The importance of learning resilience

We have all to one extent or another, faced difficult times, whether in our family, school or working lives. We have had to learn how to find a way through challenging times to go on with our lives. Some people, of course, manage this better than others.

Many of our children have already been through the emotional mill perhaps by not fitting in at school or feeling a failure in the eyes of others. For those young people in local authority ‘Care’, every day can be a challenge. Learning resilience does not come easy but it can, quite literally, be a life-saver.

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Over summer I attended a fantastic conference hosted by the organisation SEBDA (Social, Emotional and Behavioural Difficulties Association). SEBDA’s aim is to support those who work with vulnerable children, enabling them to provide the very best care, therapy and education.

One of the keynote speakers, Doctor Tina Rae, spoke on the subject of helping young people to learn resilience.

Most definitions of resilience refer to an individual’s ability to have a positive outcome after an adverse or difficult situation, but why do some manage this and others do not? As a Mum to two boys who have SEN and are very different from each other, I know it’s not just down to parenting style. Personality has a part in developing resilience too.

Tina said that although everyone experiences setbacks, challenges, accidents and illness in life, the way in which we deal with them can produce vastly different results.

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Children with SEN can present us with challenging behaviour. Then there are children with backgrounds that have been lacking in nurture, support and boundaries who may also exhibit difficult to manage behaviour or mental health issues. There are also children who seemingly take it all in their stride.

The incidence of mental health difficulties in children continues to rise, and, if they go unrecognised by carers and professionals involved in the child’s world they will remain unresolved and subsequently may continue into adulthood.

Denying there's a problem doesn't help either, 'helpful friends' will tell you that their child has experienced the same problems as yours, that they'll grow out of it and to stop fussing, but remember you know your child the best and if you feel things are not going right then it is probably time to get the help of a practitioner or professional (Such as your GP, Health Visitor or a teacher you know and trust at school).  I know and understand what it's like, and I wish I knew then what I know now about boosting my own children's resilience.

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Ten danger areas to be aware of

In the first instance Dr Tina Rae outlined 10 areas to be aware of when raising or teaching our young people:

  • How we treat young people – we can often treat young people like infants and if we treat them like infants, they will behave like infants. (One I have been guilty at times…)
  • Where is the spotlight – If the spotlight is continually on the young person (Think social media too with this) they will start to believe they are the centre of the world. This can limit the young person’s ability to deal effectively with small problems. Difficulties get blown out of proportion and setbacks become consuming and problematic.
  • Black and white thinking – We often think of things as one thing or another, (It’s either wrong or it’s right, which can be misleading and untrue) However, life is not like this and people are not one thing or anther, look for the grey areas.
  • Entitlement – Society can suggest that we have an entitlement, that effort and hard work are not important. This undermines resilience as it increases self-obsession.
  • Wrapping up in cotton wool – Negative experiences or setbacks for the child can be seen as unnecessary by some people. However it is important to note these experiences do build resilience. Can you think back to an event when you were a child that you were excluded from to protect you? Chances are, all it did was increase any anxiety you may have had about what was happening, it almost certainly will not have helped you understand or process what was going on.
  • Negative emotions are wrong – I would say it’s more a case of being afraid of negative emotions, yet when we avoid experiencing those emotions we, paradoxically create more of the feelings we are trying to avoid.
  • There’s no such thing as perfect – Yet we strive to create what we perceive as perfection, we compare ourselves to others which creates inadequacies, these in turn undermines resilience when we realise that perfection is not attainable. Good enough really is good enough!
  • Too much choice – This can lead to self doubt, fear of getting it wrong, becoming overwhelmed, failing to choose, regretting the choices made. These can potentially all lead to feeling down and becoming depressed.

Young people, including those with special needs, may need more support or have a different learning style, but if we do things for them we are not helping them develop to their own potential and develop their independence.

Easy to say, I realise this,  putting this into practice as a parent is a whole different story, but can be done, even the smallest of steps is progress. Of course we love and want to protect our children, but there is a difference between protecting a child from danger and shielding them from life experiences.

Helping children learn resilience

So what to do to help our youngsters deal with the additional pressures of modern life especially if they have additional needs or need more support.

  • Have high expectations – Use appropriate challenge to enable them and their ability. Expect them to reach their goals, whatever they may be!
  • Keep the focus away from self – Don’t make the child the center of the universe. Often, when there is special needs or disability, there is naturally more focus on the child due to their needs or health condition, but, don’t over focus on general everyday life, as this can undermine their well being and exaggerate minor incidents. Try to avoid allowing them to behave a certain way because of a disability, yes this is a tough one, I know
  • Failure often leads to success – Failure is OK, it is a learning opportunity and if handled sensitively can be overcome. View yourself as the role model and don’t beat yourself up if you miss an opportunity to work with failure, just being aware is a start.
  • Normalise don’t personalise – Negative experiences often leave young people thinking ‘It only happens to me’. This is untrue, help your young person see that setbacks happen to everyone and they don’t reflect badly on the individual. Talk about incidents in others lives where things have gone awry.
  • Bad feelings are normal – It is human nature to experience negative emotions such as envy, sadness, anger… its how we deal them that matters. Allow the young person having the feelings but explore them with them. In the past I have said to my children “don’t cry” when they were upset because I didn’t like to see them sad. Now I would explore the sadness, this helps the youngster deal with and accept all types emotions in the long term.
  • Bad feelings don’t last – Young people can make the assumption that bad feelings won’t go away. Remind them that the feelings will pass and they will feel OK again
  • Don’t over worry or over protect – Experiencing ups and downs build resilience, if our children are protected from ups and downs, it will limit their ability to cope or assess any risk!
  • Perfection does not exist – everybody has flaws, they really do. Its about doing the best you can, not being the best!

My aim here is to highlight how we can help our children, to give an awareness of ways to help and not dictate a ‘to do’ list.
Awareness is key to exploring that there maybe alternatives that we hadn’t thought of.
Raising children is hard, raising children with additional needs is very hard and there is no one size fits all. But above all, small steps, little and often, praise…. and don’t shield from life because experiencing life with all its imperfections, is what it's all about.

With thanks to Dr Tina Rae www.Sebda.org

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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor
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