Road to Resilience Article
When parents are asked what they would like for their children, often the answer is that they would like their child to be happy. Unfortunately even the best intentioned parents can not guarantee eternal happiness for their children. Life is full of ups and downs and no matter how much we would like to wrap our children up in cotton wool and protect them, it isn’t really possible. Even if it were, it would surely be detrimental to their social and emotional development.
Whilst we cannot always ensure that our children will feel happy, another important goal for parents is that their child will feel confident enough to deal with the challenging times in their lives. All children will, at some time, have to face moments that require them to be able to cope and bounce back; to be resilient. It might be those first few days or weeks at childcare or school, perhaps moving house, dealing with someone who is bullying, meeting new friends or playing sport. For some children even the little challenges in life can be particularly difficult. As a parent, it is sometimes stressful dealing with a child who clings to you or who says “I can’t do it” or “I don’t have any friends”, and often we feel ill equipped to teach our children the strategies to be able to deal with moments such as these.
Much research has been conducted around the world to search for the factors that both contribute to children being at risk of feeling anxious, and also the resilience qualities that assist children to overcome challenges. The research has shown that some children, one in five, are born with a more anxious temperament and are often more difficult to settle when startled or upset. Other factors may contribute to young children feeling anxious or worried; such things as traumatic life events, disease, divorce, separation or death. Even feeling pressured with schoolwork or extra curricula activities can contribute to children feeling stressed.
Interestingly though, certain protective factors have been identified as assisting children to be more resilient in challenging times. Findings from the 5th International Resilience Project showed that one third of the children studied who were living with such risks and pathology had certain ‘self-righting’ factors that seemed to protect them, and regardless of the hardships they faced, appeared to be well adjusted, happy and successful.
So what factors contributed to these children overcoming the odds and becoming competent, well adjusted children and adults in spite of the risks and adversities they faced? Could these same factors be equally advantageous to all children? What are they and how can we teach our own children the strategies to find ways to cope in their lives? Perhaps this could be the answer that most people are looking for to assist their children to find happiness, now and in their futures.
Luckily, the factors that have been identified as being valuable in order to sustain a resilient mindset can be taught to children; and research shows the younger the better. Resilience involves behaviours, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone. A Brisbane professor of psychology, Dr Paula Barrett, has identified that children as young as preschoolers can benefit from curriculum especially devised to teach the life changing strategies involved with being a resilient person. As children’s brains are still forming in their early years, the information, when practiced, can become part of everyday thinking as the child grows through life. Some families may choose to let their child simply ‘grow out’ of negative thinking patterns naturally, however the problem is, that the longer an anxious child has certain thoughts, the more those thoughts can become part of everyday thinking ( Jordana McLoone 2005) and can produce difficulties and interference in the child’s development.
Recent research tells us that the role of adults in the promotion of resilience in children has much significance. It may well be true that resilience in children is dependent on adult contributions to its promotion. Resilience does not develop in a vacuum; it is within a context (Grotberg 1996). The family has the most influence on a young child’s life and it is in the little things we do each day that teaches our children the biggest lessons. When building resilience children need the support of those who love them to gain inner strength and confidence, and the ability to communicate, problem solve and ask for help.
What can parents do to encourage resilience in their children?
Parents can continue to assist their child to learn to recognise and label his or her own feelings, as well as those of others
When children are able to successfully recognise feelings such as being happy, sad, fearful, worried and angry they are then in a better position to self regulate and to recognise how their actions affect other people. Although the recognition of feelings may seem a simple concept, it is amazing how many children have not acquired this knowledge through life’s experiences, as we may have imagined. Ask your child how they are feeling, and test their response. It is valuable to chat to children about how they and you may be feeling about certain events so they begin to gain a greater understanding of emotions.
Encourage your child to demonstrate empathy and caring, to be pleasant and do nice things for others
So often we encourage our children to look out for themselves, and although that is important it is extremely valuable for children to feel good about what they can do for others. Perhaps you can join with your child to send a letter or card to a friend or family member, or bake a cake for someone. As parents, we need to share with our children the moments in our lives when we do things for others. Our children can then have empathy modeled for them and they can see it is important for adults too.
Model being a positive thinker
Look for what is strong, not what is wrong. Are you the type of person to see the glass half full, an optimist who looks for the positives in everyday life occurrences or are you a little more on the pessimistic side and seem to notice the things each day that don’t go so well? There are many benefits for the more positive people amongst us including being more fun to be around, generally happier in life and relationships and often having more of a feeling of wellbeing. As well as that positive parents assist to build resilient children. So often though, it is so easy for our first reaction to focus on the weaknesses or the things that went wrong about our day; even if the negative parts only amounted to a small percentage of what we did that day! Sometimes it tends to be the negative things that we share with others and for those of us that are parents, this presents a problem. You see our children are watching us, very closely- even though it may not appear as though they are. They are constantly listening to our responses and in each response; we are modeling to our children how to behave in this world. The way we deal with the difficulties of everyday life and the level of optimism we show teaches our children to also be positive thinkers and to bounce back if they are challenged by the inevitable challenges that may arise for them.
Assisting your child to solve their own problems themselves and giving them the confidence that it will be OK
When your child is fearful, they need to know there is someone who will listen and take their worries seriously, and they need to know that it is OK to ask for help. As parents, it is important to be aware that our children benefit enormously from gaining the confidence that they have some skills themselves to deal with their fears or worries. One of the most useful things parents and caregivers can do for their children is to encourage this resilience. Sometimes that means not jumping in too quickly to help, but offering ideas about how to solve the problem rather than solving it for them. Ask questions such as ’What could we do to make this less scary?’ ’How can we stop you feeling so worried about it?’ ’What could you do next time that would make you feel better?’ Even with little babies, caregivers can help to promote a feeling of confidence that things will be all right. When a parent or carer is really anxious, a child will absorb that anxiety and feel less sure that he can manage (Diana Roe 2006).
Encouraging independence with everyday tasks in your child’s life
Children feel a real sense of achievement and raised self esteem as they begin to gain life skills through being encouraged to do things for themselves. In fact research findings (Grotberg1996) have shown that families who provided a trusting relationship with their children and who were role models, but who did not encourage autonomy, frequently had children who did not respond to situations or personal experience with evidence of resilience behaviour. In a generation where we are striving to do so much for our children, we run a very real threat of not allowing them to gain autonomy or to do things for themselves; and this can have a direct influence on our children gaining the skills of resilience. Allow your child to tackle self help tasks, such as putting on their own shoes or getting their own drinks, and positively encourage their attempts at independence.
Structure and Rules at home
Through positive and supportive communication help your child begin to accept responsibility for his or her own behaviour and to understand that actions have consequences. Families that have trusting relationships, and who are confident to enforce rules and support their children to learn the strategies of being responsible family members, are assisting their children to be resilient thinkers with problem solving and impulse control skills.
Love your children and let them know how loveable they are
Children gain resilience from knowing they are loveable and that other people will like and value them. Parents are very valuable here, as they are in the perfect position to highlight their child’s strengths and to encourage their child ‘just for being here’. Each time you think something positive about your child, is a good time to let them know.