05/02/2016 15:11 GMT | Updated 08/02/2016 08:59 GMT

Children's Mental Health Week: How To Help Kids Build Resilience And Cope With Life's Challenges

Parents have an innate desire to protect their child from the challenges life will throw at them.

But how can you prepare your child for the sometimes inevitable life events they might encounter, such as divorce, death or serious illness so that they have the resilience to "bounce forward"?

That's the focus for this year's Children's Mental Health Week, which runs from 8-14 February and was created by Place2Be - a national children's charity providing counselling for children in schools.

sad child

Helping build resilience in children will prepare them for life's challenges

"Resilience is made up of coping skills and all children have them, they just may not be aware of them," Dr Fiona Pienaar, Place2Be's director of clinical services told HuffPost UK Parents.

"It's helpful for them to develop an awareness of these so they grow up with a range of skills they know they've got. That underpins resilience."

What practical steps can parents take to help children develop their own coping skills before they are faced with challenging experiences?

We chatted to Dr Pienaar and Dr Harold Koplewicz, founder of the Child Mind Institute - an organisation devoted to transforming mental health care for children - to get their advice.

1. Show that seeking support is a part of life.

People who suffer from anxiety and depression can find it hard to ask for advice. Children should learn from a young age this is a part of everyday life.

"Parents should show they ask for support in everyday situations," explained Dr Pienaar.

"Even if it's a mother saying 'I'm feeling upset because my friend is ill so I'm going to phone them and have a chat' or 'I'm not feeling well so I'm going to make an appointment to go to the doctors'.

"I can't stress enough that it's important children feel it's a part of their resilience that they know who they can seek support from."

Dr Pienaar said parents should make their children aware of the range of support they have around them, whether that be a neighbour, aunt or other caregiver.

"Then if they tell you they've had a rough day at school, you can say 'who did you talk to about that?' and show we all need to be connected."

Dr Harold Koplewicz said research on resilience shows that the support of communities has the greatest effect on children’s ability to cope with upsets in life.

"Communities include parents, siblings, teachers, friends and other peers who share the same experience," he explained.

"If a child has a robust connection to her community that she can leverage in times of stress — particularly making contact with peers who have shared experience — that makes a huge difference in terms of her ability to respond in a healthy way.

"The most important thing is to teach children to interact and draw comfort and support from the community."

2. Give them age-appropriate freedoms.

It's important to allow children to learn from their own mistakes and begin to build a sense of independence.

Dr Koplewicz calls this "cultivating grit".

"Grit is a quality that includes persevering in the face of adversity, being optimistic, and setting and accomplishing long-term goals," he explained.

"Cultivating grit starts with the mindset and attitudes of parents, teachers and other caregivers.

"Parents should have a 'growth' mindset that values community and collaboration. Kids who believe they can (and should) grow are more adaptable and open-minded about life’s challenges."

sad child

Children should understand that seeking support is beneficial

Dr Pienaar agrees.

"Don't rescue them all the time," she explained. "You can gauge the situation as a parent and know they can cope with it.

"If there's someone new in the playground you could stand there and support them, or you could let them try something new and stand back, getting them to develop those social skills themselves."

Pienaar said allowing children these freedoms gives them the opportunity to try and to fail, both of which will benefit them as they get older.

But defining these freedoms can be hard, because many factors will come into play.

"It's not as simple as 'yes you can walk to school on your own because we want you to develop resilience'," explained Pienaar. "It depends on the environment you're in, the community, the culture, or their age.

"Take a jungle gym in a park for example, a two-year-old might want to play on there on their own but you wouldn't allow it, but with a five-year-old you might say 'Okay, why don't you give that a go'."

Dr Pienaar said once children begin trying new things they will gain a "sense of mastery", something that will contribute towards their resilience when they are faced with stress.

3. Be an emotional role model.

It is important to let children know it's perfectly normal to feel upset, sad or angry.

By being an "emotional" role model, you can act as an example for them by showing your child how you behave when you're feeling down.

"Saying to them 'I've had a frustrating day at work so I'm going to sit down and read the newspaper' is showing your child how you cope with the emotion of stress," Dr Pienaar explained.

"It gives them idea of how to deal with these situations."


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4. Discuss other's people's life challenges.

Children may not have experienced challenges themselves but noticing friends or children at school who are going through difficult times is a way to educate them about certain situations.

Pienaar advised not to overwhelm young children with too many details about the situation, but remember they are likely to be far more aware of what's going on than you give them credit for.

"Gauge the situation as it arrives," she explained. "If one of their friends is experiencing parents going through a divorce, you might talk to them about how difficult it has been for that friend and what they can do to help.

"Children are naturally kind, so discuss how they can help with that. Kindness and being aware of others is a part of resilience."

Dr Koplewicz said sometimes what helps the most for children is being able to help other people.

"A healthy sense of perspective isn’t easy to come by, but it can be the most important thing when life gets difficult for our kids," he said.

6. Allow downtime.

Ensure children always get downtime when they are given the option to choose what to do.

This can mean different things for different families but, Pienaar explained, children can be so busy with school and after-school clubs that having an hour where a parent asks 'what would you like to do?' will be beneficial.

"They might just want time to ride their bike, or play with a friend, or spend time with you," Pienaar said. "Spend time with them as much as you can and just listen to them.

"If this is part of what you have in your family and they know that they have regular downtime, then when there is a stressful situation to deal with, it's something they have in their repertoire of what they can do.

"It's just another coping strategy."

Dr Koplewicz agrees, explaining that ensuring downtime is part of a child's daily routine will fix the system in place if anything bad was to happen.

"Routines aren't something that parents can put in place after something bad happens and life threatens to become chaotic," he added.

"Daily structure is vitally important and it needs to include that diverse community outside of the family, should something like death or divorce upset the balance."

For parents worried about their child coping.

If as a parent you are concerned that your child is struggling to cope with a stressful situation, Dr Pienaar said it's important to assess how series the situation is.

"Talk to your child and try and sort it out - what is the issue? What do they think they can do? What have they tried already? How are they feeling about that?

"Acknowledge that it must be hard but try to seek solutions and options of what could make it better."

If you’re worried that your child is struggling with their mental health, talk to your GP or someone at your child’s school to see what counselling options are available.

To find out more about Children's Mental Health Week and to access online resources, visit

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