4 concrete steps to build resilience in children, according to science

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Dr Valerie Jaques, a pioneering Malaysian psychologist with a therapeutic clinical and community practice who is also the founder of the Integrated Psychology Network, shares her insights on how to raise resilient children.

The natural development of a child from birth presents the innate ability of a child to roll over, bend his knee, crawl, stand up and walk. None of these are taught, but a child naturally grows into these developmental milestones using their five senses and instinctual survival mechanism. As such, each time the child falls they try again and again until they get it right which leads to the achievement of these developmental milestones. Building resilience in children is about enhancing the ability to bounce back in the face of adversity and not getting stuck in the problem situation.

By the age of five, children have already been shaped by their environment to be compliant. Depending on the approach taken by a child’s caregivers and the behaviours and attitudes modelled by parents, the child at five to seven years old is almost a product of their environment.

In Malaysia, most children at this age have been in a preschool or kindergarten being taught to colour inside the lines, keep quiet, be obedient, finish homework, stay indoors and do as one is told. They are taught to listen more than to speak.

At the same time, many children have access to computer games that keep them occupied and busy. Helicopter parents are always checking on the child and ensuring he or she is kept busy doing something. And so, children become less expressive and live lives that ensure the expectations of the adults around them are met. No space for the child to do nothing, dream dreams, and just be.

Children who follow instructions tend to be not resourceful in getting out there to find the answers they need. They are so used to parents doing everything for them that they lack the motivation to be self-reliant. They may also lack the daringness required to explore uncharted territories, a quality which may be necessary to help them out of  difficult situations. Without these traits, children are not able to embrace challenges when they grow up.

So, if you are interested in resilience development, here are a few things you can do as a parent.

4 Concrete Steps to Build Resilience in Children

resilience in children

1. Encourage Creative Problem Solving

Creative problem solving helps develop the cognitive ability to find alternatives. Imaginative play is a key to developing a creative mind. It is important to allow children the space to imagine possible outcomes in a given situation.

Despite their overwhelming popularity these days, computer games do not grow creative problem solving. They encourage repetition towards developing expertise and cognitive mastery. Children learn algorithms that lead to the solution in a game. The faster they are able to master this, the more they win. As such, they learn to solve a problem that has a defined formula which only works in the game.

Unfortunately, in human relationships, these algorithms do not necessarily work. Raising a resilient child requires children to play games with other children where there is no learned solution to winning.

In contrast, many board games and sports encourage social interaction, communication, and fun. It helps them express emotions and identify various tones of voice, including body language. And this teaches children about a multitude of possible reactions.

These activities increase the child’s ability to be flexible by encouraging trial of different options to creatively solve problems. In the long run, the child learns to adapt easily to different situations.

Creative problem solving also teaches children to be resourceful. Exposing children to different people, places and experiences encourages them to broaden their worldview.

With this, the child who needs to find an answer to a problem may explore the various resources available to him and even ask for assistance from various people. Often, parents are encouraged to introduce their children to creative therapies. This helps a child feel unafraid of exploring such support services when they are stuck in a similar situation when they are older.

Children who have been exposed to extra-curricular activities such as music, singing, art and drama, as well as children who have experienced the guidance of a therapist, are able to be resourceful in finding solutions and tend to bounce back from challenging situations.

resilience in children

2. Share Family Stories

Family stories are the DNA of family life. They help make meaning of adverse situations that give a child courage to do the same.

Many parents feel children do not understand or are not aware, and so they do not speak about their situations and explore the child’s response.

Sharing stories of what happened in the day help children to articulate and make meaning of thoughts, emotions and actions. This helps to develop objectivity and  conscious awareness. And both of these are key in making decisions to bounce back from challenging situations.

Storytelling in situations of grief and loss are important to talk about. These may range from the death of a family member to the maid leaving at the end of her contract. A child needs to talk about events that are central to their lives, such as times when a best friend moves away or how a new sibling takes away attention from the child.

Many adults talk about their observations with their spouses and friends. Children need to speak about these too, not necessarily in a logical way, but through play or looking through photographs, which often symbolises their experience. This allows the child to put words to emotions and experiences. Conscious expression can also be made concrete by drawing pictures or using toys to tell the story.

Children who do not share stories and express them verbally or creatively tend to suppress the experience into the unconscious by forgetting, which is a negative coping strategy. Sharing stories is the key to helping children embrace change instead of adopting a strategy of suppressing and forgetting.

So, when a child is sad, allow the child to be sad and talk about it. This action is making their memory active, which prevents forgetting and burying sad stories. By talking aloud with someone and expressing it through their play, children are able to find alternative ways to bounce back. Parents may want to comfort the child and let them sleep in their bed. But doing this too much only feeds the fear as the assurances given are coming from the external world which is not in the control of the child. Expressing the stories is a way to self-regulate internally that builds a stronger sense of self-reliance and esteem.

resilience in children

3. Practice Challenging Opposites

Most people tend to practice a preferred way of doing things. These preferences eventually develop into habits and routines which lead a person to be inflexible to short term adjustments or, worse still, to longer term changes.

Resilience calls for an ability to be flexible and adaptable to situations. To teach how to be flexible and step to resilience, parents can practice what is called “challenging opposites”.

Challenging opposites is about becoming aware of comfort zones or preferred ways of doing things and then doing the opposite. For example, if a child has the habit of talking very quickly about what happened in school, then challenge the child to do the opposite. Tell him speak slowly so that they learn to slow down and relax as they talk.

Teaching a child to do the opposite allows them to become flexible to adapt to different situations. In this case, speaking quickly is similar to brainstorming, which allows thoughts and ideas to be shared right away. Speaking slowly is similar to thinking aloud and listening to what is being said so as to be able to make decisions. If the child is only comfortable sharing their experiences by speaking quickly, then they will never learn how to do the opposite, forming words and thoughts deliberately. Challenging opposites can be played as a game with children to develop flexibility and adaptability. This helps them grow up more resilient.

4 concrete steps to build resilience in children, according to science

4. Be Courageous

For your child to grow up resilient, it begins with him/her being courageous and daring to explore something new. Get them out of their comfort zones by doing something different.

For example, if you are a pilot, take your child on flying trips with you so they experience what it is like to be up in the air. When they see you relaxed in this space, they too will enjoy the experience.

Outdoor adventure is another way to build courage. Teach your children to rock climb, traverse a jungle track and learn survival skills with a team of experienced and trusted people. During training they will make mistakes and need to try again until they succeed. This experience builds tenacity and grit, and parents encourage children by providing support to keep trying and persevere.

Finally, remember to be a model of resilience. As children, to some degree, are a product of their parents and caregivers, it is imperative to be aware that building resilience in children means being a resilient parent yourself.

Read more inspiring mum stories here.

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