Building Resilience: A Guide for Parents

Published: 07 Sep 21
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Some children will develop resilience, or the ability to overcome serious hardship, while others will not. Parents being able to understand why some children do well despite early challenges and difficulties is important because it can help them support their children to build resilience and reach their full potential.

While certain factors might make some children more resilient than others, resilience isn't necessarily a personality trait that only some possess. Resilience involves behaviours, thoughts, and actions that any child can learn and develop.

Resilience skills can be learned, and the ability to learn resilience is one reason research has shown that resilience is ordinary, not extraordinary.

Like building a muscle, increasing your child's resilience takes time and intentionality.

Most of us idealise childhood as a time of carefree joy and happiness, but even very young have to deal with emotional challenges and difficulties.

Our children may face problems such as changing schools, social media, bullying by peers, challenges at home, and growing up in a world struggling with a pandemic.

Childhood can be anything but carefree. The ability for a child to thrive, despite these difficulties, grows from the skills of resilience. Building resilience in your child, developing their abilities to adapt well to adversity, trauma, threats, or significant source of stress, can help your child manage stress and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty.

But how can you, as a parent, help your child build resilience?

 

How children and teenagers build resilience

Relationships

Teach your child the importance of building relationships and connecting with their peers. Demonstrate to them the important skill of empathy and of having the ability to listen to others. It is also essential to create a solid and broad family network as connecting with others provides social support and strengthens resilience.

Helping others

A child who may feel helpless can feel empowered when they help others. Involve your child in age-appropriate volunteer activities or ask them to help with simple tasks which that they can do. At school, children can often help others in their class or the years below.

Daily routines

A daily routine can be comforting for a child, especially for a young child who needs structure in their lives. Spend time with your child developing this routine, both for school work and play. During times of distress or difficulty, this routine can provide the much-needed still point and calm consistency that they need.

Perspective

Even when your child is facing difficulties, help them see the bigger picture and keep a long-term perspective. Challenge any unrealistic thinking by asking them to consider the worst-case scenario and show them that their future is good once the current moment passes. An optimistic and positive outlook can enable your child to see the good things in life and to keep moving even in the most challenging times. Show them that life moves forward after bad events, and the worst things are temporary.

Self-care

Teach your child the importance of looking after themselves, eating correctly, exercise, and getting enough sleep. Make sure that your child has time to have fun and to do things that they enjoy. If your child can look after themself and have fun, they will be more able to stay balanced and deal with any stressful and challenging times.

Goal-setting

Help your child set appropriate and achievable goals and show them how to move forward towards them one step at a time. Setting goals will help your child focus on specific tasks and help your child build resilience by moving forward step-by-step. Break down significant goals (e.g. GCSE exams) into smaller, achievable tasks (e.g. daily topics and revision schedules).

Self-confidence

Remind your child of how they have successfully handled difficulties in the past and how these past challenges will build their strength to address any future challenges. Let your child learn to trust themselves to solve problems and to make appropriate decisions.

Self-discovery

Difficult times are often when your child will learn the most about themselves. Help your child to recognise this and to think about what they are learning. "What am I made of?"

Change

Change is generally tricky for children to manage, particularly a change in school or peer group. Talk with your child to explain to them that change is part of life. New relationships will replace the old ones; new goals will replace the old ones. Work with them to see what is going well, and have a plan of action with your child for what is not going well.

 

Developing Resilience in the Early Years

Your very young child may only recently have developed the skills of walking and talking, and they may not be able to any anxieties and fears. Although you may think your child is too young to understand what is happening, they can pick up on stress and worry from conversations they overhear.

Watch your child for any signs of sadness or fear that they may not be able to put into words. Does your child need more hugs than usual or extra-clingy? Has your child resumed old habits that your thought they had outgrown? Is your child suddenly more irritable? If so, this may be that they feel the pressure of what is going on around them.

During times of stress and challenge, spend more time with your child playing games, reading to them, or just holding them close. Wrap them up in family closeness and ensure your child has lots of family time.

 

Developing Resilience in the Primary Years

When your child begins primary school, they will form new friend groups and participate in new activities. As they start to learn things about the world outside of their homes, they will look to their teachers and parents to understand it all and feel safe. Ensure that your child has a place where they feel safe, both at home and at school.

Talk to your child. Whenever your child has questions, answer them honestly and reassure them that they are safe and that you are there to look after them. Listen to any worries or fears that they have, let them know, and see that you are there.

If a situation outside of the home is frightening, such as with the covid pandemic, limit the amount of news your child watches or listens to, as they may misunderstand what they may hear or see on the news. Do not hide what is happening in the world from your child, but avoid exposing them to a constant flow of information that may fuel any fears. Check their understanding of what they hear and see and put things in perspective.

 

Developing Resilience in the Secondary Years

Secondary school can be a challenging time for your child, particularly in the transition from a smaller primary school into a larger and more bustling environment. Your child may struggle to avoid new social pitfalls and struggle to meet the extra academic demands.

Your child will look to their teachers and friends as well as to you to make them feel safe. Make sure that your child keeps perspective. Help your child to understand that other children may also be feeling lonely and frightened. Help your child see beyond their current moment. Talk with your child about their feeling and your own. Your child may be old enough to appreciate hearing about your experiences and how you coped.

Although your teenage child may tower over you, they still are young and can feel the uncertainty and fear of both the everyday stresses of being a teenager, as well as events in the world around them. Their emotions may be volatile and close to the surface during these years, and finding the best way to connect can be a challenge.

Talk with your teenager whenever you can, even if it seems they don't want to talk with you. The best time to talk can be when you are in the car together or doing chores together, allowing them to focus on something else while they talk. Whenever your child has a question, answer honestly but also respond with reassurance. Ask your child their opinion about what is happening, be interested in their response and fully listen to their answers.

Find a safe place that your teenager can create at home, whether it's their bedroom or somewhere else, which can a be space of their own. Your teenager will probably prefer to be with their friends rather than spend time with you, but always be ready to give them lots of family time, whenever they need it. Set aside family time and involve and invite their friends over. Be aware that your teenager’s emotions may intensify in secondary school and that they are likely to experience rejection, taunting, or bullying at some point in their school life.

Help your teenager have a balanced view on the challenges facing the world today, e.g. climate change, covid pandemic, wars, racism, discrimination, etc. Use what they’re seeing and hearing in the news as a catalyst for discussion. Teenagers act like they feel immortal, but they still need to know that everything will be OK. Have honest talks of your fears and expectations, which will help them to express their concerns.

Your teenagers will also be feeling highs and lows because of the hormonal levels in their bodies, so any added stress can make these shifts even more extreme. Be understanding of their feelings and emotions and continue to be firm if your teenager responds to stress with sullen or angry behaviour.

Always reassure your teenage child that they will be OK and you are looking out for their best interests at all times.

 

Finally, a short story: A Carrot, an Egg, and a Cup of Coffee

A young girl went to speak to her mum and told her she hated school. She had just started in Year 7 at secondary school and struggled with her schoolwork, frightened of the bigger children there and getting lost. She told her mum that she didn’t want to go there again.

Her mum took her to the kitchen and filled three pans with water, and put them on the stove to boil. As soon as the water began to boil, the mum placed a carrot in the first pan, an egg in the second, and a teaspoon of ground coffee beans in the third. She let the pans sit and boil for a few minutes without saying a word.

After twenty minutes, the mum turned off the pans. She fished the carrot out and placed it in a bowl. She lifted the egg out and placed it in a bowl. She poured the coffee out and placed it in a bowl.

Turning to her daughter, the mum asked, “Tell me, what do you see?” Her daughter replied. “A carrot, an egg, and some coffee”.

Her mum brought her closer and asked her to feel the carrot. The daughter did and could see that it was soft. The mum then asked the daughter to take the egg and break it. After pulling off the shell, the daughter saw the egg was now hard-boiled. Finally, the mum asked the daughter to sip the coffee. The daughter tasted the coffee.

The daughter then asked her mum, “What does this mean?”

Her mum explained that each of these objects had faced the same challenge – the carrot, the egg, and the coffee bean each had faced boiling water, and each had reacted differently.

The carrot initially was strong, hard and unrelenting. However, after boiling in the water, the carrot had become soft and weak. The egg initially had been fragile with only a thin outer shell protecting its liquid insides, but after boiling in the water, the egg looked the same but had become tougher inside. The ground coffee bean had reacted very differently again. After boiling in the water, the coffee has changed itself, but it also changed the water.

The mum then asked her daughter, “Which are you? When you face a challenge, how do you respond? Are you the carrot, the egg or the coffee bean?”

Are you the carrot, initially seeming tough and strong, which when facing a challenge then wilts, becomes soft and loses its strength?

Or are you the egg, initially with a fragile exterior and soft inside, which when facing a challenge becomes a bit tougher on the inside, though from the outside still looks the same?

Or are you the coffee bean, which, when facing the challenge, changes not only itself but also changes the situation it is in? Changing everything for the better?

Mum asked her daughter again, “Are you a carrot, an egg or a coffee bean? The happiest of people don’t necessarily have the best of everything, and they just make the most of every challenge that comes their way.”

 

“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving; we get stronger and more resilient.” ― Steve Maraboli, Life, the Truth, and Being Free

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