6 Tips for Helping Children Build Resilience
There has been a strong focus over the last few years by both educators and parents on building "resilience" in children. We all are aware of the importance of building emotional strength in our children but often lack the knowledge of how to teach these critical skills. Seeing a rise in "Helicopter Parenting" and "Click of the Button" convenience makes it all the more important to develop a strong foundation of social-emotional resilience and help children to recognise the life lessons in tough situations.
Here are a few strategies that you can use to help children build and strengthen their resilience:
Find the right time to talk:
When a child is feeling upset or in a state of emotional distress, their brain signals are closed off to words. If you jump straight to talking without soothing when a child is in an agitated state it will not get through. Even when the words are with good intent, for example... “Come and sit over here, I know this might be a bit scary for you so tell me what you like to do when you arrive in the morning, I noticed you were feeling a bit worried but it's not ok to knock over things...” - good intent but it will not get through. Talking will simply not work if the agitated child's brain has not been soothed in a sequential order.
Soothing a heightened emotional state:
Soothing starts with sensory experiences. You may already do things like using oil pastels, finger painting and sand play which is great - these types of activities will all engage their sensory systems. Try also using movement through music, rhythm and rhyme. Playing a soft rhythmic drum beat will calm an agitated state, it reaches their heart. You might have a quiet space where they can go. A tennis ball in a stocking can provide a simple rhythmic bounce from left to right when lying down. It's very grounding for children. Try facilitating some sensory experiences before talking.
Provide an environment of belonging:
When we see emotions and behaviour playing out in children, we should try to look at it through a new lens – are we going to talk to the child or are we going to do something to soothe the sensory system first? A learning environment that provides a sense of connectedness and belonging allows children to work out things for themselves and to have ideas and engage others. We should strive to model unconditional positive regard. Once we have soothed the senses we can choose our language based upon how we want children to feel. If we filter things through how we want children to feel (not what we want them to think or know or do differently) – but what we want them to feel, we can then choose our words.
Offer positive regard:
Merely preaching good habits will never lead children to learn. For example: if you have a child who gives up easily, rather than just asking them to improve or do better next time, use descriptive words to help them improve. We can give process feedback and partial acknowledgment of success. Not everything is always rosy. You might say “I can see your tower fell over at the end but look how strong your base was and look at the good ideas you had. Next time what might you do different?” It's about moving forward, not being stuck here with a fallen tower. Being realistic and authentic – this part went well and this part didn't - allows children to begin processing the experience for themselves.
Choose the right words:
Most of us have been taught this - to say to a child when they have upset someone, "look at his face, can't you see he is upset? Is that very nice to make our friends feel like that?" We have this notion that if I make a child feel bad enough about this, they won't want to do it again. But when we say these things, what will the child feel? Are we positioning them to be a victim? Will they feel shame or guilt? We just need to rephrase our words. The intention is correct however we just need to change the strategy. First, make sure the child feels safe (and in the right mind set) then begin dialog in an appropriate tone of voice using phrases like “Billy, I was listening to Tyler ask if he could play with you in the sandpit and I heard you say 'no go away'. I'm curious about what was happening? I looked at Tyler and he looked so upset, did you notice? You don't have to let everybody play with you but I'm wondering if you could have said it differently? Try using words like, I’m curious, I noticed, I’m wondering...
Provide positive or optimistic attention:
Did you know children can learn optimism? This is crucial for a resilient outlook and an ability to manage and bounce back from challenging situations. With scaffolding and modelling, positive dispositions of optimism and resilience can be fostered and taught. Therefore how we interact with children – what we notice about them, their play, their ideas and interactions, will influence their focus. A child listening to an adult with an optimistic disposition is a strong protective factor for wellbeing. We need to be mindful of whether we have a cup half full or empty outlook. Helping children have a positive or optimistic attention bias where they actively notice the good things happening and existing around them will then influence a more helpful optimistic thinking style.
Even though these strategies may require a critical self-reflection of our current approach, you will find that with some simple fine-tuning in regard to selection of words, timing of using those words and assessing your environment will make all the difference. To help children become resilient, we need to practice and ensure we are resilient ourselves.