The idea of our children being in physical or emotional pain, facing loneliness and being afraid are all nightmare scenarios for parents. However, we cannot protect our children from adverse experiences, whether it’s being bullied, trauma, loss, ill-health or anything else life may throw up. Instead, helping our children develop resiliency to challenges could be one of the greatest gifts we give to them.
Although researchers have debated over the exact way to define resiliency, broadly speaking it is the ability to adapt and ‘bounce back’ in the face of adversity. It has become an important concept since research showed that some children are able to triumph despite facing extremely challenging life situations.
This idea struck a chord for me as a mother of two young boys, one of whom has a life-limiting and life-threatening medical condition. We don’t know what the prognosis is, but we want to parent to ensure our boys have the strength to face the inevitable difficulties that will come their way.
Knowing a little about the concept of resilience from my work as a clinical psychologist made me wonder what we can actually do as parents to nurture it? How can we consciously help our children develop the buffering skills to face adversity and grow rather than fall?
Luckily, researchers have found that the ability to be resilient is not necessarily a fixed personality trait but can be learnt. Developing resilience is a process during which environmental and social factors have a big impact.
It appears that much of what we may do as parents is likely to encourage resiliency naturally but there are specific ways to reinforce it. Professor Angie Hart is co-director of BoingBoing, a Community Interest Company supporting resilience research and practice development (for more information see boingboing.org.uk) and co-author of Resilient Therapy: Working with children and families (Routledge, 2007).
Professor Hart says; ‘When I started working in this area there wasn’t much out there about how we could actually help children in practice. We are trying to convert the academic research into practical suggestions and although most of my work is based on helping seriously disadvantaged children it can be useful for anyone. The biggest thing to remember is that small moves can really help, building up the positives drip by drip all add to strengthen resiliency.’
Dr Tansy Walker, clinical psychologist for children and adolescents, adds that ‘a good starting point is focusing on existing strengths. Often when things go wrong in children’s lives, mental health services, schools, and the media can be quite problem focused. This focus on negatives makes it harder for young people to form a positive identity and self-efficacy. An approach that encourages people to talk openly about a child’s interests, skills, activities, positive qualities and hopes, and to jointly imagine steps towards a preferred future is one way to encourage resilience.’
Perhaps unsurprisingly, modelling resilience ourselves also seems to be a key part of helping our children learn about resiliency. If we can show our children how we deal with our own difficulties and set-backs with self-kindness and wisdom, we not only help them develop their own inner resources but we also strengthen our own.
“If a child has something they are interested in it provides focus and gives them something to be proud of”
USE THIS TOOLKIT OF SUGGESTIONS TO HELP ENCOURAGE BOUNCE-BACK ABILITY. THEY WILL WORK FOR EVERY MEMBER OF THE FAMILY
WIDENING SOCIAL NETWORKS
It makes sense that the more positive relationships there are in our lives, the more likelihood we have someone to turn to during tough times. This is the case whatever age we are. Identifying positive influences in our own and our children’s lives, and making sure we nurture those relationships allows us to take positive steps for current and future emotional well-being.
It can be the case that children like to list or draw who or what is on their ‘side’ or ‘in their team’ when things are tough (these lists often include fictional characters, pets or those that have passed away). Doing this with them can help them feel less alone and more powerful in the face of a problem and reinforces the bonds they have with others.
SEEING MISTAKES AS LEARNING
Consciously responding to our mistakes in front of our children with self-kindness allows our children to learn self-compassionate responses rather than punitive self-critical ones. For example, an attitude that says “that was hard but I did well to try, and I can try again” can be helpful. Children will internalise these words and reactions, and so will we. If we can speak to ourselves in a deliberately kind manner, even if at first it feels laboured, over time the harshness of the inner critic will be reduced. The inner critic is often to blame for so much internal pain and finding ways to soothe it as we parent will not only benefit ourselves but also our children.
From encouraging toddlers to put toys away to teenagers helping to cook, all ages can benefit from taking on jobs around the house. Helping with community work outside the house also gives a way to build up pride, promote belief in recovery and the chance to witness the power of support.
At times of adversity it is important to find the balance between autonomy and asking for help. Assisting others provides a way to learn about this dynamic practically. Communal park cleaning, volunteering at a playgroup or helping friends and relatives all add to the building of this sense of wider community spirit.
MAKING THEIR OWN DECISIONS
Letting your toddlers choose some of their own food, drink and clothes is often the start of handing over some of the decision making to your child. The ability to make decisions builds a sense of autonomy and independence which has been shown to promote resilience. Making our own decisions (and being free to make them) also fosters autonomy and growth of trust in ourselves so when faced with difficulties we have more practiced skills at weighing up our options.
As they get older, letting our children deal with the natural consequences of their decisions without intervening can help with the development of problem-solving skills. For example, we might insist our young toddlers wear clothes outside in wintertime. However, as they grow up (and become more aware of consequences) we could let them make their own decisions about wearing a coat when it is cold. This way they can start to gently understand responsibility and the outcome of their actions.
If a child has something they are interested in it provides focus and gives them something to be proud of, but having a hobby can also act as a buffer for adverse experiences by promoting self-worth. For some children it is painting, for others it might be football, sewing, looking at the stars, or memorising the facts of every dinosaur that ever walked the planet! As parents we might instinctively know to nurture these interests in our children but we also need to remember to turn some of that nurturing towards our own need for interests when we can. When life feels as if it is crumbling around us having something else to focus on can be a lifeline.
The way a family builds its own rituals and habits provide a bank of positive experiences to fall back on when times are hard. Some families make sure they have a family supper night once a week, others might bake, go to sports events, go walking together or make family photo books. Then there are all the customs around key points in the year (the change of season, summer holidays, Easter, Christmas) which all add to building up family identity and togetherness. This sense of identity and togetherness helps contribute to a buffer when children have difficult experiences outside the home.
LOOKING AFTER YOUSELF
Eating well, exercising, having time in the fresh air, connecting with friends and taking time for your hobbies can all take the back seat when parenting is at its most demanding and ruthless. However, if we can find a moment to stop and see the value doing these things can have for our children, it can help to prioritise them back into our lives. It seems that if we can see looking after ourselves as a means to teach our children a valuable life skill it might make it easier to actually book that time away with friends, visit the spa or even take a walk on our own occasionally!
Charlotte lives in Brighton with her husband and two boys (and with another baby on the way). She is a clinical psychologist, freelance writer, stay at home mum and carer.