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Raising resilient children

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What is resilience, why does it matter and how can parents help?

Information and advice from Dr Raphael Kelvin, National Clinical Lead for MindEd. Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.MindEd logo

We all want our children to grow up well and to become the best people they can be. We also know that whatever we do, however protective we are of them life will throw its slings and arrows, bad things happen and life’s road can be rocky.

Why do some people and children manage better during hard times than others? This is especially true as children pass through what we call life transitions, like changing schools, parental separation, changing to college or leaving home. But is equally true when friendship difficulties occur or they experience bullying, failures, losses or indeed bereavement.

What can we as parents do to help our children grow up to have this thing called resilience? Resilience helps them stay on track when life events might otherwise knock them off. Having more resilience helps children cope and contributes to their self-confidence. It reinforces their self belief and confidence that they will be ok, and indeed that they will flourish.

What is resilience?

It’s the result of a highly interactive process, between your child’s individual characteristics and their environment, their world in which they are growing up. (Shonkoff, 2017)

Resilience is about the counterbalancing of difficult things that can exist in your child’s life with positive things. These positive things come from their key relationships in your family, their friends and their community. Lets explore that further. We need a better understanding of what it is. Most importantly we need to know what steps, as parents, we can take to
bolster it.

What does science tell us about resilience?

Science tells us that some children are born with tendencies that may make positive outcomes more likely. Other children are born with tendencies that make negative outcomes more likely.

However, it is the experiences of our lives that shift the balance. This is crucial. How we are nurtured and what we experience, ‘events’ in our lives and relationships are so important.

Life experiences will either shift the balance further towards positive outcomes or further towards negative outcomes for our children.

What are these life experiences?

Well, they include everything our child encounters, physical as well as psychological experiences. That means diet, food, pollutants, chemicals, physical health or illnesses, failures and successes, relationships and all the joys and pains that can come from relationships. All have an impact.

How do life experiences have an impact?

Our child’s genes, brains and body systems turn up or turn down our bodily responses to experience of life. Our genes produce chemicals and signals that affect our child’s developing mind too. These chemicals and the circuits in our brain and body govern our response to life stress and difficulties as well life’s positive experiences.

For example stress can lead to release of cortisol. Cortisol has many complex effects on the mind and body. Cortisol affects genes in our body, including some in our immune systems. This leads to further effects for example on inflammation. It can also affect our biorhythms like sleep patterns. And sleep patterns can affect our cortisol levels!

Life Experiences include life both inside the family and the community

Resilience is best understood as coming out of relationships. Relationships in turn have the best chances of being positive when families, communities and governments work together with this aim. That means positive social and physical infrastructures and opportunities that support good relationships.

Why does having resilience matter?

It follows from what I have said so far, that having resilience or having more resilience is a generally good thing. It means that we are stronger when facing stress, difficulties and challenges, and more able to cope, and indeed, to flourish.

So what should we do to help our children’s resilience and support growth in their confidence?

What can parents do to help?

The key active ingredient to building resilience and confidence is the sum of the relationships your child has with those closest to them.

The people who care, of course include parents and families. But do not forget it also includes friends, community leaders, sports coaches, teachers, mentors etc.

However some economic circumstances can make that more difficult and so it’s important that basic economic and physical needs are also met, for example a safe healthy home, neighbourhood, transport and so forth.

It’s also crucial to remember that psychological wellbeing is closely linked to physical wellbeing. A good varied healthy diet, exercise, fitness, and healthy lifestyle choices are vital. This must not be underestimated. We are what we eat. Foodstuffs and exercise are likely to matter much more even, than we are currently aware of, in our wellbeing including mental wellbeing.

As a community we all need to support each other to build the most child and family friendly environment possible. One that makes it most possible for parents, carers, teachers and all adults involved in your child’s life to deliver the supports that your child needs to grow up strong and resilient to all that life can throw at them. This includes good childcare, integrated opportunities for adults like good transport systems, support for parents in parenting, effective and nurturing schools. It also includes local community hubs, networks, parks and green spaces for wellbeing, exercise and being together, sports and exercise opportunities like safe cycle networks.

Relationships are critical in resilience

Good relationships open the doorway; they are the gateway for your child to learn all the many important skills they will need to be stronger.

The skills your child needs include emotional skills, as well as practical life skills.

They need a full ‘toolkit’ of skills and knowledge to be able to draw on the right tools at the right time. Having a growing toolkit will give your child the confidence they need to tackle the challenges they will face. The confidence to be, who they can be. To chase their aspirations, and work to fulfil their hopes.

So if relationships are the gateway to resilience then what is key in these relationships? Where children are concerned, and indeed us adults too, they need to be:
(adapted from Dr Siegal)

1. Seen. Listen with true honest feelings, and intent. So that the child feels that you “understood” or “you really got me”. They should be helped to feel this as well as to know it. Be mindful to help you tune in to them. Talk with children, not at children.

2. Safe. Avoid actions and ways of being that may frighten or could even hurt your child. Be aware of how we appear, our non-verbal communication matters greatly to children.

3. Soothed. Children need help to deal, positively, with difficult feelings and difficult situations, help to calm down and get over being upset. This helps them move on to the next thing and helps them learn how to look after their own feelings later in life.

4. Secure. Your child needs to develop an internal sense of wellbeing, more and more independent of you as they grow older in stages. They need you to support them exploring, watching over them and helping them explore new experiences. To share and enjoy these, but also to then welcome them back and protect them when things get difficult.

This helps your child get more confident and develop self-control of feelings in challenging as well as positive or exciting situations. That increases their belief in their ability to do things and to cope. That increases resilience and confidence.

An image that helps them remember these cycles is of you and home being a ‘safe base’ to explore outwards from and a ‘safe haven’ to return to.

So try to protect, comfort, and delight in your child’s new experiences. Very importantly, help them to organise or to make sense of, naming their feelings, good and bad. A bit like putting humpty dumpty back together again.

What else matters in resilience?

Teach children what they need to know. Parenting is of course critically important but as we shall see its not the only important influence. So lets start with some key parenting tips linked with growing up more resilient.

KCFC: Be Kind and Clear, be Firm and Consistent

Being told off may stop behaviour and that may be important at certain moments. BUT it does not teach the child what they should actually be doing. So if you are going to use a reprimand or a telling off, be sure to know and be sure to teach your child what the wanted behaviour or thing is.

What is it that you want them to learn to do? Make that very simply clear:

  • What should they learn from this
  • Why should they learn this, and
  • How should they learn this

Remember also to acknowledge when you get it wrong to your child, it happens to us all, say sorry, apologise and move on. They will learn so much from you doing this.

Children learn most from our actions not our words alone. ‘Walk the talk’ as they say. Remember also, as has been said, ‘hurt people, hurt people’ (after Schauss).

Ungar, a world authority on resilience highlights how important the wider community and culture is to a child’s developing resilience (2011). These days this also includes the digital world. He says there are nine things that together, support the growth of resilience. This list includes relationships and parenting as we have already discussed.

 Nine things that support resilience  What it helps
 Structure  Child's emotions and planning
 Consequences  Boundaries, limits, learning
 Parent/carer - child connections
 Opens the gateway to learning, emotional and thinking   strength
 Lots and lots of strong relationships  Adds to the parent/carer - child connection and self worth
 Powerful (positive) identity  Child's ways of thinking, their direction and sense of belonging
 Sense of control  Child's ability to cope and express themselves
 Sense of belonging / culture / sipritual / life  purpose  Child's motivations, passions, connections and sense of  purpose
  Rights and responsibilities  Natural justice and learning how to live together well
 Safety and support  Child's development and health


What skills will support resilience?

Good relationships, parenting and communities are critical. But alone they are not enough.

Your child needs to develop a whole set of tools for their resilient living toolkit. This involves their school, the wider community, home life, diet, and exercise and lifestyle choices.

I have provided two long lists as food for your thought.

Firstly: a Resilience Framework grapic created by Blackpool Council in partnership with Young Minds/ This is divided into 5 sections. It provides ideas on what to do to support five areas of life. There is some overlap with what I have already discussed:

1. Basics
2. Belonging
3. Learning
4. Coping
5. Core self

As children grow, their skills need to grow. That may be in their self-care, lifestyle choices, safety, learning, education, friendships and relationships.

The second list focuses more on psychological skills that have been linked to resilience:

  • Gratitude
  • Feeling able to make a difference
  • Having empathy
  • Having a sense of humour
  • Learning how to solve problems in tough situations
  • Learning to be more optimistic
  • Learning to be more hopeful than pessimistic
  • Having a sense that our life makes sense or can be understood
  • Learning or nurturing emotional intelligence
  • Being linked to and part of a strong sense of culture and/or identity
  • Having a good quality of life
  • Learning and being connected with other people and things that matter to you
  • Being strong and hardy enough in hard times
  • Having a network of friends and/or family to link with
  • Being able to really express who you are
  • Having a strong sense of meaning
  • Having and learning how make to a difference to things you care about, 'empowerment'
  • Having skills for coping
  • Feeling well in yourself

Finally, remember it's good relationships that accelerate learning. Then you can really help children acquire a full toolkit of resilience.

This is much easier when good support is available in the community, 'no man is an island'.

Further resources and help from MindEd

MindEd is a free website, accessible by phone, tablet or computer, funded by Government in the UK and open to all. Here you will find a wealth of high quality assured advice and learning to support you as parents

The topics have been co-created by parents with lived experience and the best professional authors in their fields. This includes topics for parents on parenting, tips for parents, parenting the child with issues, mindfulness, keeping strong (during tough times), should I be concerned?, what to do if I am concerned and what to do in a crisis.

There are also sessions on understanding and better supporting children’s digital lives, helping them to be more ‘digitally resilient’ and many more topics. Each topic has a downloadable easy read PDF.

In MindEd for Professionals and Volunteers you will find further more detailed sessions, covering all these topics and much more in over 330 sessions. You can find all aspects of child adolescent mental health, from attachment, to child and family development, to specific problems and disorders. These resources are all also free and open access. They can be very useful for young people in Years 10,11,12 and 13 who might be interested in studying psychology and mental health in the future.

Author: Dr Raphael Kelvin, Naiotnal Clinical Lead MindEd. Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist.

Reviewed: June 2018
Key points
  • Resilience helps children stay on track when life events might otherwise knock them off
  • Some children are born with tendencies that make positive outcomes more likely
  • Life experiences shift the balance towards positive or negative outcomes
  • Having more resilience means we are stronger when facing stress, difficulties and challenges
  • The skills your child needs include emotional skills, as well as practical life skills
  • As children grow their skills need to grow too
  • Parents can help children acquire a full resilience toolkit

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