Children’s lives don’t always go to plan. From moving house and leaving behind friends and classmates, to losing loved ones and divorce, children need to learn to cope in the face of adversity and manage change in their lives without being overwhelmed. Some children do this well and the study of such resilience has gained momentum over the last decade. What makes one child seem to take whatever life throws at her and make something positive out of it whereas another may find it almost impossible to make sense of her life and regress, or ‘go off the rails’ or suffer from a crippling emotional response to seemingly similar events?
As with most issues around mental health, there’s no clear cut answer, and whilst there does seem to be a genetic predisposition to certain character traits linked to resilience, there is also a lot we can do as parents to prepare and protect our children for those times when life doesn’t go according to plan.
Prevention is so much better than cure, especially as these life events tend to blind side us so there’s often no time to help children prepare when they need to – so it is important to adopt protective behaviours from birth. Actually, the name is misleading, over-protecting children is one of the least helpful things parents can do if they are trying to give their children the best chance of overcoming adversity. Children need to learn to deal with disappointment and accept that accidents happen if they are to grieve (be it for a life style, loved one or environment), without getting bitter and needing someone to blame.
They also need to learn that they are not the centre of the universe and things happen that they have no control over. It is important that children don’t take on any sense of blame for negative changes in their lives.
What does seem to help resilience and mental health generally is what the psychologist Julian Rotter called a person’s “locus of control”. If you are able to take responsibility for things that you can control and not try and take responsibility for things that are not within your control you are more able to accept negative events and more empowered to direct your energy towards activities where you can have a positive impact. Helping children develop the ability to assess what they can and can’t change is thought to be one of the keys to developing resilience.
Tips for helping children develop resilience and manage change.
- Give plenty of positive feedback to children on things they do well – go into detail about what it was they did that produced the desired outcome. e.g. ‘ You concentrated really hard on your home work and it look how neatly/cleverly/fully you’ve done it’.
- Give your children a healthy model to copy -take responsibility for your mistakes and let your children hear you apologise and let them see and hear you making amends.
- Don’t always look for someone to blame – accidents happen.
- Try and take a ‘glass-half-full’ approach to life and find positives out of a bad situation wherever possible.
- Keep conversations with children age-appropriate and as straight-forward as possible when talking about difficult subjects. Take your lead from them and answer questions they ask simply and honestly, but don’t over-load them with information.