The dictionary definition for resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, to adapt well to change, and to keep going in the face of adversity, and our children are going to need it if they are to thrive in our fast changing, unpredictable world.
Mental resilience is central to children’s social, emotional, and academic success and yet, when we look at the statistics from the 2022 NHS Digital Report, it would seem to be in short supply with one in every six children aged 7-16 experiencing a probable mental health disorder, and one in four of those age 17-19.
If we are to prevent these mental health crashes and build their emotional resilience, we need to create environments which build self-esteem, self-efficacy, self-awareness, and self-management – the four key components of resilience.
Self-esteem is our core sense of having value, of being ok. If you are unsure about your child’s self-esteem, listen to how they talk to, and about themselves. Do they put themselves down or underestimate their capabilities? Do you see them avoiding challenges, or being reluctant to try new things? If so, their self-esteem needs a boost.
Self-efficacy is our confidence in our competence. It is believing that we are capable of setting and achieving tasks and goals. If self-esteem is about being, self-efficacy is about doing.
Self-awareness and self-management equal emotional intelligence (EQ) which is our ability to use our emotions to inform our thinking, and our thinking to manage our emotions, and it is worth cultivating because multiple studies show that our EQ is a far better predictor of success in all areas of life than our IQ.
So, what can we do as parents to build these skills? Here are my top six suggestions:
Every child needs and deserves to feel loved just because they exist, but if we focus on performance, the message they internalise is that they are only ok when they behave in a certain way, produce the right grades, or bring home the prizes and wins – our love is conditional, and may be withdrawn at any time.
All children are capable of amazing things, but so often we do things for them which they could easily do for themselves, and when we underestimate their capabilities, the message they get is, “I don’t think you can do this, so I am going to do it for you”. We undermine their self-efficacy. Instead, encourage them to become self-reliant. Show them how to do things, give them lots of praise for having a go, be gentle when they get things wrong, expect them to take on tasks, and ask them what you are currently doing for them that they could do for themselves.
So much human suffering stems from unhelpful thinking. When you hear them putting themselves down, or underestimating their ability, ask them what they would say to their best friend or a younger sibling and encourage them to apply the same messages to themselves. They also need to learn that what they do will influence how they feel. For example, if they are following people on social media who make them feel inferior, encourage them to find and follow at least four positive role models. As this study shows it can have long-term benefits.
It can be so hard to watch our children struggle, we love them, and we want them to be ok, but rescuing them from life’s challenges does not help them in the longer term. Instead empathise, “I can see you are finding this hard, and I am sorry, what do you think you can do to move yourself forward?” Perhaps they need to revisit a previous maths topic to build the skills they need to overcome the present challenge. Perhaps they have fallen out with a friend and don’t know what to do to rectify the situation, in which case you might say something like, “I understand why you are upset and I imagine you are worried about the school trip, what do you think you could do to sort this out?” If they have no ideas, rather than rushing in with lots of suggestions, ask them if they would like your opinion.
From time-to-time children get into trouble, and again, it can be hard to witness, but how we react will determine whether these incidents become opportunities for growth and learning or moments that blame and shame. Let them know that whilst they have made a mistake, we all make mistakes, and it is what we do next that matters. Ask them what they can do to make amends, and what they might do differently next time. If they have received a punishment from school, remember this is not a reflection on you as a parent, they have just got something wrong and they can learn from it – empathise and, once the punishment is over, encourage them to put it behind them, and move on.
Children need to learn that all emotions change, and that they all have value. Anger can lead to action, guilt is our cue to make amends, jealousy can motivate us to try harder, but if we don’t allow children to feel and express their feelings, they learn not to pay attention to the cues, and they don’t learn how to manage big feelings. Emotions get pushed down rather than moved through, which is unhelpful in the long term – suppressed anger often manifests as depression. Suppressed fear can become anxiety.
When your child is experiencing strong emotion, they need to borrow your calm. Soothe them by establishing a connection with a hug or a sympathetic gesture, then use your empathy skills to guess what they are feeling and give them the word to describe it. Dr Daniel Siegel uses the term “name it to tame it” and he describes it beautifully in this YouTube clip. Once we have named a feeling once, we are much more able to handle it when it pops up again, and so we build their emotional intelligence.
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