Why is resilience so important, and how can we teach it to our children?
The statistics are alarming for parents of young children. Beyond Blue reports that in the 16-24 years age group:
- one in 16 is currently suffering from depression;
- one in 6 are experiencing an anxiety condition; and
- one in four have a mental health concern.
Suicide is the biggest killer of young Australians, higher numbers than in car accidents. Young people find coping with school, study problems and body image concerns contribute most to their high levels of stress.
Naturally, parents of children yet to reach their teens want to prevent their child becoming one of these statistics. The majority of Australian children are naturally optimistic and enjoy stable and strong connections with family, school and friends. But 21st century stress, the emotional turbulence of puberty and the demands of finding respect, love and satisfaction in their adult lives in a complicated world, can be overwhelming for many later on.
The ‘helpful thinking’ skills that promote resilience and the management of fears, anger and hurt are being taught in good schools. However, as we all know, you can be told how to do something – or what sort of thinking can make you feel better and more able to tackle life’s challenges – but if you don’t practice what you’ve learned, new habits and skills never develop. Just like piano practice!
Resilience at Home
This is where parents come in. The home is where children are more likely to express or exhibit anxious, sad and angry behaviours. If parents model resilience, being less ‘black and white’ in their thinking, or less pessimistic in outlook – accepting philosophically what can’t be changed and working to make a difference in what can be changed – their healthy outlook on life is absorbed easily by children. They look to their parents to define and explain themselves, the world and how to live in it.
Practice Good Thinking
On a daily basis, parents can seize opportunities to help their child practice ‘good thinking’. Children are more likely to go to an understanding parent rather than to a busy teacher to confide their worries and hurts. Their parents are the ones who know them best and can spot signs of tension and unhappiness even when their child is not willing or able to talk about their distress.
With teenagers and adults, practicing better thinking to help with anxiety and depression involves understanding the concept, supported by extensive research, that how we think influences feelings and behaviours. We can learn to notice the ‘toxic’ thoughts among the thousands that go through our minds each day, rate how intense our feelings are, counteract the thought or belief with more realistic and helpful cognitions, and re-rate whether changing thinking has lessened our stress, anxiety, anger or sadness.
However young children are concrete and need direct, visual experience of how thoughts and feelings are not always facts, especially if their feelings are undermining their ability to cope and problem-solve.
A Tool for Children
I have created a simple tool that can help ‘seize the moment’ when a child exhibits distress, to assist a child to identify their feelings and visually rate, with colours and numbers, the intensity of their unhappiness, fear or anger.
Parents can use the suggested questions on the reverse of the dial to canvass possible actions the child could take to reduce distress and maybe think of ways to solve the problem. The child can re-rate their feelings, which more often than not shows the child that they can cope and feel better – by asking for help; by using the self-calming strategies they have been taught; or by getting ideas from adults to help them take a different perspective – and therefore learn the power of thoughts and beliefs over our feelings.
The value of incorporating this practice into everyday life is gold. Thanks to the sophisticated techniques of neuro-imaging, neuroscientists can observe directly how our brain changes by strengthening the neural pathways involved in whatever skills we are learning and practicing. It also applies to learning the skills of resilient thinking. For children, learning a new skill is easier, more rapidly ‘encoded’ in the mind and less likely to be forgotten when practiced repeatedly, than it is when we get older … like riding a bicycle!
The benefits of practicing problem-solving skills are not just confined to teaching the lesson that better thinking leads to feeling better and therefore more useful behaviours. The attention parents give to listening non-judgementally to their child’s feelings and sharing their wisdom with them, gives their child the gift of self-efficacy (meaning “I have ability”, “I am capable”, “I can cope”, “I can find a way through my problems”).
The results will show up later on in the open communication and the connectedness, with family and community, that protects the adolescent and the emerging adult from the undoubted stressors they will encounter as they grow and emerge into independent, psychologically resilient adults.
Author: Susanne Gilmour, BA, Dip Soc. Science, Grad Dip Psychology.
Susanne Gilmour is a Registered Psychologist with nearly 20 years’ experience working with children, adolescents and their families, in addition to a background in management.
Bookings and Fees: To make an appointment with Susanne Gilmour, try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.