Your child’s coping skills can be directly linked to how they react to difficult situations. It’s why building resilience in children is so important.
A child’s ability to “bounce back” from tough times or life’s challenges determines just how resilient they are. Resilient kids don’t give up. Instead, they learn and grow through the difficult times.
Want to find out more about building resilience in children? Read on to find out the obstacles preventing our children from becoming resilient, as well as 5 simple things we can adopt to help our children.
Our children’s mental health are suffering
First, the bad news.
More young people than ever before are experiencing mental health issues, part of the epidemic spreading across the developed world.
“A child’s resilience level appears to drop dramatically between the ages of 10 and 15,” says resident psychologist Collett Smart.
The rise in anxiety in children, their lack of self esteem and even how easily they give up, all have an impact on how resilient they are.
The obstacles preventing our children from becoming resilient
Susie Mogg is the founder of Resilience In . . ., an organisation focused on building resilience in children, parents and workplaces.
Susie believes there are three main reasons why the mental health conditions of young children today are worsening.
1. Bad parenting style
There are two styles of parenting in particular that prevents us from raising resilient children: helicopter and lawnmower.
Both parenting styles come from a place of good intent: wanting to keep our children safe and to help them be the best they can be. “But unfortunately, the methods used to achieve this are often counter-productive and add to the problems kids face today,” says Susie.
“Helicopter parents can prevent kids from taking their own risks and working out for themselves what is safe and what they are capable of. They can also prevent children from learning problem solving skills, how to make decisions, and experience the sense of mastery and self-worth that comes from being given greater levels of independence and responsibility. Lawnmower parents can prevent their kids from experiencing and learning from failure and from learning that they can get better at things through hard work and effort.”
Susie also points out that the emotional and social skills kids need to draw upon to help them become less fragile are not consistently taught in all schools and preschools. Many parents are also not well-versed in what these skills are and how to teach them, nor do they necessarily have the capacity to add this to their own busy schedules. Children are also wired differently, with some being more inherently able to deal with tough times than others.
2. Lack of free play
“Children learn best by play,” says Dr Sarah McKay, neuroscientist and the founder of the Neuroscience Academy. “They’re driven by a natural urge to play, do, taste, explore, feel, smell, experiment and interact—with people and animals, pots and pans in the bottom drawer, and puddles of rain. It’s by interacting so intensely with the world that their brains develop.”
But kids today are busier in a more structured way than they have been in the past. Many participate in multiple extra-curricular activities and are pushed to achieve more than their parents ever did.
“Because of all of this, kids have much less unstructured free play than in the past,” says Susie. “This can prevent them from learning how to be creative, problem solve, make decisions, build relationships and negotiate, leading to what appears to be their overall fragility and inability to function independently.”
3. Toxic stress
Growing up in a socioeconomically deprived family, exposure to maltreatment, low IQ and poor self-control are all risk factors for poor adult health and social outcomes, including criminal convictions, prescription fills, welfare claims and hospital visits.
That’s because they’re often the cause of toxic stress: stress that is extreme or long lasting or occurs outside supportive relationships. According to Dr Sarah, toxic stress derails brain development, with damaging effects on learning, behaviour, and physical and mental health.
The Christchurch earthquakes, which started in September 2010 and continued to the early part of 2011, has provided additional insights insights into how extreme stress in infancy impacts a child’s resilience level in childhood.
“There are significantly more behavioural problems and post-traumatic stress symptoms in the children who started school after experiencing the earthquakes,” says Dr Sarah. “One of the strongest predictors of whether children would experience difficulties was the age the child was when the earthquakes began.”
“Surprisingly, children younger than two when the sequence began were more vulnerable than older children. But Kathleen suggests this is because the older children experienced a buffer period of normal stress-free brain development. These children have grown up in an unpredictable world, many in highly stressed families. During a period of incredible neural plasticity, the children’s stress response systems were activated thousands of times. Exposure to extreme stress before the age of two activates the immature stress response system, with enduring consequences for children’s behaviour.”
5 tools for building resilience in children
1. Play an active role in your child’s life
At around 10 years of age, many children still feel like they have at least one significant adult in their lives who is there listening and encouraging. But as Collett observes, by the time they reach their teens, they begin to feel their parents pulling away, resulting in a subsequent drop in their resilience levels.
“Even in those teen years, we need to find ways to creative lean in so they know we’re still there, we still care and we’re still around to listen,” says Collett.
Being engaged also include simply being around for everyday life, simple things such as tying shoelaces, cooking and reading stories.
2. Help them identify their emotions
Psychological researcher Dr John Gottman’s model of emotion coaching involves helping children recognise, understand and express their emotions with five steps:
- Be aware of your child’s emotions
- Recognise your child’s expression of emotion as a perfect moment for intimacy and teaching
- Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings
- Help your child learn to label their emotions with words
- Set limits when you are helping your child to solve problems or deal with upsetting situations appropriately
- “Next time your child expresses their emotions, extend their vocabulary by helping them to label these feelings,” says Susie. “Then validate their emotions by playing back what you have heard—this doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them!”
3. Let them realise they have something to offer
This is all about giving them life skills, encouraging them to do chores and having (healthy) expectations of them. This also gives them a sense of independence.
“Giving children independence enables them to gain first-hand knowledge of how to do something,” says Susie. “It teaches them self-discipline, allows them to achieve a sense of mastery and enhances their sense of self-worth. Independence leads to responsibility, which in turn is confidence building. Giving independence involves parents understanding kids’ developmental milestones, so they know when it is appropriate for them to take on new responsibilities.
Susie recommends we challenge ourselves by thinking about how we are currently “rescuing” our children. Follow this by coming up with a list of things they can start to do by themselves and teach them how to do them.
4. Give them the gift of a growth mindset
Having a limited mindset will teach them to believe intelligence or talent is fixed and cannot be changed or improved upon. People with a limited mindset tend to give up when a challenge or problem occurs.
It’s time for some good news. There are actually some very simple things we can do as parents to build up or children’s resilience.
If your child has a growth mindset, however, they will believe that their abilities and skills can be improved through practise and hard work. This will lead to growth, success, a love of learning and greater resilience. So encourage your children based on the hard work and effort they have put into something, rather than on their innate talent.
Embrace the power of “yet”: “I can’t do cartwheels” becomes “I can’t do cartwheels . . . yet”.
5. Help them to recognise God
There comes a sense of peace when they understand that there is something outside of themselves that’s bigger than them. When they recognise and accept the power of God, that He is able to guide and help them, they learn to trust on Someone, not just themselves.
This article is adapted with permission, from a version that was first published on Mums At The Table.