Dr Martine Prunty
Building Resilience in Children
Updated: Sep 29, 2021
As children grow and develop, they encounter situations where they feel uncomfortable emotions such as worry, nervousness or fear. Previously I focused on practical ways to help your child with anxiety. As parents, you are the first and primary influence of their behaviour. They learn from you! So it is really important to help your children build resilience, regardless of whether anxiety is present so that they can cope with life’s inevitable challenges.
Coping skills are how we think and behave to get through difficult situations. Some skills that the educators at MSS encourage are things such as asking for help, talking with friends, problem solving and taking time out when a child needs a break. This is particularly helpful when we need to manage children’s strong emotions so that things don’t always end up escalating to a stage where we need to use consequences for unacceptable behaviour. Our aim as parents is to promote helpful thinking in our kids as this builds long term resilience.
Children’s emotions can be hard to read as they don’t always have the language to tell us how they are feeling. Often we only see the resulting behaviour, and at times (but not always) this can be misinterpreted as attention-seeking or defiance. As I mentioned in last week’s column it is important that you help your children to develop a language to communicate their feelings with you as it is the first step in learning how to ask for help and it builds emotional intelligence.
How can you help?
Listen and talk to your child. If they can’t name emotions yet, you do it for them by saying something like, “it sounds like you are worried you won’t have anyone to play with today” or, “it looks like you’re really frustrated with your brother because he keeps smashing your magnetic tile tower” (this one is particularly relevant for me in a house with 3 young boys). Give them the words as this is how they learn them.
Empathise with your child so that they learn that however they feel is normal and ok. In fact, all feelings are normal and ok (but not all behaviour is ok). You could tell them about a time when you felt similar or you could say that you would feel the same if you were in that situation. Children are less likely to tune out from what you’re about to tell them if they feel understood first.
Demonstrate and model an age-appropriate response. For example if they need to emotionally calm down you could suggest taking 5 deep breaths and do it together. If there is something that you think they should have done instead you could demonstrate this and then get them to practice for next time – show them twice, then get them to show you.
Prepare your child for any upcoming changes to their routine. Begin talking to them a few weeks before, and describe what the situation is going to look like for them, and what will be taking place. In your description use positive language and try to remind them most days until the event takes place.
Encourage help-seeking so that they can ask for help when they become overwhelmed or when challenges become complicated. Children often take matters into their own hands (for example by trying to “discipline” their sibling or friend) and this can sometimes get them into trouble. It is invaluable for a child to learn to communicate feelings of discomfort to their caregiver and to ask for help.
Problem-solve with your child by asking them what might be a more helpful thing to do if this situation ever happens again. Encourage them to think of the solution first and help them to make changes until you are both happy with it. When a problem seems too big or overwhelming, break it down into smaller steps for your child so that they are still able to reach their goal.
Encourage any attempts that your child makes to cope when difficulties arise. Children thrive on reinforcement and it is important that they get a sense of achievement even from small positive changes as this encourages them to keep going and not give up.