A part of our job as parents, and grown ups as a whole, is to prepare our young ones as best as possible for the life and times in the big wide world. Instinctively we want to protect our kids from discomfort, hurt, hardship and anything else we perceive as less than awesome. Unfortunately, this is not only impossible but also pretty unhelpful and certainly not doing anybody any favours. Building small humans into healthy, thriving big ones isn’t about clearing adversity out of their way. A healthy dose of reality and a touch of stress is life-giving and helps them to develop the skills they need to flourish. Strengthening them towards healthy living is about nurturing within them the strategies to deal with that adversity. Here’s a few thoughts on the how’s.
All of these come under the umbrella of the 3PM’S. People, Psychological, Physical, Meaning and Security/Stability. For any Kiwi’s reading this then its my take of Te Whare Tapa Wha but with some subtle tweaks.
- Resilience needs relationships, not uncompromising independence.
Research tells us that it’s not rugged self-reliance, determination or inner strength that leads kids through adversity, but the reliable presence of at least one supportive relationship. In the context of a loving relationship with a caring adult, children have the opportunity to develop vital coping skills. The presence of a responsive adult can also help to reverse the physiological changes that are activated by stress. This will ensure that the developing brain, body and immune system are protected from the damaging effects of these physiological changes. Anyone in the life of a child can make a difference – family, teachers, coaches – anyone.
2. Increase their exposure to people who care about them.
Let them know who is on their team and let them hear and see it.
Social support is associated with higher positive emotions, a sense of personal control and predictability, self-esteem, motivation, optimism, a resilience. Kids won’t always notice the people who are in their corner cheering them on, so when you can, let them know about the people in their fan club. Anything you can do to build their connection with the people who love them will strengthen them.
‘I told Grandma/ Aunty how brave you were. She’s so proud of you.’
Let them know that it’s okay to ask for help. Children will often have the idea that being brave is about dealing with things by themselves. Let them know that being brave and strong means knowing when to ask for help. If there is anything they can do themselves, guide them towards that but resist carrying them there. Quite often the bravest and most courageous thing to do is reach out for a helping hand.
3. Encourage a regular mindfulness practice.
Mindfulness creates structural and functional changes in the brain that support a healthy response to stress. It strengthens the calming, rational prefrontal cortex and reduces activity in the instinctive, impulsive amygdala. It also strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. When this connection is strong, the calming prefrontal cortex will have more of a hand in decisions and behaviour. I am a big fan of this wee gem and the importance of making sure we take this incredible resource to the young ones rather than trying to deliver an adult version to very different needs, and expecting the young ones to respond to an hour long chant fest. There are so many amazingly innovative and engaging activities that are all ready and waiting to be shared.
4. Get moving.
Exercise strengthens and reorganises the brain to make it more resilient to stress. One of the ways it does this is by increasing the neurochemicals that can calm the brain in times of stress. Anything that gets kids moving is just awesome! Move, move and then move some more! In adult land, exercise is suggested to be equally as effective as medication in raising mood levels. Have fun with it, this is an area that we as ‘oldies’ can learn so much from our kids around playing and being present in the moment.
5. The Power of ‘YET’
Rather than getting stuck in what we can’t do, focus on the power of yet.
” You can’t do it yet. So, whats the first step that needs to happen to move closer to achieving it”
Nurture that feeling in them – that one that reminds them they can do hard things. You’ll be doing this every time you acknowledge their strengths, the brave things they do, their effort when they do something difficult; and when you encourage them to make their own decisions. When they have a sense of mastery, they are less likely to be reactive to future stress and more likely to handle future challenges.
‘You’re a legend when it comes to trying hard things. You’ve got what it takes. Keep going. You’ll get there.’
6. A Dose of Gratitude and Optimism
Optimism has been found to be one of the key characteristics of resilient people. The brain can be rewired to be more optimistic through the experiences it is exposed to. As for gratitude, if you have a small human who tends to look at the glass as being half empty, show them a different view. This doesn’t mean invalidating how they feel. Acknowledge their view of the world, and introduce them to a different one.
Instead of pestering your children with questions such as, “How was school?” and, “What did you do today?”, teach them to reframe their day at the same time as you learn how to reframe your questions to get more than a shrug of the shoulders and a “not much”.
Here’s a quick dinner time activity. Everyone must answer three questions:
1) What did someone do today to make you happy?
2) What did you do to make someone else happy?
3) What have you learned today?
I love this simple exercise for how it helps us all find the positive in every day. It teaches gratitude, nurtures optimism, and recognises kindness. It doesn’t matter what may have happened at work or school, or how stressed any of us may have felt when we sat down at the table; the whole mood seems to lift once we’ve played this game. I learn things about my sons day that they’d probably never have thought to tell me otherwise. Try it. It might just become the highlight of your day.‘
7. Teach them how to flip
The ability to reframe challenges in ways that feel less threatening is linked to resilience. Reframing is such a valuable skill to have. In times of difficulty or disappointment, it will help them to focus on what they have, rather than what they’ve lost. To build this skill, acknowledge their disappointment, then gently steer them away from looking at what the problem has cost them, towards the opportunities it might have brought them.
For example, if a rainy day has meant sport has been cancelled,
‘I understand how disappointed you are about not playing today. I’d be disappointed too. What can we do because of the rain that we might not have been able to do otherwise?’ (If they’re really disappointed they might need your help.) ‘You could snuggle up and read a book, watch a movie, play a game inside, walk in the rain, we could cook and throw a pretend party or have a fancy afternoon tea – with very fancy clothes of course, and jewels and fancy shoes and china plates and fancy glasses and maybe even … a tablecloth – but no forks – we are not eating cake with forks, no way – that’s just too far.’
Let there be ridiculous ideas too. This will let them push past the obvious and come up with something that is beautifully unique. It will also encourage them to question any limits or ideas about how things ‘should’ be done. ‘
8. Lead by Example.
Imitation is such a powerful way to learn. The small humans in your life will want to be just like you, and they’ll be watching everything. Without pitching it above what they can cope with, let them see how you deal with disappointment. Bringing them into your emotional world at appropriate times will help them to see that sadness, stuckness, disappointment are all very normal human experiences. When experiences are normalised, there will be a safety and security that will open the way for them to explore what those experiences mean for them, and experiment with ways to respond.
‘I’m disappointed that I didn’t get the job, but that’s because it was important to me. It’s nice to have things that are important to you, even if they don’t end the way you want them to. I did my very best in the interview and I know I’ll be okay. That one wasn’t the job for me, but I know there is going to be one that is perfect. I just have to keep trying and be patient.
9. The Importance of Sleep!
A lack of good-quality sleep is a huge driver for stress: it has a negative effect on memory, concentration, cognitive function, and decision-making.
One of the fastest ways to improve sleep – for all of us – is to limit screen time before bed. The type of blue light emitted by digital devices suppresses production of melatonin, the hormone that signals to the body it’s time for sleep. In addition, looking at screens before bed keeps us emotionally wired and stimulated, making it harder for us to switch off.
This is a huge topic in itself and the importance can’t be covered in a quick paragraph. But, think consistency, routine, the environment itself (when you look around and see a carpet of toys, lego, clothes and everything in between are you likely to feel nice and relaxed or slightly anxious? It’s the same for grown ups too.
10. Encourage them to take safe, considered risks.
Let them know that the courage they show in doing something brave and difficult is more important than the outcome. Age-appropriate freedom lets them learn where their edges are, encourages them to think about their decisions, and teaches them that they can cope with the things that go wrong. When they take risks they start to open up to the world and realise their capacity to shape it. There’s magic in that for them and for us.
‘I love how brave you are. When you try harder and harder things, they might not always work out, but it means you’re getting stronger, smarter, braver and you’ll be closer to getting it next time.’
11. Don’t rush to their rescue.
It is in the precious space between falling and standing back up again that they learn how to find their feet. Of course, sometimes scooping them up and giving them a steady place to be is exactly what they need to find the strength to move forward. The main thing is not to do it every time. Exposure to stressors and challenges that they can manage during childhood will help to ensure that they are more able to deal with stress during adulthood. There is evidence that these early experiences cause positive changes in the prefrontal cortex (the ‘calm down, you’ve got this’ part of the brain), that will protect against the negative effects of future stress. Think of it like immunisation – a little bit of the pathogen, whether it’s a virus or something stressful, helps to build up resistance or protect against the more severe version.
12. Nurture a growth mindset.
Research has found that children who have a growth mindset – the belief that people have the potential to change – are more likely to show resilience when things get tough. Compared to kids who believe that bullies will always be bullies and victims will always be victims, kids who believe that people can change report less stress and anxiety, better feelings about themselves in response to social exclusion, and better physical health. See here for the step by step on how to nurture a growth mindset.
13. Let them know that you trust their capacity to cope
Fear of failure isn’t so much about the loss but about the fear that they (or you) won’t be able to cope with the loss. What you think matters – it really does. You’re the one they will look to as a gauge for how they’re going. If you believe they have it in them to cope with the stumbles along the way, they will believe this too. This isn’t always easy. We will often feel every bump, bruise, fall or fail. It can be heartbreaking when they struggle or miss out on something they want, not because of what it means for us, but because of what we know it means for them. But – they’ll be okay. However long it takes, they’ll be okay. When you decide, they’ll decide.
14. Build their problem-solving toolbox.
Self-talk is such an important part of problem-solving. Your words are powerful because they are the foundation on which they build their own self-talk. Rather than solving their problems for them, start to give them the language to solve their own. Some ideas:
• What would [someone who they see as capable] do?
• What has worked before?
• Say as many ideas as you can in two minutes, even the silly ones? Lay them on me. Go.
And above all else …
15. Let them know they are loved unconditionally. (But you already knew that.)
This will give them a solid foundation to come back to when the world starts to feel wobbly. Eventually, they will learn that they can give that solid foundation to themselves. A big part of resilience is building their belief in themselves. It’s the best thing they’ll ever believe in.