Building Resilience in Children and Young People

Psychologist Mark Carey spoke on the subject “Building Resilience in Children and Young People” at a Parents Meeting at The School of Total Education in July 2010. The following article is adapted from Mark’s notes for the talk.

Resilience is the ability to manage life’s vicissitudes and bounce back. You could call it “Bounceability”.

Resilience doesn’t necessarily mean people won’t make mistakes, but that they won’t get stuck in those mistakes. They will bounce back.

Everyone has a tool kit of living skills that they have accumulated throughout their life. Children have an imaginary tool kit hanging off their shoulder. A simple metaphor to remember in building resilience in children is: “the more tools in their tool kit, the more resilient they will be”. How do we give children these life skills?

Resilience starts early. Little things in the early years can be very important later. The form which a parent’s love and care takes can be crucial in imparting the necessary life skills and resilience a young person has. Their sense of security and safety shapes the way they view and handle the world.

Every Baby Needs a Holding Environment

Babies soak up affection and love through their skin. Gentle touch shares the tenderness that every infant requires. Playful touch encourages joy. Holding your baby not only provides pleasure and reassurance, it is essential in helping to soothe and organise difficult feelings.

The little things are often the big things later. A baby who is soothed often and quickly when distressed tends to become self-soothing as a toddler.

Whenever Possible, Follow Your Child’s Lead

Security of attachment requires a caregiver who is sensitive and responsive to her/his child’s needs. Your willingness to answer subtle requests for attention, comfort, holding, exploration and discovery (with you nearby) will provide an increased sense of security for your child.

Children who have been able to play freely in the natural world with little parental supervision often tend to have stronger “seeking” or enquiring thinking patterns as an adult than children who have largely experienced structured or adult-lead play.

Talk Out Loud about Feelings

From your child’s earliest days, talking out loud about feelings (your child’s and your own) will begin to help your child to label feelings and realise that they can be shared. As your child gets older, she/he will realise that intense feelings can be named (mad, sad, glad, and afraid) and discussed with another person, thus ending a need to act them out.

Young children need help to manage strong negative feelings and learn how to communicate their needs to significant adults.

Stay With Your Child During Difficult Feelings

Young children often have upset feelings (anger, hurt, sadness, fear) that are too difficult to manage on their own. When your child has an intense feeling, stay with her/him until the feeling has been worked through. Your child will be learning basic trust: “Someone is here with me when I am in difficulty and pain,” and “I can count on a good outcome to follow a difficult experience.”

Children need to experience disappointment, challenge, failure and boundaries to fully develop the interpersonal and personal skills that allow people to live in society. They also need to have a voice, and age-dependent moments of autonomy where they get to have a sense of control over their life. However, too much of this will lead to overindulgent, permissive and unpleasantly challenging behaviour that will create conflict and distress.

Mistakes Happen (You Only Need to be “Good Enough”)

Perfection is impossible in parenting and in life. A child who knows that everyone in the family makes mistakes, and that they will eventually be worked out, will feel more secure than a child who thinks everything has to be right the first time. They are then going to have realistic expectations of themselves and others.

Help your child to accept that failure happens and talk with them about ways they can overcome feelings of failure and try again.

Finally memories from childhood build patterns of expectation in the brain for life. Children who have experienced repeated “magic” moments like night-time rituals of snuggling up with a book, singing songs in the car, Easter egg hunts or picking mushrooms, tend to anticipate positive and optimistic moments in life. Delight in them. Enjoy special times with them. The stronger a child’s imagination, especially under 10, the more likely they will be able to avoid depression, cynicism and criticism as adults. This is called self-generated optimism.

This is the last building block — strengthening the spirit.

Be Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind

At the heart of secure attachment is a child’s recognition that she/he has a parent who can be counted on to lovingly provide tenderness, comfort, firm guidance and protection during the inevitable difficulties of life. If the truth be told, all of us have this need some of the time, no matter what our age.

About the Author

Mark Carey is a psychologist who practises in Toowoomba and Warwick.

This article is based on a talk given to parents at The School of Total Education on 29 July 2010. (Published on web site: December 2011).