Building resilience in children

Building resilience in children

By Sally Evans

The potential for happiness and greatness lies in every one of us and this is absolutely true of our young people. There is no happiness gene or success gene they are born with, so it is up to us, the adults in their lives, to help build their extraordinary potential and give them the confidence and resilience to live their best lives, whatever that means for them.

We can’t take away the challenges and troubles that life will throw at them. Indeed, why would we even want to, because these experiences are the foundation for all our learning and growth and overcoming those challenges sets us up for the future. But we can set them up with resilience and life skills so that life’s challenges make them and don’t break them.

When children are resilient, they are more curious, more adaptable and even braver about their choices. I know, and research now tells us that we can all nurture and role model this in the young people we are close to and responsible for.

When I facilitate workshops about the importance of resilience at work and at home, I focus on building some key habits that really can make a difference in our lives. And so, when I started working with young people, I started to question whether these habits would translate to them. In many cases they absolutely do.

Some habits that are crucial to building resilience are focussing on our strengths; making sure that we know what our character strengths are and how we can use them in everyday life builds our confidence and competence which form a critical element of the resilience muscle. Another is the importance of managing our negative self-talk; this is something that many young people absolutely understand and identify with.

So, what can we adults do to help young people build their resilience? Here are some thoughts based on my recent experience of working with young people:

1. Resilience is built through relationships, not independence

Anyone in the life of a child can make a difference here – family, teachers, sports coaches, neighbours – for good or for ill. Research and experience show us that self-reliance and inner grit can lead children through adversity, but it is usually the presence of a caring adult that enables a child to develop coping skills. And by ‘caring’, I mean present and responsive. The attention and active listening and engaging with a child, can help reverse the physiological changes that may be activated by stress. Listen and respond; ask ‘how’, not ‘why’; don’t react or tell.

2. Know when to try and when to ask for help

Encouraging children to adopt a growth mindset enables them to see the world and its challenges as common place – when you have a growth mindset, you see challenges as opportunities to learn and failure as part of your experience to develop. Having a fixed mindset means you feel a failure when something doesn’t go your way and stop trying.

When children are very little, they rarely question their ability to do anything and will try it all – riding a bike, climbing a high wall, banging a drum – no one has told them they can’t do it and they haven’t experienced failure yet. But as we grow and become more self-conscious, this tendency to stop trying and worry about failure becomes prevalent.

Being brave means knowing when to ask for help and this should be encouraged. But building children’s resilience is about not doing anything for them that they can reasonably do for themselves, and encouraging them to try and to see failure as all part of life’s learning. Remind them that they can do hard things; acknowledge their strengths and their effort. Don’t rush to their rescue.

3. Growing self-regulation

There is a part of the brain called executive function and its in the prefrontal cortex. It allows us to control our behaviour, such as delaying gratification and working out right from wrong and enables our working memory. We can teach children to strengthen this area simply by establishing routines; role modelling healthy social behaviour; maintaining healthy, supportive relationships around them; playing memory games; and importantly, providing opportunities for them to make their own decisions. These activities can help children learn to pause and problem solve or to keep anxiety and excitement in check.

4. Nurture optimism and learn how to reframe

Try not to create a negative atmosphere and wherever possible, view life as glass half full. Optimism has been found to be one of the key characteristics of resilient people and helping reframe negative situations is a hugely helpful habit. So, when it rains on sports day, acknowledge that its disappointing but encourage them to consider what else you can all do instead. Focus on what you have rather than what you have lost.

5. Help them manage their self-talk

Our self-talk (what we say in our heads to ourselves) is an important part of our problem-solving toolkit but so often we allow ourselves to be taken in by the negative self-talk that undermines our confidence and increases our anxiety. Help them build their belief in themselves and encourage them to create some alternative talk in their heads, such as ‘I know this is hard, but I'll keep trying’; ‘I just haven’t learned how to do it…yet’; ‘most things are hard first time, how can I get better’; ‘I’m good at x, so I can be good at y too’.

And finally, role model resilience!

Let them see how you handle disappointment (so long as its in a helpful way!). Help them see that being sad, being stuck, being disappointed or failing at something is all a very normal part of being human and doesn’t mean we are weak, or a failure or stupid. Resilience is all about getting back up again when we fall down and bouncing back from disappointment. The key is to respect those feelings and emotions we experience, and learn how to manage them, so they don’t manage us as we grow.

Oh and finally, love them unconditionally. But I think you already knew that, or you wouldn’t have read this far!

Sally is the Founder of LifeBuddy. She is an Organisational Development consultant and is a Practitioner with the Association for Business Psychology.