Promoting Resilience around your child
Do you remember that day when your child first sat on the bicycle without the training wheels attached? Did you hold onto the saddle a little too long as they shouted: “Let go, let go”?
Did you overly reassure them as the blood trickled down their knee from their third fall? Or did you, heart in mouth, wait until they called you for assistance?
That first solo bicycle ride is important in the learning process. Parents cannot ride the bicycle for their children, their child must do it themselves. Parents cannot give them only theory of what to do and then walk away. They cannot pretend they will not get hurt.
Developing resilience ‘around your child’ is much like that first solo bicycle ride. Falling off is inevitable. Parents do not know when it will happen, but happen it will.
The language of developing resilience ‘around your child’, rather than developing resilience ‘in your child’ is purposeful. As a clinician I have written and taught resilience-based practice for over 15 years and I am acutely aware of some of the misconceptions that can lead to the promotion of unhealthy parenting practices in the guise of building resilience in children. Believing that resilience is a fixed personality type or even desirable as a trait needs to be regarded with some caution.
For example, some studies I came across showed that women who were judged to be resilient are at risk of suffering some of the most severe mental health breakdowns. The causal factors for this were that they had no one to turn to, did not know how to ask for help or were not readily given help because people assumed they did not need it. This is not a scenario you want to promote for your children.
So rather than thinking about resilience as an internal factor pertaining to an individual person, think about it as a set of factors existing around and within a person that they can call upon during difficult times.
The slings and arrows of life
Learning to ride that bicycle is about learning what it is like to be in balance and to be out of balance, and to make the necessary adjustments accordingly.
Learning to ride that bicycle is about learning what it is like to fall off and get back on again, and to do something differently as a result.
The lessons learnt from the bicycle are resilience training.
Promoting resilience around children means knowing that life will, to borrow Shakespeare’s words, shoot ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous misfortune’ at them. I do not think it is possible, nor does it serve your children well to shield them from all of life’s adversities.
Commensurate to their age and developmental stage, it is important that children experience life. Raising your children to know the truth of life, without being harsh, is important. For example, when my son was having one of his immunisations I told the doctor to tell him the truth – it will hurt. As the doctor told him it would hurt the three of us sang together in chorus “ouchy, ouchy, ouchy”. He was not left alone to have a needle in his arm and he was also encouraged to listen to his own pain and know he had survived it. Recently when at 17 someone betrayed him because he told the truth, I held him as he cried in anguish at the painful price of his courage. I did not criticise the other person or celebrate my son’s integrity. I allowed him to vocalise the pain and when the time is right we will look back at his learning.
As resilience exists within the pain of life, it also exists in the serendipitous moments of life. A new person coming into your child’s life, a new activity tried, a new experience met, can be turning points in a child’s life that unlock some potential within. It is vital therefore that parents do not limit their children’s access to these kernels of resilience.
Parents must resist the urge to dismiss a child’s interest in a new activity or despair that some suggested interventions will not work when things are tough. Serendipitous moments can only be measured after the fact but those moments will be lost if not embraced.
Parents as resilience mentors
As parents, it is your role to nurture and guide, to hold and protect, to provide for and to counsel. When children experience parenting that is this solid they will blossom. It is also important for parents who wish to promote resilience around their children to be comfortable with their own strengths and vulnerabilities and lead by example. Children need to see their parents do it tough but still get through, see them struggle but find solutions and at times, see them surrender with dignity to the things they cannot change. This is the best of parenting. This is life.
Igniting the potential within
A young woman I worked with, who had faced all that life could fling at her, described resilience as “Getting up in the morning when you don’t want to and believing that something or someone will be there for you”.
Her words remind me that the experience of resilience is a very personal experience. I believe for children, it is being provided with the opportunities and being able to do the very “ordinary stuff” in life. I became intrigued about how to create the ordinary – the recipe for resilience. And so I went looking for the ingredients.
Within the body of knowledge called clinical research I found the following factors associated with resilience in children:
- Above average verbal communication skills, cognitive abilities, problem solving skills
- Positive beliefs about self and the future
- Talents, hobbies, and/or special skills
- Ability to self-regulate behaviour
- Ability to ask for help from adults
- Stable, nurturing parent or care-giver and extended family
- Supportive school experiences
- Consistent family environment, such as family traditions, rituals, and/or structures/routines.
- Strong cultural connections and cultural identity
This is a very doable list for every child and every family. Not all factors have to be present at all times. As long as parents believe in the potential within each of their children, do not despair at the challenges that lie ahead for their children, and support the existence of the resilience factors above, then the resilience factors that exist around a child will be absorbed into their being, and the unique potential that lies within them has the greatest chance of flourishing.