I am a sucker for off-beat holidays, and yesterday was National Make Your Bed Day. It reminded me of Admiral McRaven’s 2014 commencement speech advising UT Austin graduates how to change the world. His first piece of advice was to make your bed:
“If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another and by the end of the day that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that the little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you’ll never be able to do the big things right. And if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better.”
This principle also applies to helping our children recover from adverse childhood experiences. Sometimes we think the solutions to recovering from traumatic experiences have to be as profound as the events themselves. In reality, however, the most lasting impact may come from helping our children master small, mundane, and everyday skills.
This specific habit — making their bed — may not be the best small task for our kids. Trying to get them to do that might lead to power struggles that are simply counterproductive. But the underlying lesson here is still an important one for those of us parenting children who have suffered trauma. Finding simple tasks that our children can master will help them in more ways than we can imagine.
Every child is different, and each of them needs an individualized trauma-informed approach. But there are some very common social and mental health benefits that we see from helping children master small tasks in their everyday lives.
1. Predictable Routine. Childhood trauma often disrupts a child's sense of safety and stability. Simple tasks that become part of a daily routine offer predictability and structure. Try to help your child find a small skill that they can do regularly. When I was growing up, my mother enjoyed having people over for dinner. One of my jobs was to set the table, but not just any way I wanted. Mom taught me how to set up every company dinner according Emily Post (the expert of the day). No matter how the dinner went after that, I knew that the table was set correctly.
That same sense of accomplishment for our children can give them an important sense of stability. Knowing what to expect in a given situation is one of the best ways to lower anxiety and increase a sense of emotional security.
2. Sense of Control. A traumatic event often leaves children feeling powerless. Mastering simple tasks empowers our kids and gives them a sense of control over their environment. This control in small matters can help them learn to trust their ability to influence and overcome their circumstances. Children have so little control over things that happen in their lives, from school to the disruption of their biological family. Having routines that they can control can be an important counterbalance to trauma in a child’s early years.
3. Achievement and Self-Esteem. Completing even small tasks can give children a sense of achievement. Achievements in turn boost their self-esteem and self-worth. Even young children can master routine tasks that can help increase self-esteem and counterbalance developmental trauma. Increased self-esteem has a lot of benefits both at home and in the school setting. Most importantly, increased self-worth is an important pathway to positive change and increased resilience.
4. Emotional Regulation. One of the common effects of trauma is impairment of a child’s executive function and ability to regulate their emotions. Focusing on tasks sometimes helps boost a child’s ability to regulate emotions. Concentrating on a task can provide a temporary respite from overwhelming feelings, which in turn can help them learn how to manage their emotions and help get their emotional development back on track.
5. Social Skills. One of the more heart-breaking effects of chronic stress and trauma is that they hijack a child’s ability to develop social relationships. Simple tasks often involve cooperation with others, such as siblings or peers. Learning teamwork is an important life skill. Teamwork also encourages positive social interactions and a sense of connection and social support. All of those impacts help build resilience and a path to overcoming trauma.
6. Safe Space. Creating a clean and organized environment through tasks like cleaning up personal space or making a bed can help a child feel less chaotic and more emotionally safe in his or her room. A clutter-free, organized space can help reduce stress and anxiety. Of course, kids won’t recognize those benefits right away, so you’ll probably have to find some more immediate positive reinforcement for a clean room. Encouragement in this area also can turn into arguments and power struggles, so be realistic about whether it’s possible for your kids to find a way to keep their rooms clean. To the extent that you can encourage your children to take control of their environment and create a safe place for themselves, you will be helping them increase their resilience.
7. Repetition and Mastery. By repeatedly completing tasks, children can experience a sense of mastery and improvement. This process of gradual skill development reinforces the idea that with effort and persistence, they can overcome challenges. These small wins for our kids can add up to big lessons for them.
Helping our children master simple tasks provides a strong framework to help traumatized children rebuild their sense of stability, control, and self-worth. Of course, we have to start by giving them a foundation of emotional support and safe relationships. Then we can build on that to help our children move past their traumatic childhood experiences. Helping our children master small tasks and rack up small wins will have a profound impact on their ability to build resilience.