7 Ways to Teach our Kids Resilience

image1We can’t change the fact that our children will face certain challenges in life, and we also can’t protect them from every little bump they’ll experience along the way (even though we might want to). With our increased sense of wanting to protect our young ones from life’s growing stressors, we are also seeing a spike in children who develop mental health issues such as generalized anxiety and depression.

(NOTE: This does not include the concerning rate of children being misdiagnosed at the first sign of ‘abnormal behavior’.. which, if you ask me, is a problem i itself and could use it’s own blog post …but later). I’m referring to how we are starting to see more and more children significantly struggling to cope when life doesn’t go their way.

Just like adults, children need an outlet to vent any frustration, anger or sadness (which often comes in the form of a lovely tantrum…. usually in the middle of a busy supermarket 😉  Of course, these are just part of the joys of parenthood, and take on various forms well into adolescence.  There’s nothing to worry about when your child ‘cracks it’ once in a while. But when significant reactions  immediately impact their lives, such as generalized anxiety, panic attacks, severe low self esteem, unrealistic expectations and in some cases even self-harming, it becomes hard to ignore.

Of course, as parents, we don’t want to create these ‘special snowflakes’ that feel like the world owes them and can’t handle negative feedback or hurdles that stand in their way. However, with the increasing urge to micro-manage children’s lives and to ‘protect’ them from common life challenges such as conflict, loss, rejection, failure and change; some parents unintentionally engineer such an outcome according to US clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel. 

She suggests that some parents coddle their children too much, which prevents them from learning from these experiences. “They need to learn from a shallow best friend, an uninspired teacher, or a bad situation. They need to learn these things without us interfering” (Mogel).

Kicking a young child out of the nest and letting them fend for themselves is not necessary, however, helping them build resilience will aid them in managing difficult situations later in life. Resilience is something they can learn and grow from as they develop a certain set of skills that help them tackle the ups and downs in life.

So instead of overprotecting them, or leaving them to fight their own battles, how do we find a balanced way to teach resiliency skills? Below are some suggestions taken from various research articles that have proven to be quite effective.

1. Let them struggle

While your help is much appreciated, it is equally important to let children feel frustrated, so they will attempt to find different solutions to the problem. This can range from your 4 year old’s irritation at her Lego blocks ,because she can’t find the piece that fits: to the university student who can’t handle living on their own because they’ve never had to manage any roadblocks in life before. Let your child find their own way to manage a difficult situation (even if you have the answer ready for them) and be there as their guide rather than doing the job for them. My mother once said ‘sometimes you need to watch your child fall down and scrape their knee so they learn to be more careful next time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be there to help you back up again’ which really stuck by me.

2. Challenge Negativity 

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that most of us, during our teens, have used the expression ‘this is ruining my life’ at least once. Children (and teenagers in particular) tend to amplify certain setbacks they experience, as they don’t fully understand yet what is happening to them or how to deal with it. Setbacks that might appear minor to us (such as a fight with a friend or missing out on joining a team) might feel like it’s the end of the world as they know it. It’s important not to feed into that and join the drama party, nor can we minimize or push aside what they are experiencing. Ask your child if this one event needs to effect the rest of their day/week/month. Problem solving starts with going through the options, help them take a step back and put things in perspective. Allow them to experience and feel the negativity whilst averting them from being completely swallowed up by it.

3. Take on the ‘big family mindset’ 

Today, the average family consists of one or two children and it’s affecting our parenting style, says columnist Julie Beun. In larger families, parents tend to be more of a facilitator than a micro-manager. The children get more of a chance to be independent problem solvers as they help raise their siblings, get themselves dressed in the morning and eat breakfast. In smaller families, the parents tend to ‘take care of everything’, and although this may make things run smoother, it doesn’t always work in our favor. We need to learn how to take a step back and let our children figure it out (no matter how frustrating it may be waiting around for them to zip up their jacket or put the shoe on the right foot… our time constraints should not get in the way of our child learning how to take care of the little things).

4. When at first they don’t succeed, get back up again 

Like the age old adult expression “sh*it happens” it’s ok to tell our children that mistakes happen (perhaps substitute the word “sh*t” for the time being though 😉  Hall says, we need to tell them it’s ok to make mistakes because it gives us a chance to learn from them. Together with our children, we can ask them what we learnt from our mistakes and how we would do things differently. With smaller children, an in-depth analytical approach might be a bit too much, but a simple “oops, I made a mistake, I will do this to fix it’ could work just fine in showing them how to cope with mistakes and set backs.

5. Confidence in their Competence 

A child’s confidence stems from their competence, and their competences are excelled by their confidence. Focusing on your child’s qualities as well as recognizing their mistakes and how they handled them are a great first step. Comparing them to others (siblings, peers, etc) might create unnecessary competition, rather than showing that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes, the desire to protect our children might give them the (unintended) impression that we don’t think they have what it takes to tackle an issue head on, hence trying to empower them to make decisions of their own lets us be there as their guide rather than their carer. In saying that, it’s also important to not push our children to take on things they can’t realistically handle just yet.

6. Being part of a community 

Being resilient is also about knowing and understanding our place in the bigger scheme of things, and that not everything is always handed to us on a silver platter. Having our children do small chores can be a great example of developing this sense of being part of something bigger, being part of a team (and also shows that we often have to work to get things done). Children first learn their contribution counts by doing household chores (young children could feed the dog or put things in the trash , whereas older children can help clean a room or do laundry). It can help them with their problem solving and self regulation says Hall.

7. Teach them how to calm themselves 

When children get upset (especially younger children) it’s easy for a small upset to turn into a full blown epic tantrum. That’s because they don’t know how else to express their anger/sadness/frustration just yet. Reasoning with an upset, young child might not be as easy as trying to reason with an adult. Rather, teach them easy and realistic ways to calm themselves down first, before taking a closer look at what upset them. One of the more popular ways to calm ourselves down (in both children and adults alike) is taking a few deep breaths, breathing into our nose and out of our mouth. This can be easily taught to a small child and done together if they need you there to guide them. Another way to try and help a child bring themselves down from an upset is to count to twenty (or however high they can count) allowing them to shift focus to the task at hand instead of the stressor that upset them in the first place (they essentially break the cycle and engage their brain). Once they have managed to calm themselves down, they have now acquired a new skill that will also help them to reflect instead of react.

8. Discipline is about Teaching, not Controlling or Punishing

Sometimes, when I say we ‘discipline’ our children, people tend to jump to the conclusion that discipline means to control or punish them. I strongly disagree with that stereotype, as disciplining needs to be seen as teaching a child (which can be done without control or punishment). Using discipline to help your child understand that their actions result in certain consequences, could help them understand that they also have the ability to bounce back from a setback.
Dr. Ginsburg summarizes what we know for sure about the development in resilience in children, which is that our children need to know that there is an adult in their life (mother, father, stepparent, grandparent, you name it) who believes in them and loves them unconditionally.
Stress is a part of life, and an important tool in our survival. Resilience is the set of skills that develops a positive and proactive attitude towards stress, and helps us deal with stress, which greatly impact how it affects us. We can grow and encourage  resilience in our children by participating in their self development, role modeling resiliency and most importantly supporting them unconditionally. Being there for them, no matter what, gives them a solid foundation they can bounce back on when their worlds feels like it’s falling apart. Eventually, they will learn that they can create and grow such a foundation for themselves
Advertisements

Developing an Emotional Toolbox: How to help you and your child manage high emotions

From an early age, children understand the concept of a ‘toolbox’ and that it contains a variety of tools that are there to repair a machine or help fix a household problem. The idea of an ‘Emotional Toolbox’ (developed by Tony Attwood, PhD) is to develop different types of ‘tools’ that will help with the struggles associated with negative emotions (for example: anxiety, anger, depression, etc).  Over the many years working as a child psychologist, I have found it to be extremely helpful for just about anyone (not just young children) struggling with managing their emotions…

The initial idea of the Emotional Toolbox was linked to successful strategies in the treatment of anxiety and anger in children with Asperger’s syndrome (Sofronoff et al 2005/2007). Like any household toolbox, the tools are divided into different categories : physical, relaxation, thinking, social, special and inappropriate tools. Each category has tools that quickly and effectively reduce emotional energy, and promote thinking.

As a therapist,  I work with children/adults and their family, to develop personalized tools that can help manage their negative emotions, as well as look at some ‘inappropriate’ tools that, for them, possibly makes the emotions worse.

Today, I would like to share with you the basic template of developing an emotional toolbox together with your child. (*PLEASE NOTE: This is just a template to help you get started at home and not equivalent to a therapeutic session. Any ongoing concerns you may have for your child should be followed up through professional psychological intervention)

With your child, set some time aside where you can uninterruptedly brainstorm and work together on creating their own set of tools and activities that can help them manage their negative emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Below you can find the different categories and a brief explanation, as well as a sample template, to get you started…

Physical Tools

This category represents tools or actions that release emotional energy through a physical activity. Choose a ‘logo’ that symbolized physical activity for them (for example, sneakers, a soccer ball, etc). Then, with your child, discuss which physical actions could help them ‘release’ their excess energy at the time and when this tool could be best implemented (remember, playing soccer might be a very helpful tool to calm them down, but will not be useful at night just before bedtime).

Relaxation Tools

Just as it sounds, relaxation tools are there to help them calm their body and mind through mediation-related actions. This can include reading a book, taking some time-out and listening to music, and the most effective form of relaxation…breathing techniques. Breathing techniques can be practiced together for your child to understand how they work and the benefits as they feel their heart rate slow down and their body relax. Again, choose a logo that will help them identify with this type of tool (for example, a flower, the sun, a book, etc)

Social Tools

Social tools include the involvement of your child’s support network. That can be their immediate family, school staff, friends etc. The social tool requires them to enlist someone from their support network to help them manage a stressor, this can include asking mom for a hug, talking to their teacher about a problem at school, or asking a friend to play or sit with them. A logo I found useful is the outline of their hand (where each finger signifies a person in their support network).

Thinking Tools

Thinking tools focus on helping them understand and rationalize their behavior when dealing with negative emotions. Have them write down what is happening at the time, using three columns: 1. What am I feeling 2. What was I doing before I started feeling this way 3. Which tool can I use to help me work through this feeling until I feel better? Some children respond well to having their very own notebook (which can be decorated as they see fit) to help them take notes and track their progress.

Special Tools

Some children might have a special interest that takes up a lot of their time, or a special toy (for younger children). This can be placed in any of the above categories, however, some children like to have an ‘extra’ tool for the things they hold ‘extra’ dear.

Inappropriate Tools

It is also important to identify the tools they use that have proven to be unsuccessful and aggravate the situation (for example, hitting someone, breaking property, hurting themselves etc). Once you have, together, established these tools, write them down in their toolbox and draw a big red line through them. This helps your child understand that these tools are not helpful and puts focus on the other, more useful, tools around that they have created for themselves.

Important Notes:

  • Help your child understand that they have developed a variety of tools to deal with different situation and locations, and it is up to them to choose a tool that works best at the time.
  • Mastering their toolbox effectively will take time and practice. Just like learning any new skill, the more they practice and evaluate their progress (with your help), the easier managing their emotions will become overtime…but this does not happen overnight !!
  • Allow room for error.. just like adults, they are bound to slip up once in a while. Take the opportunity to reflect and evaluate and look at how it could be done better next time ..
  • Managing negative emotions does not mean suppressing negative emotions. Your child needs to know they are absolutely allowed to feel these feelings and find helpful ways to work through them rather than ignore them and act out.
  • Sometimes, some tools might need some tweaking or new tools are developed as their needs and interests change and grow constantly.

I hope this template helps you get started….. Once you have created the Emotional Toolbox (this can be a piece of paper, an index card etc) it is useful to display it somewhere your child can easily access it (for example, the fridge door). Whenever they feel overwhelmed, help draw their attention to the toolbox and together discuss which tool would work best for them at the time… (depending on your child’s emotional management outside the home, sometimes having a replica of their toolbox at school/nanny/etc can help them practice further).

As mentioned earlier, any significant, ongoing concerns you may have are always best followed up through professional intervention..

pictoolbox