In recent years, the emotional wellbeing of our children has attracted increasing media attention.
It seems that hardly a week goes by without headlines reporting increasing levels of anxiety among young people, with news of long waiting lists for referrals due to mental ill health.
And if the state of our children’s wellbeing was already keeping parents up at night, the disruption to their lives of COVID-19, news of a war in Europe, and an escalating cost-of-living crisis has made things even more challenging for our children.
Our young people are undoubtedly growing up in a world full of pressure, challenge and risk – but it is also a world of opportunity and potential. As parents, we want them to navigate that world with confidence and hope, and a key way in which we can do this is to help build emotional resilience in their lives.
Resilient children tend to be more optimistic and motivated, think more creatively, develop strategies for problem-solving, enjoy good friendships, communicate well and have higher self-esteem. Psychologists used to define emotional resilience as ‘the ability to bounce back’ and recover from a setback in life, but today, they say that rather than just ‘bouncing back’, it’s also about ‘bouncing forward’. In other words, it’s about not only getting back to normal after facing difficulty, but learning from the process in order to deal with the next challenge that comes along.
While resilience used to be thought of as a characteristic that you were born with (or not), professionals now view it as a skill that can be learnt. Clinical psychologist Meg Jay likes to describe resilience as a heroic struggle: ‘It’s really a battle … an ongoing process that can last for years … [it’s] not a trait. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s not something you just have.’1
As parents, we have a wonderful opportunity to teach this important quality to our children right in the everyday ups and downs of family life.
Here are some of my top practical tips:
- Don’t try to fix everything. Give children a chance to find their own solutions to minor problems and frustrations without immediately rushing in to rescue them. And as long as it’s safe, let your child experience the outcome of an action or behaviour. If they forget their sports kit, missing the match will teach them more than you frantically driving across town with it.
- Help your child to take responsibility for a setback. When something doesn’t work out for them, draw up a pie chart with them and ask them to decide: How much was due to me? How much was due to someone else? How much was simply due to circumstances – for example, not having an essential piece of equipment or being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
- Remember that important word ‘yet’. Reassure your child that not being able to do something now doesn’t mean they’ll never be able to do it or that they’re a failure. When faced with a difficult task we often hear the refrain, ‘Mum, Dad, I can’t do it!’. Adding one little word can change everything. ‘You can’t do it … yet’ communicates possibility and the sense that the only thing standing between them and what they want to do is time and practice.
- Remind them of past successes. Children can very quickly become discouraged about their ability to do new things, so take time to give them clear examples of where their hard work and patience led to success.
- Affirm your child’s efforts and good qualities. Don’t limit praise to successes or achievements; recognise character and effort. For example, ‘You were so kind to that new boy in school/ so brave to stand up for X when they were being bullied.’ Or ‘I noticed how hard you worked for that exam /persevered with that new game/ kept trying to build that model.’ Affirmations for character and effort as well as achievement are important for building their wellbeing and self-esteem.
- Talk to your children about your own failures. When we are open about our failures, they learn that it isn’t the end of the world and that being an adult doesn’t mean you always get everything right.
- Remember we are role models in the way we look after our own mental wellbeing. Our children will take their cue from us and it’s important to take time to look after our own needs.
Of course, we want to protect our children and want their lives to be as stress-free as possible, but the reality is that they’ll experience knocks and setbacks every day. They are unlikely to pass every test, win every match, or succeed in every job interview, and the course of true love never did run smooth. We can’t and shouldn’t remove all the challenges, but we can help them see challenge and disappointment as part of everyday life, and pass on skills to help them cope with stress and adversity.
Whether it’s a seven-year old dealing with the frustration of a difficult LEGO® brick project, a twelve-year old whose much loved guinea pig has died, or a fifteen-year old who has just missed out on the lead part in the school play, emotional resilience is key. It’s the lessons our children learn through struggle and disappointment that will be the seedbed for growing that important quality in their lives, and which will set them up for a lifetime of dealing well with whatever challenges are thrown their way.
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