or our sanity. So, Maggie, you have said, “What we start early we can build on later.” Which gives us a continual opportunity for growth and discovery with our children. And I know that you’ve got a fun story around AC DC with that. Do you want to share that?
Maggie Dent – And it’s such a simple one too. So what we know is that what you do over and over again with a parent builds that anticipation and sense of ritual and connectedness. So I often talk about how singing in the car, endless nursery rhymes, can anchor that for your children. And I was speaking about singing songs and a dad came up to me after a seminar and said, “Ah Maggie, I just want to tell you a story. When my daughter was born I used to take her quite often in my car, and I didn’t do nursery rhymes Maggie, I did AC DC. So she was raised from a very early in her life, in the car seat with AC DC. She knew every word, every song by the time she was in her primary school,” and then he got kind of a bit emotional and his Adam’s Apple was going up and down and he said, “I just wanted to tell you that last weekend my daughter and I flew to Sydney for an AC DC concert together. She’s 19.”
And the tears just poured out of my eyes and his eyes and I said, “That is for life.” So that girl, everytime she plays AC DC, her daddy is right next to her just like before.
And sometimes they could be simple rituals like taking our kids out and watching the full moon. I have dragged my sons out to so many full moons. I’ve said, “Make a wish on the full moon,” and they’ve always thought I was a bit wobbly. But there was one year in Australia where the half Crescent Moon had two stars above it. It looked like a face. It was a really spectacular moment. I got four pictures sent from each of my four sons to say, “Hey Mum. Did you see this?” That triggers a memory of the times we went outside. And they’re the little things I want people to know really matter. I call them Bridges of Love to our children’s hearts. They must have lots of bridges, patterns of predictability. The simplest of things can make such a difference later especially when we think we’ve lost them in adolescence.
Rachel Cram – Well as parents there’s this battle back and forth. We want to hold on but we know they need to break free as well. And so having some of these threads that we weave through their life so that we can remain connected in beautiful ways, that are healthy ways, is so important. But that individuation process can be very painful for parents.
Maggie Dent – I know. I know. It’s really tricky for us because we’re biologically wired to love our children and keep them safe and that means that at times we will have what a good friend of mine calls, “white knuckle moments.” as they climb up that tree, past where you feel like they’re going to be safe. And every fiber of our being wants to get them down and keep them safe, while every fiber in their being wants to go to as high as they can go today. And that is exactly the biggest challenge for us as parents; to know that I need to trust when my child is stretching and that that is exactly what they need to do.
We know it’s a biological wiring in them. They are actually wired to go to the edge of their own fear if we don’t interrupt it. So in other words, if you put your fear over the top, you’re messing with their fear. And you’ll sometimes see that. A child climbing high up suddenly gets somewhere and their leg just goes, “Do I want to go one more? No, no. This is it.” Whereas, if a parent rips in and takes you down…
Rachel Cram – That’s a metaphor for all of life isn’t it?
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. Yeah. And see, once again there is a risk. They will make an error of judgment and they may tumble. And then how do I manage that? Do I make that, “Oh, I feel bad about me?” Or do I say, “Wow, you look like you tumbled a bit. Do you need a grown up’s help? or, “Are you okay?” I can tell you, if you are reassured in that moment they’ll want to go back up and do it again. But if you scoop them up and say, “I’ve got you, I’ve got you. Oh my gosh you will never do that again,” you’ve just disabled them again.
So I am going to say that I believe that the demise of resilience in a lot of children in the western world is linked to the removal of long monkey bars.
Rachel Cram – OK. Define long monkey bars. I love this analogy.
Maggie Dent – OK I’ll explain it. There is a difference between short monkey bars, which are now in our safe playgrounds, about one point two meters. The long one is three point five meters. A long monkey bar would take weeks to be able to get the strength to do it because it’s long. Even the biggest Buffhead can’t do that too quickly. You had to fail a lot. And the inner locus of control that made you get up and do it again wasn’t a sticker from your mom.
So what motivates me to want to conquer it? And there’s often three motivators that come from within the child psyche, not mom and dad’s. The first one is, their sibling can do it. We don’t want any sibling doing anything we can’t do. I’m going to beat my sibling.
The second one is a kid we don’t like. Gosh that’s such a motivator.
And the third one is, the child younger than you that has nailed it. Can you feel it already? You just want to get up there.
So persistence and grit gets you a goal that you have determined is a good goal. Not your parents. And the conquering of it gives us what we call this exquisite moment of success. And I’m worried that today when it’s only a meter long, you don’t get the same exquisite moment of success that you have achieved something as a consequence of your striving and your effort and sometimes your pain and your blisters. So therefore, we haven’t created that neural pathway for you, that, “I get back up. I’m going to keep trying.”
So sometimes the things that build a brave child and a brave adolescent are things that are a little difficult and unpleasant at the time. And our job is to be our kids encourager and champion. Yep. They may need a Band-Aid when a bit of skin comes off and they’re going to really struggle when it didn’t work. And we’re going to go, “I reckon you’re going to do this. You’ve got this.” So that, “You’ve got this,” is something I want to build into children. It might not come easy.
Rachel Cram – There’s that balance though between us being there to encourage them on and as not being there to encourage them on.
Maggie Dent – Totally
Rachel Cram – Children need different kinds of encouragement.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely! And every child, depending on temperament, needs a different blend. So some children will need opportunities for mastery, something they can nail like the monkey bar. Or, maybe they can sing, or they can do great craft. If we haven’t got something that we are really good at, then our authentic sense of confidence won’t mature into that space. Which is why our school system has got so much to answer for because we’re kind of pushing the arts and music out to the side. We’re pushing play out to the side. Because I can tell you, the boy who couldn’t read, who was the king of the Monkey Bar, he had credit and respect and he actually felt good about himself. So that’s one of my challenges again, that we need to give our children opportunities in school grounds to have adventuresome play so that at times they get to the top of those rocks faster than anyone else and they stand taller and go back into class with more guts to do the next job that they may not enjoy.
Rachel Cram – Now Maggie you talked about rituals as a protective factor to stress and then you moved into talking about individuation. The process of individuation is historically cloaked in ritual. There’re rituals that we create as a family but there are also rituals that are created as a society. And spiritually based rituals.
Maggie Dent – Yeah yeah. And one of my biggest challenges is we’ve removed ‘rites of passage,’ which is a really big issue around adolescence.
Rachel Cram – OK. I’d love to go into that. Rites of passage. Ok.
Maggie Dent – Yeah. Because it doesn’t have to be religious but it can be.
Rachel Cram – Yeah.
Maggie Dent – The organization of mankind and social structures have always needed these things. So you’ll see that at different times families often have a celebration when the child starts school or transitions into high school
Rachel Cram – Graduation type experience.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, although some of those have got a little crazy.
Rachel Cram – Yes, like prom for a kindergartener.
Maggie Dent – Yeah, yeah, they can go too far because we’re in this crazy modern world! And then those ones that are within our religious systems, they are also markers that show, ‘Hey, my child is now going into another stage of their life.’ So as parts of our world are moving away from some of our traditional religions, I’m very concerned that those markers are disappearing from mainstream.
So one of the things I’d love to see is, ‘How do we create a rite of passage for all of our children on that journey?’ And it needs to begin around fourteen.
Rachel Cram – Which interestingly is one of the times where we often, in our religious systems, celebrate young people beginning their journey to adulthood.
Maggie Dent – Yes. Where we bring people to mindfulness. And that’s the one that says, “This is the beginning of your journey of separating to become a human being.” And there are some wonderful new programs coming in. We’ve got a couple of really big specialists in Australia that come into schools and the schools are starting to implement them. And part of that is they take their students out to a beautiful location, there’s usually a lake or a river or something, and they actually have to kind of say, “Goodbye,” to their parents symbolically as they’re beginning this new part of their life. And they walk with all the other students to the edge of this place and there they are given wonderful poems and messages from ancient times about how I’m going to emerge into the next part of my life.
And then, throughout the year, they’re given opportunities to be mindful about the life they want to choose. So, we’re actually calling them into a state of, “Wow! Who do I want to be? What would that look like? What values do I have in my life?” So we’re calling them into a place of real consciousness expansion. When these are also happening later I can tell you the difference is profound…
Rachel Cram – Happening later in their journey?
Maggie Dent – Yes. Eighteen, nineteen and twenty. Often at the very end of that high school journey, particularly boys, get lost. They end up lost with no motivation, no sense of future, in a void, after school where all the predictability is removed. And suddenly they’re powerless to create any sense of where they’re going.
So it’s these sorts of things I really want families to have conversations about. “How do we do that?” And then that’s when we bring all the people that matter into their lives, the lighthouse figures, some teachers or coaches or the scout leader or whatever. We bring people in who have mattered in that child’s life and let them say what we really value about this child because they’re still not able to see the goodness in themselves at that age.
However the people they love and respect, when they give them this, they may have some form of prayer or celebration in amongst it and then they celebrate with food. It changes something deep inside our kids. And what we’re finding is the ones that don’t have that, they’re trying to mark their own rite of passage. Some of them do really dangerous things because they haven’t got a sense of, ‘Who am I?’ and, ‘Where can I be?’ and ‘Is this okay?’
So again, I think this is part of the way the modern world has to come back. ‘How did the ancient world do these things that marked I am now an adult?’
Rachel Cram – I think a marriage will do that. You know if you have a wedding it’s an opportunity for parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles to come together and say, “We affirm you. This is who you’ve been.” We want our kids to pay attention, or to have an awareness of those who can come alongside to offer guidance and counsel. It’s sad, at any stage of life really, to miss opportunities to draw wisdom and support from people who truly care and want to help us flourish. It’s such a loss, when we don’t recognize that resource.
Maggie Dent – It is. You’re almost being thrown out into the world without a map. It’s such a powerful thing. And I think having older mentors, this is the other part of the message I have for parents, we need these wise lighthouse figures in our sons and daughter’s lives that they can lean on sometimes when it’s too hard to come to us.
Rachel Cram – I’m loving this conversation on rituals and I think it’s something we have really stepped away from because I think we’ve put it under the banner of religion, which we want to be so cautious around. But it’s got this ancient truth that we’ve thrown out with the bathwater. There are also rituals that just have to do with being human.
Maggie Dent – Total
Rachel Cram – And I know that you have been a Death Dula, which is a term that I had never heard before until I met you, which is one of those human rituals that I think again we step away from because we were overwhelmed by it. And we don’t have the language for it or the capacity, at least certainly not here in North America.
Maggie Dent – Absolutely. So traditionally, way way way back, we were born and we died in our family. So as the western world has become more educated and cultivated we actually outsource it. Sadly, that doesn’t facilitate either of those journeys; birthing or dying.
The young that I worked with over time. Oh my goodness. You can have such power with adolescence around death that I was not aware of if you give them permission to participate. We had one fourteen year old boy who had a nasty tumor on his shoulder and it was unfortunately terminal. So his mates, and there were three boys and two girls, his parents got a king sized bed so that after school his mates could jump on the bed and chat to him and watch telly with him and they were with him unbelievably. They didn’t back away. They turned up. And they would ask me questions from time to time. And then at one point the boy said to me, “Maggie, can you get my casket delivered before I die?”
And I said, “Yes! Sure. What color do you want?”
And he said, “Ferrari red.” And this Ferrari red coffin, I was hoping it would make it before he passed,
Rachel Cram – And did it?
Maggie Dent – It did. And his friends spent almost two afternoons decorating it with messages and things. So beautiful! And at the funeral, this is how magical things can be when we step away from the horror and own what it is: a transition and a celebration, those friends got up to speak about their best friend. And at one point they turned to the mom and dad and said, “Now we’ve got a surprise for you. He has written you a special message on the front of the casket.”
Can you see what a difference that can make? This is just yet another doorway, another birthing that we go through in life. It’s just such a powerful thing. It is a part of life. It hurts. It is one of the biggest things that will gut you to your core. And again I think we need to not hide it away.
Rachel Cram – In speaking about resilience. I remember at five years old waking up right in the middle of the night with this bolt of lightning realizing, my mom is going to die one day. And my children have done the same things. Around 5 years old they look at you like, “Mommy! You’re going to die.” And then they start to realize: and I will too.
There is an important part of resilience in not hiding it away from children. Even back to thinking of the ducks. If we can know that as we follow our mom duck, actually that is kind of the final place for following her to, but if we can get up and shake off our feathers and know how to do that.
Maggie Dent – Beautiful.
Rachel Cram – It’s amazing.
Maggie Dent – I think there’s something exquisite in a really difficult farewell ceremony if you can hear a burp from a baby who’s just had a feed. It’s just like one of those gifts from the universe that says, “Life goes on. It turns up in all these things.” Or a little fart from a boy. It’s, “Life goes on. And this is our challenge.”
Rachel Cram – It’s normality.
Maggie Dent – It’s not meant to be a squeaky perfect world. What we now know is that resilience isn’t a trait you’re born with. It is something that we can cultivate and that it’s determined by the systems we live within. So our family system, our school systems, our faith systems and what resources are available in the systems and then do we ask for help. So one of your big messages to your children as they grow up, ‘Are we the people who step forward to help? And are we capable of asking for help?’ Because I’ve worked in communities after massive floods and bushfires and droughts and activating a community to recover, I can tell you, you never have to activate one that is already connected.
So in our world as we separate, and I think we have a fundamental hunger for human connection, it’s biological, if we become separated because we’re connected more online then we are not going to recover as quickly afterwards. So again, do you know your neighbors?
Rachel Cram – Maggie, that actually I think leads me into what is sadly a need to wrap up this interview, and I’m not wanting to rush you with your answer. I’m wondering, is there a last piece of insight you would like to share around the necessity for deep connection to build our resilience and our ability to flourish as individuals as communities.
Maggie Dent – I think I’d kind of like to burst into song or something,
Rachel Cram – Burst into song? Ok!
Maggie Dent – all the songs that say that basically, the most fundamental thing that we all need as humans. is love. Unconditional and strong. That’s what we need. I can love you when you can’t. I can love you regardless of the color of your skin, your culture, or your sexual orientation. I am capable of it being about us. And until we can be those people that say, “It’s our whole world that matters. And, are the decisions being made about all of us? or only some of us? Because the more we become a Me-world the unhealthy we get. The more we become a We-world the healthier our children and us become.
So again my message is, ‘Nothing will ever replace human connectedness as the most important thing in building resilient happy children who thrive.’
Rachel Cram – Maggie Dent, thank you so much for the passion and energy and stories and love that you’ve poured into this interview.
Maggie Dent – It was my absolute pleasure Rachel. Thank you so much and I’m hoping everyone’s okay with my accent.
Rachel Cram – I think you were fully understandable. Thank you so much.