Having Hope

An article written by Dr. Chan Hellman and Dr. Angela Pharris

Did you know there is a robust body of science around hope?  Did you know this science consistently demonstrates that hope is a leading factor in the well-being of children, adults and families?  But how does trauma, stress and adversity impact our ability to have hope?  Trauma is often linked to poor attachments between children and adults, diminishing our ability to trust and connect with others.  Simply put, unmitigated trauma is a robber of our hope.

What is Hope?

Hope is the belief the future will be better than today, and that you play a role in making that future possible.  Hope is based on three simple ideas focused on your ability to leverage goals, pathways and willpower.  Hope, or hopeful thinking, is the mindset that allows us to identify and pursue valued goals, recognize and select the pathways to achieve those goals, and manage the willpower along the journey.  Hopeful children are more engaged in school, experience fewer disciplinary problems, show less negative behaviors and are better at self-regulating their thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

For the last 15 years, research at the University of Oklahoma’s Hope Research center has focused on understanding the role of hope as a coping resource vital to the well-being of children, teens, families and institutions.  We have found hope to be a psychological strength that leads to positive outcomes, and that hope is a buffer to stress, adversity and trauma.  As a result of this research, our efforts have led to the development of Hope Centered and Trauma Informed-research-based curriculum that can help families, schools, courts, providers and communities use the science and power of hope to see improvements in well-being.  Our research has also shown that hope can be restored and nurtured in trauma-exposed children.

Hope During Adversity and Stress

In all aspects of our lives, we are pursuing goals, either in the short or long term.  Goals are a central part of who we are.  Even when we are experiencing stress or survival, we are considering goals. However, during times of adversity, goals become focused on the short term (e.g., “How do I get food?” or “How can I feel safe right now?”), and the pathways to pursue those goals may be limited or can be difficult to identify. 

In the survival mindset, a child constantly monitors their environment and considers pathways to their goals, even if those pathways available may be dysfunctional and desperate choices.  Common examples might include fighting in school, hiding food in backpacks even when plenty is available or resisting prompts for good personal hygiene.  Children begin to lose hope when the goals they desire seem unobtainable, the pathways are filled with barriers, or it has become so difficult that they can no longer devote energy to pursuing them. 

Nurturing Hope in your Home

Hope moves us beyond wishing.  Hope is about taking action! Research shows that you can nurture hope for yourself, your family and the children in your life.  Hope is a protective factor that buffers against adversity and stress.  We believe that nurturing hope in children who have experienced trauma is one of the most important steps you can take to increase positive outcomes in their lives.  There are some things you can do right now to improve hope for you and your family. 

First, practice using the three elements of hope.  What are your personal and family goals?  Write out two or three goals that you have as a family.  For each goal, write down two or three pathways or strategies that you can use to achieve the goal.  It can be helpful to talk about the potential barriers to each of these pathways and agree as a family that there are many ways around obstacles and that you will work together to find solutions.

After selecting your goals, share why they are important to you and what motivates you to pursue them.  Voicing the goals will help you focus your willpower and support each other when things become difficult.  Make a visual map of your goals and pathways and post them in a central location in your home to help remind you that you are taking steps toward the future you desire.

Nurturing Hope in Children/Youth

Hope is a social gift.  We learn to have hope from caring adults who have shown us that we matter, and who encourage us to imagine the future we desire.  Modeling hope for your children is a gift they can use throughout their lives.  Want to help your children and teenagers increase hope?  Consider making it a focus of routine discussions within your household.  Where can you find hope around you in your day-to-day interaction.  Discuss how a favorite character in a book, movie or television show is setting and pursuing goals.  What are the pathways the character selected to pursue their goals?

Another strategy is to help children routinely set goals for themselves.  Instead of offering the advice, “Have a great day at school today,” or “Don’t get into trouble today,” before children head out the door, consider how you could ask children hope-directed questions that help them set short-term goals for their day.  Consider asking them “What is one goal you have for school today?’ and help them identify the actual pathways (e.g., activities, behaviors, etc.) they can use to pursue their goal.  In the beginning, it may be helpful to set short-term goals and celebrate together every time there is progress.  In this fashion, hope begets hope.

Plan a family scavenger hunt for hope.  Even teens enjoy getting into the fun of looking for hope in their everyday world.  Take a walk in your neighborhood, park or community and take pictures of things that remind you of hope.  Even simple things, such as new flowers blooming, road construction repairing damaged roads or children playing together, can prompt a conversation where we can use our imagination to see a better future.

Use your everyday activities to explain hope to your children.  Talk about how activities you participate in are all opportunities to increase hope.  A week taking swim lessons (pathway) means you can have a summer of fun at the local pool (goal).  Earning a passing grade in math (pathway) lets you try out for the basketball team at school (goal).  That first summer job as a teen (pathway) will build your confidence to pursue your dreams in your future career (goal).

Hope is the belief that your future will be better than today and that you have the power to make it so.  But you cannot give away what you do not have yourself.  Hope begins with you, and it is important that you find hope in your own life.  Taking the time to focus on your hope, and to care for your well-being, is essential.  Afterall, to the children, you are hope.

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