The theme of last week's Children's Mental Health week was Resilience and, although I've written about this subject on SNJ before, I thought it was worth revisiting because, in my view, it's extremely important. So, I've put together a guide to help and support building resilience in your son or daughter.
We all encounter difficult times throughout our lives whether at home, school or working lives. Inevitably, you come out the other side either relatively unscathed or, on occasion, with emotional scars that can stay with you for the rest of your life if not worked through. This, sadly, can start in childhood, even in otherwise functional families, caused by the emotional turmoil of not feeling they fit in at school, or feeling a failure in the eyes of others.
Understanding what resilience is and learning methods to encompass it within our daily lives can, quite literally, be a life-saver. As Mum to two boys who have SEN and are very different from each other, I know from experience that it’s not just down to parenting style. Individual personalities play a large part in successfully developing resilience too.
Resilience isn’t about not experiencing setbacks, challenges, accidents and illness in life. They happens to everyone. Resilience is all about how we deal with those challenges and come out stronger. And that's where the level of resilience can produce vastly different results from people even in the same family. While many children appear to take most things in their stride, others, especially those with special educational needs, can behave in ways that leave us, as parents, with little idea of how to help.
The media often reminds us that the incidence of mental health difficulties in children continues to rise. If they go unrecognised by carers and professionals involved in the child’s world, they will remain unresolved and subsequently may continue into adulthood, coming out in unexpected ways.
Denying there's a problem doesn't help either. Those '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 that 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 that’s like and I wish I knew then what I now know with both experience as a parent and a Degree in counselling, about boosting my own children's resilience.
Ten areas to be aware of as parents
- Relationship status: We always need to be aware of our evolving relationship with our adolescent children and young people and how we are relating them. Are we being fair or have we got caught up in a spiral of negative and unhelpful behaviour or comments? (This is SO easy to do!)
- Focus: Are we hyper-focused on our offspring? If the focus is continually on our son or daughter (also: think social media with this too), they may start to believe they are the centre of the world; the only thing that matters. It's understandable when your child has a disability, as we are keenly alert to any looming problems. But taken to the extreme, this has the potential for what might be a minor problem, to become something much bigger simply because we are focusing upon it. As a result, this can potentially limit the young person’s ability to effectively deal with small problems by themselves so issues can get blown out of proportion and setbacks become consuming and problematic.
- Prone to 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 inaccurate. Life is just not like this and people and situations are all different. If this sounds like you, try to step back and look for the grey areas.
- Sense of ‘entitlement’: Modern society, especially advertisements and the media, can make the young and inexperienced feel they're automatically entitled to have the best without understanding that effort and hard work are important. Think about how our 'selfie', self-obsessed culture can actually end up undermining resilience, making us over-reliant on the approval of others, rather than trusting our own judgement.
- Being over-protective: Have you grown to be a little too over-protective? We all want to protect our children from bad experiences (and blame ourselves if we don't succeed) However, put your 'inner critic' away. Small setbacks - and even the bigger ones - do help children learn how to cope with adversity and build resilience. Think back to a childhood event when you were excluded in order 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.
- Accidental influence: Are you unconsciously passing on the idea that negative emotions are wrong? Learning how to evaluate and deal with negative emotions and sadness is vital and children need to understand and learn to accept that sometimes you just can't fix something bad that's happened. Yet, perhaps surprisingly, when we avoid things that trigger difficult emotions in ourselves, we paradoxically create more of the feelings we are trying to avoid.
- Are you a perfectionist? What exactly is 'perfect' anyway? We often strive to create what we perceive as perfection; we compare ourselves to others, creating insecurities and these in turn undermine resilience. Understanding that perfection is itself flawed is good progress. Good enough really is good enough!
- Too much choice: Do you ever feel there's just too much choice? I think we all do at times. Too much choice can lead to self-doubt, fear of making the wrong choice, becoming overwhelmed, failing to choose or regretting the choices made. These can potentially all lead to a downward spiral of feeling sad and becoming depressed. Learn to trust your instincts and banish the 'what ifs' will make for a happier, more resilient life.
- Keeping the nest too feathered: Young people, including those with special needs, may need more support or have a different learning style, but if we constantly do things for them that they can, perhaps with some peripheral support, manage themselves, we are not helping them develop to their own potential and develop their independence. While I'm not advocating the dramatic 'fly or fall' approach of the mother bird at her brood's first flights, the more gentle principle of learning independence (as far as possible for those with severe disabilities) is a vital part of life.
I know, I know, all this is much easier to say than do! Putting this into practice as a parent is a whole different story, but it can be done and even the smallest of steps is forward 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 challenges to enable them and their ability. Expect them to reach their goals, whatever they may be.
- Keep a broad focus: Don’t make the child the centre 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. However, overly focusing on them in everyday life can undermine their well-being and exaggerate minor incidents. Where possible avoid just excusing poor or helpless behaviour because of a disability. Yes this is a tough one, I know!!
- Failure often leads to success: Failure is okay, it's a learning opportunity and if handled sensitively and constructively, can end up being a positive and strengthening experience. 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’. As adults, we know this isn't true so 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 haven’t gone to plan and yet, they got through it and even thrived!
- All feelings are normal: While it's natural to prefer the more positive emotions, it's part of life to experience negative emotions such as envy, sadness, grief, loss, anger and so on. What matters is how we deal them. Allow the young person to have those feelings and be prepared to explore these emotions with them. In the past I have said to my children, “Oh, don’t cry” when they were upset because I didn’t like to see them sad. Now, I would try to explore their sadness because this helps the youngster deal with and accept all types emotions in the long-term.
- Bad feelings don’t last: When we're in the midst of feeling bad, it's easy to assume they'll never go away. Remind them (and you) that the feelings will subside and pass and they'll feel okay and even happy again
- Don’t worry too much or over-protect: Experiencing ups and downs build resilience, it's all part of the flow of life; it's how we've got this far ourselves. If our children are protected from life's ups and downs, it will limit their ability to cope when things don't go according to plan or learn to rationally assess any risk!
- Perfection does not exist: Everyone has flaws, they really do. No one, but no one, is perfect, especially those who claim to be! It's about doing the best you can, not being the best!
I hope this provides some highlights about how we can help our children and gives an awareness of ways to help. 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, and appropriate praise. And don’t shield them from the realities of life, because experiencing our world with all its imperfections, is what it's all about.