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Lessons Of Resilience And Hope Amid The Travesty At Boston Children’s Theatre

(David Beale/Unsplash)
(David Beale/Unsplash)

The Boston Children’s Theatre (BCT) filed for bankruptcy following a tumultuous month for the organization, in which its artistic director, Burgess Clark, resigned after an anonymous email from more than a dozen former students accused him of sexually inappropriate behavior.

In its wake are dozens of children and teens, who were about to start rehearsals for the theatre’s production of “Charlie Brown’s Christmas” when the performances were abruptly canceled. The majority of these students have been with the theatre for many years, and are now confronted not only by the loss of their beloved program, but by the harsh reality that someone they looked up to and respected may have committed such acts.

The best data indicate that as many as 10% of children are targets of adult sexual misconduct at some point during their K-12 school career. When scandal envelops a beloved activity meaningful to children, adults are in the difficult position of providing guidance, while also dealing with their own sense of betrayal and disappointment.

How can parents and other caregivers help children navigate a travesty, when trusted adults take advantage of them or their peers?

We first recall a basic research finding that resilience in children is nurtured by the presence in their lives of what the psychologist Julius Segal called a “charismatic adult” — a person from whom children “gather strength.” We must never underestimate the impact of such adults to help children not only weather adversity, but grow from it.

When children first hear disturbing news about a beloved adult, they may have a variety of complicated reactions including disbelief, anger, disappointment and upset, all feelings that need to be validated. They may need help to understand that the person they idealized, while possessing admirable qualities, also has a more sinister side.

As children learn the painful lesson that human nature is complicated, we also want to preserve their hope and capacity to trust and to dream.

Adults need to provide them with the opportunity to continue to engage in the activities derailed by the adult(s) who have broken their faith. In this regard, we applaud the group of BCT parents who quickly took action, by self-funding and hosting their annual holiday concert, allowing the choir to perform as scheduled. These parents have given their children important continuity, while allowing them to pursue what they love, and be with their peers.

It also conveys the message that they’ll have other opportunities to express their passions and their strengths, what Dr. Brooks calls, “islands of competence.” This metaphor represents a symbol of hope and respect, a reminder that all individuals possess unique strengths and courage. Children will be better equipped to cope with life’s obstacles when caring adults identify, reinforce and display their unique “islands of competence.” When this happens, children gain more confidence to deal with setbacks, take risks and face new challenges.

Children will be better equipped to cope with life’s obstacles when caring adults identify, reinforce, and display their unique “islands of competence.”

What happened at BCT is also an opportunity for parents to discuss with children issues related to boundary violations, appropriate and inappropriate contact and how to navigate complicated situations.

To their credit, BCT parents have already engaged Massachusetts Citizens for Children (known as MassKids) for a full-day training, which they told us is likely to occur in early January. (MassKids helps institutions who work with children reduce the occurrence of child abuse and neglect.) The Second Step Child Protection Unit also has a curriculum that teaches adults how to recognize, respond and report abuse; and teaches students how to recognize, report and refuse unsafe situations.

Children and adults who are resilient focus their time and energy on what they can control, rather than trying to change things that have already happened. They recognize that they may have had little, if any, control over difficult events, but they have far more control over their attitudes and responses to what occurred. We advocate people learn from the past in order to cope effectively with the impact of traumatic situations. We know that if they continue to be overwhelmed by the past, they will not be able to move forward. What the BCT parents have demonstrated by hosting the Children’s Choir and engaging professional trainers, is a positive, problem-solving attitude that conveys to their children that they can move beyond the unfortunate circumstances that have transpired.

As children learn the painful lesson that human nature is complicated, we also want to preserve their hope and capacity to trust and to dream.

Research also indicates that resilience is strengthened in children and adults when they engage in activities that enrich the lives of others. These “contributory activities” add purpose and meaning to life. By continuing with regular Sunday choir rehearsals, BCT parents are helping their children prepare for a performance. The concert will bring joy to the children in the choir, who in turn will give joy to those who attend the concert. We recommend that the BCT parents continue to help and encourage their children to seek a variety of ways to find meaning and purpose.

Whatever steps we take to help children be more hopeful and resilient, we must remember that the first step is to ensure as much as possible that they do not experience adults who violate their trust. Rather, our hope is that all adults with whom they interact are caring and loving and are deserving of the label of “charismatic adult” — someone from whom our children gather strength.

Editors' note: Members of the former BCT Children’s Choir will perform at Old South Church on Sunday, December 15.

Nancy Rappaport is a child psychiatrist who has worked for more than 25 years with traumatized teens. She wrote and acted in a one-woman off-Broadway show two years ago. Bob Brooks is a clinical psychologist whose work has focused on nurturing resilience in children and adults and identifying and reinforcing their strengths or what he calls their “islands of competence.” His granddaughter Lyla, 12, has performed in two BCT productions and was set to perform in "Charlie Brown’s Christmas."

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Nancy Rappaport Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Nancy Rappaport is a part-time associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a child psychiatrist at the Cambridge Health Alliance.

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Robert Brooks Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Robert Brooks, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School (part-time) and former director of the department of psychology at McLean Hospital.

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