Building resilience in our children and young people gives them one of the most valuable tools in their mental health toolkit
As restrictions lift, it feels as though the seas are beginning to calm after a storm that has ravaged our lives for the past 19 months. As we assess the damage, one of the biggest impacts, as we knew it would be, has been effects of the turmoil, on our children’s mental health. (See also this month’s feature on the effects of lockdown on children and their education)
Checklist spoke to therapist and counsellor, Kim Kelly and asked for her thoughts on how best to help our children face life’s post-Covid challenges and nurture their mental health. She told us that one of the greatest assets in maintaining good mental health in children and teens, is resilience.
“Resilience has been defined as “the ability of an individual to function competently in the face of adversity or stress. According to many empirical studies, resilience is positively correlated with positive indicators of mental health, such as life satisfaction, subjective well-being, and positive emotions. Resilient young people become resilient, confident adults and all the happier for it. We can support our children and teenagers to build and nurture resilience, by trying to follow these simple steps:
This is not just the love-you-to-death, you-can-do-no-wrong variety. This is the kind of unconditional love that holds your young person to account, keeps firm boundaries and lets them feel the consequences of their actions. It says: I love and support you, even when there are difficult times. I will support you to learn from difficulties and challenges, but I won’t excuse or defend poor choices or behaviour.
2. Get things wrong
Help your young person to see stuffing things up as a chance to learn and not an embarrassing, shameful thing to be avoided at all cost. We will all make mistakes. If our learnt response is shame and humiliation, we will become scared to try new things, talk to new people, dance at a party, take a risk. So, practice. Ask for the wrong drink in Costa, then correct yourself; drop your bag at the till in Boots, if you’re brave enough tuck your skirt in your knickers (not you, Dad!). Experience the discomfort and then the evidence that nothing bad really happens and your confidence and resilience will grow
3. Approach the things you fear
Anxiety is a tricky customer. When we feel fearful and anxious, everything in our body tells us to avoid that thing. We avoid it and feel better in the short term. But all we learn is that whenever we get that anxious feeling, we should avoid it and hide from it. If I feel anxious about going to a party and I stay away, I never learn that it was a great night, I have lovely friends, I can do a handstand drinking a glass of water (just me then?).
Move toward the feared thing, not away from it. Start small – if you feel anxious going into a large supermarket, start with a small shop. If you feel anxious about going to the barbers, start going when the shop is most quiet. It doesn’t matter how small the increments are, as long as you are moving toward. Make the steps small enough to be achievable, but big enough to feel challenging. No steps at all is NOT an option when growing resilience.
4. Keep boundaries
There are rules and consequences all the way through our lives and like the toddler that insists they don’t need a nappy anymore and then pees on your neighbour, adolescents will argue until they wear you down …because they know you can be worn down. See LOVE above – and love them enough to hold your boundary. Don’t argue – that’s time and breath you will never get back. Don’t over explain, this is not a debate. Be fair and reasonable but hold your line. There will be tears, but like the toddler your teenager will be all the better for having learnt the action and consequences lesson at home, rather than in the office or worse still, the police station. Remember you are only as good as the last boundary you let slide.
5. Trust them
No bubble wrap! No, “I’ll pack him a lunch or he won’t eat all day” or, “I’ll ring the teacher and tell them it’s not your fault”. Trust your young person to do the things that need to be done. Help, support and guide them, but let them do. The finest way to make a responsible individual is to treat them as such. Yes, there will be mistakes – see GET STUFF WRONG above.
Talk about their needs, not your wants. Don’t assume you know. Ask. A teenager comes in crying after an upsetting falling out with their friend. You know how it goes: you join in the criticism of the friend, say you’re relieved because you never liked them anyway and give them suggestions of three other people you know who would be a better friend for them. The teenager says, ‘All I wanted was a hug not a bloody lecture’! Then make up with the friend and accuse you of not liking their friends!
When your teen is in a fizz, ask them, what do you need? Hug? Debate? Problem solving ideas? Chocolate? In this way, we teach good communication to our youngsters. We teach them to look at and identify their needs, we give them the autonomy over their emotions and the ability to ask for the right kind of help when they need it. They will become more resilient in the face of adversity.
7. Talk about their solutions
Not your solution. Ask what would be helpful in this situation? What can I do to help? Encourage their problem-solving skills, help them to learn trust in themselves when approaching difficulties.
What we say is less important than how we listen. We have two ears and one mouth – so listen twice and speak once. That is not the same as agreeing with everything your teen says or a walk over. It is showing a willingness to hear their perspective and to value their input even if you don’t agree.
9. Do the crime, do the time
Sometimes there will be consequences and sanctions. Make sure the consequences are proportionate and fit the action. Grounding a teenager for a week because they forgot to buy milk doesn’t leave you far to go when they pinch your car keys.
That’s it! Watch a funny movie together; learn Nicki Minaj’s monster rap for their ridicule and entertainment (and your embarrassment); eat ice cream together for breakfast. In short, make opportunities to enjoy each other’s company, communicate and chat. An environment where there’s warmth, fun and love even in the hardest of times, helps us to build resilience in any storm.