Everyone has had one or more of those days where everything seems to go wrong. You know it. Those days when you get home and everything is just too much and all you want to do is crawl into bed, pull the covers up over your head and never come out again. For some of us, that “day” may seem to stretch months, or even years… where life just dishes you out one rotten egg after another. For adults this can be really hard… for children sometimes even harder.
Some kids roll-with-the-punches and take things in their stride, others are “knocked for six.” Even when things to us as adults seem not-so-bad, some children seem less able to cope with even minor stressors in their life than we might expect to be normal. Why is this? And what can we do to help them handle stressful life situations and recover more quickly?
Resilience is a much sought after quality.
It is something all of us want for ourselves and even if we don’t feel we have much of it, we all wish for our children to have and strive to help them build it.
Resilience is a child’s ability to cope with stress and adversity, and to recover after trauma, tragedy or significant challenges. Similar terms might be “grit” or possibly “strength,” but I actually don’t think that either of these terms quite meet the meaning entirely. When children are resilient they are more adaptable, more curious and seemingly more independent and brave. They more willing to give things a go, and get out there and explore the world.
In my clinical practise, perhaps because (as I have said before) I see a skewed part of the population (parents/children who are seeking the consultation of a paediatrician because things aren’t going so well) resilience is an elusive entity. I have sought out and attended many lectures by professionals on “Building resilience in children” and although these gave me a better understanding of what resilience is and how it develops in some children over time, I felt they always fell short of giving me practical ways to BUILD it in children in whom it lacks.
Many sources talk about “attachment” as the most important part of resilience.
Attachment is the invisible emotional bond that typically develops between infant and the person or people who care for it, and forms as a helpless infant gets its primary needs met. It is extremely important is because it forms the basis on which that child’s social, emotional, and thinking and reasoning skills eventually develop. In this early time of life, the infant’s experiences stimulate the growth of nerve pathways in the brain and these form lasting patterns of how that child will respond to situations and stimuli in the future. Attachment affects the development of an individual’s traits and personality, sense of security, and eventually influences the ability of that person to form stable relationships throughout their life.
The importance of the development of secure attachment for children is that it provides the first coping system by setting up a comforting mental presence (of the caregiver) in difficult moments. This ability is then built upon over time with many other factors and life experiences and eventually contributes to the formation of resilience.
Now this is really important, but in the interests of being practical, it begs the question,
What do you do to help a child who has NOT developed secure attachment and in whom resilience is lacking? Examples of this might a child in foster care, children who have had parents who may for one reason or other (and this is not a judgment) not been emotionally available to their children at the critical time of attachment formation (eg post-natal depression, parental separation, domestic violence, drug use, mental health issues etc).
As much as we would like to, it is not like we can go back in time to change what happened and help attachment to form…
I should note that children who HAVE formed a secure attachment can also seem to lack resilience. This is probably influenced by other factors like personality type, recent changes or stressors (eg moving house or school), anxiety or depression, bullying, lack of sleep, grief/loss and any one of a number of other things. Regardless of cause (and in the complete absence of any judgment) however, I still needed to formulate a way to help these children and their carers to build their coping mechanisms.
So I read and I read and I read… and thought and thought and thought… and have made my own list.
PRACTICAL STRATEGIES TO BUILD RESILIENCE
- Surround children with people who care about them and support them.
These may include, grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, friends from school and extracurricular activities. This helps to build feelings of self-esteem, their confidence and positive emotions (happiness, pride, a sense of control). These things all increase resilience.
- Give them the opportunity to make friends in a variety of contexts (ie not just school).
If things aren’t going well with friends at school, giving a child the opportunity in another environment (eg fostering friendships with neighbourhood kids or family friends, extracurricular activites/sports) to make other friends can be a fantastic back up plan to bolster kids’ ability to cope. Exercise is also an important strategy to build resilience (see below)
- Ensure that they know that can ask (you or a trusted adult) for help.
When they do ask, gently encourage them to take the steps they can themselves (allowing them to prove to themselves that they can do it), and help them with the things they need support with (showing them that it is is important to first “have a go”). When they do ask you for help – MODEL RESILIENCE. Demonstrate to them your thinking and problem solving process and show them how it is done calmly and methodically. In a school environment for some children, this might be helped by identifying a “mentor” specific to that student, a “safe person” they can go to when they feel stressed, insecure or in need of help.
- Support them when they are stressed and show them how to recognise their emotions.
Teach children ways to deal with the feeling (eg deep breathing, mindfulness strategies, removing themselves from a situation to calm down, distraction, seeking the help of a supportive adult). Just being present and responsive to a child helps to reverse the negative physiological changes that are initiated by stress. If you feel you can’t teach them how to calm themselves, then bring them to a professional who can – like a paediatric psychologist.
- Let them talk.
When a child (or any person for that matter) is stressed or upset about something, talking it out (provided they have the language skills) can be very therapeutic. Instead of giving them solutions to their problems, encourage them to come up with solutions for themselves. When the mind goes through this process (of dissecting a problem and formulating a solution) the brain strengthens the positive neural pathways that we want to reinforce. The child then learns to engage their cognition and problem solving abilities first, before getting stressed or distressed. If a child is lacking speech and language skills, your paediatrician or health professional might recommend helping the child to communicate their feelings through a different medium – some examples could be art therapy, music therapy or perhaps sandbox or another type of play-based therapy.
- Teach them how to manage themselves and learn the skill of organisation
Meltdowns, stress and anxiety in a lot of children, can stem from when things are not progressing as expected, or too little time is left to complete a task that needs to be completed. This is where teaching kids the skill of planning and getting organised can really pay-off. There are lots of great ways to build in children, the skills that enable a them to function in their life in an orderly and efficient manner (also called “executive functions”). They include the ability to plan and organise themselves, attention and concentration, working memory and impulse control.
- Play board games with them
- Teaches turn-taking (and helps them to learn to control their impulses)
- Uses working memory – “concentration” or “Memory” card game
- Problem solving/strategy – eg Connect4, Battleship, Noughts and crosses
- Fine motor skills – eg Pictionary, Operation, Cranium, Jenga
- Numeracy – Monopoly, snakes and ladders, card games
- Literacy skills – Boggle, Scrabble, “Hangman”
- Establish regular routines (eg around getting ready for school, homework/after school activities, dinner/bedtime)
- Helping them to formulate a plan for the day or for older children teaching them how to plan study and homework (try this link to an article on study planning I wrote earlier)
- Encouraging them to use a calendar and/or diary so they can see what is coming up
- Allowing them the opportunity to make their own decisions
7. Extracurricular activities – exercise and team sports
The mechanisms by which exercise improves resilience are multiple. Consistent, regular exercise will build up your immune system (noting that if you overdo it and take your workouts to extremes, the stress can wear you down and have the opposite effect – wrecking an effective immune response). In moderate doses, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that regular exercise is great for immune function.
Extracurricular activities also foster a sense of belonging – to a team, a club, a group of friends. It provides kids with the opportunity to make friends outside of school (see point 2) and diversifies their interests (see point 10).
Remember though… DON’T OVERDO IT, overtiredness and lack of sleep will work in reverse to decrease a child’s resilience!
- Use kind, gentle and encouraging words.
Children do not learn effectively by being criticised and put down. Look for their strengths and name them often to child. It has been shown time and time again, positive behaviours and habits form from positive reinforcement. Remind children that “having a go” is just as important as “getting it right.” This not only builds persistence (and thus competence) but then gives them a sense of mastery and its accompanying sense of satisfaction.
- Teach them how to be optimistic!
- Name things they are happy about or grateful for (practising gratitude)
- Talk to them about “an awesome thing that happened during the day”
- Stay off digital technology as much as possible
- Teaching them to REFRAME to find something positive in a bad situation
- Give them a positive spin-off (eg “You might have lost the first match but there are plenty more games to the season to make up for it”)
- Use “… it could have been worse…” or “…at least you didn’t…” (eg “You might have sprained your ankle but at least you didn’t break it”)
- Helping them to realise that they have learnt from a bad situation and can prevent it from happening again
- Learning about self (eg “Maybe hip hop dancing, rather than ballet is more your thing”)
- Don’t put all their eggs in one basket.
If a child has only one interest or activity and they don’t do well at it, it is easier for them to adopt a catastrophic attitude if things go wrong (“I am hopeless at everything,” “I can’t do anything,” “I hate my life” etc). Give your child the opportunity to develop their interests in a range of activities in different areas (eg art, music, sport, chess, choir etc) so that if they find that they aren’t great at one thing, they don’t “lose their entire life savings on the one investment” so to speak.
It doesn’t have to involve activities that cost a lot of money either. Yes, ballet, piano lessons, karate etc all cost money, but riding their bike, running, scootering, rollerblading, crafting (bless Kmart and their cheap craft supplies, or upcycling clean household rubbish like egg cartons, bottle caps, boxes of any kind, the cardboard tube left at the end of a roll of Glad wrap/baking paper/toilet roll) are all awesome activities that get kids active or foster creativity and don’t have to cost the earth.
Now resilience in adults is a completely different beast. I haven’t really read into it, but I know from personal experience, my level of resilience is closely related to the amount of sleep I am getting (this definitely applies to kids too – check out my articles on normal childhood sleep patterns, and how to deal with childhood sleep problems), if I am grieving over something (eg I had very low resilience around the time I lost my mum), and my perception of how much support I am receiving from those around me. I might leave such an article to someone who is an expert in looking after adults – ie not me.
So since I am writing this whilst up in Noosa, trying to “fill my emotional cup” with some quiet time out (and practising what I preach), I will be signing off right here.
Catch you guys soon, and be sure to let me know if you found the article helpful (by giving me a like and a SHARE)!