Our children are experiencing a time in history that none of us can say we have ever been through, so they could potentially be exposed to stressful and highly emotional situations. Building resilience within your children to be able to cope with these situations now will not only help your whole family get through but also set them up to experience lower levels of mental illness, be happier and enjoy life successes in their future.
Here are some simple steps to help nurture and develop resilience in your children.
It is natural for parents to want to keep their kids safe and we are in a world where there have been so many advances in children’s toys and play areas that a lot of risk is eliminated. So it is more important to find ways for children to take healthy risks and push beyond their comfort zone. Examples include trying a new sport, participating in the school play, or starting a conversation with a new friend. When you let them know that the courage they show in doing something brave and difficult is more important than the outcome it encourages them to think about their decisions, and teaches them that they can cope with the things that go wrong.
We’ve all been there. Your child comes to you with a problem or a question and your natural response to fix the problem or answer the question. However, before you do that, think about questions you can ask back that helps the child think through the issue and come up with solutions. They’ll experience a feeling of satisfaction and strength realising that they can work these ‘hard’ things out. This sense of ‘mastery’ will mean they will be less likely to be reactive to future stress and more likely to handle future challenges. Of course, sometimes providing the answers 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.
Avoiding failure often leads to highly anxious kids who lack resilience. When focusing on the end results, kids can get caught up in the cycle that tells them they either succeed or they don’t, leading them to avoid risk. Embracing mistakes helps promote a growth mindset and gives kids the message that mistakes help them learn. To help encourage this thinking, talk about a mistake you made and how you recovered from it. Then talk through their mistakes when they happen and ask them to identify the lessons they can learn from it. The ability to reframe mistakes in ways that feel less threatening is linked to resilience. Research has found that children who have a growth mindset are more likely to show resilience when things get tough.
We live in a world where businesses have been established due to our need for instant gratification – think Spotify, Netflix, Uber Eats. However, resilience means understanding you can’t always have what you want as soon as you want it. Psychology teaches us that people who can accept delayed gratification lead happier, healthier lives. Without this ability to defer pleasure and reward, our kids are losing an important skill for their wellbeing.
One of the best ways to teach it? Playing board games. These require impulse control, turn-taking, and mental flexibility. They exercise the rational part of the brain involved in decision-making, emotional regulation and resilience. Board games are also a good way for you to model resilience by being a good loser. But there are no shortage of other ways to encourage delayed gratification: learning a musical instrument; listening to whole albums instead of skipping from track to track online; mastering a new sport; even watching a TV series together week by week, instead of bingeing in a couple of sittings or plant a garden from seedlings.
We know that children learn through modelling, so it should be no surprise that one of the best ways to teach resiliency is to model it. We all encounter stressful situations so as you do, use your coping and calming strategies - deep breathing can be an effective way to work through stress. Always label your emotions and talk through your problem-solving process. 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.
Exercise does wonders to our body and mind and making your children more resilient to stress and adversity is one of those wondrous things. What exercise does specifically is strengthens and reorganises the brain by increasing the neurochemicals that can calm the brain in times of stress. Anything that gets kids moving is great, but of course, if you can making it fun is always going to make it easier to get them involved! It can be a lot of fun to do this together, kids will often do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to.
Here are some ideas, but get them thinking and they’ll have plenty of their own:
For a similar reason as exercise, nutrition plays significant role in mental health. Specifically, good-quality food changes the composition of our gut bugs, which helps send calm signals to the brain. Poor-quality, highly processed food sends stress signals instead. A diverse diet, rich in fibre, will lead to greater diversity in our gut bugs, which in turn will help make us more resilient, and anxiety and depression less likely. Persuading kids to eat more healthily can feel like an uphill battle, so try to find ways to make eating healthy a little bit fun.
Kids develop coping skills within the context of caring relationships, so it’s important to spend one-on-one time with them. This means putting down the smart phone and giving you child undivided attention. When kids know they have the unconditional support of a parent, family member, or even a teacher, they feel empowered to seek guidance and make attempts to work through difficult situations. 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.
Deep breathing exercises help kids relax and calm themselves when they experience stress or frustration. This enables them to remain calm and process the situation clearly.
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.
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. If you have your child has a tendency to have a more pessimistic view on life, 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. The idea is to focus on what is left, rather than what has been lost.
This world of parenting is hard and we can get caught up in all the dos and don’ts, so above all else on this list, the best thing you can do for your child is provide structure, give them your time and show them love.