PARENTS

Eight Ways to Strengthen Your Child's Mental Resilience

Parents play a key role in helping to cope with life's challenges

09/06/2016 14:44 | Updated 09 June 2016

We might want our children to sail through life buoyed by happiness, but that's not realistic. There will be knockbacks, disappointments and stresses because, well, that's life - and what's important is how our children cope with those challenges.

Keith Harvey, therapist and North of England Service Director for Place2Be, the charity that set up the Mental Health Week campaign, explains: "Resilience is about our ability to adapt to challenges and find inner resources to respond calmly to adversity."

Crucially, mental resilience has to be developed and nurtured and parents play a key role in this. "You can't tell your children how to be resilient but you can embody resilience," says Keith. "Children learn essential skills by modelling adults' behaviour - a pragmatic attitude to life, a calm confidence that you can't always succeed but you can learn by experiences and bounce back."

So how can you help build your child's mental resilience?

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1. Model mental resilience

It isn't always easy, but whenever possible, aim to behave with resilience yourself. This doesn't mean pretending you never feel stressed or overwhelmed, but showing how you cope with these times. You might say ‘I'm feeling a bit stressed so I'm going to have a relaxing bath and an early night’ or ‘I was feeling a bit down about work - but chatting to Grandpa really cheered me up’.

Our attitudes become a blueprint for how children will learn to behave into adulthood. "We can model being realistic, being flexible, being able to admit to mistakes and move on, being able to regulate our response to challenges," says Keith Harvey. "We should be showing children how to find inner resources to respond calmly, not in a knee-jerk, hyper-stressed way. Children need to grow up with a broad experience of life - not fixating on failures or only the good things - and developing the skills to be able to experience a wide range of balanced emotions, not extremes."

2. Let children be independent

"Don't do anything for your children that they're capable of doing for themselves," says Noel Janis-Norton, parenting educator and author of the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting series of books. "You will need to leave more time at first, but it's worth it if you want to raise confident children who know how to think and act independently.

"Require your children to take sensible guesses when they're doing homework or dealing with a new situation. Don't allow them to hide behind 'I don't know'," says Noel. "This teaches children to be brave. Building mental resilience is about the ability to handle confusion without too much anxiety."

3. Watch your words

"Children are learning to deal with 'challenges', not cope with 'problems' - it's an important distinction," advises Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of The Key to Calm. You can't - and should never aim to - solve every challenge your child faces. But you can take every opportunity to talk to your child about thoughts and feelings. Ask open questions, and if they bring up a challenge or difficult situation, try to help them think about the options they might have, for instance by saying, ‘That sounds really difficult, what did you do? Who did you talk to?’ and really listen to their answers.

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4. Teach children to take a risk

Aim to show them that disappointment and bouncing back are as important as doing well. Your child should know that trying is what matters and not to demand perfection from themselves or others.

"Encourage your children to make sensible guesses when encountering a new situation; don't allow them to hide behind 'I don't know'," says Noel. "Children have to learn to take a chance, not expect someone else to make life OK. Building mental resilience is about the ability to handle confusion without anxiety."

5. Don't give them a false view of their place in the world

"Don't let children win at games because it can give them a false view of the world, that they are stronger and cleverer than the adults in their world," says Noel. Instead, she recommends that parents explain that because they’ve had more practice or are simply bigger and stronger, they would naturally win if they played to win. 

"Parents can give themselves a handicap to level the playing field – starting a game of Monopoly with less money than the child, playing tennis left-handed – and then play to win, rather than holding back. As they play, parents can share their strategies. This will teach children more about how to play the game, and it models generosity of spirit."

6. Praise your child's actions, not simply their existence

Descriptively praise your children's actions with the emphasis on being flexible, tolerant and not giving up. Use phrases like 'I noticed that you didn't even complain when...' and 'I was really impressed that, even though you lost, you did...'. Try to steer clear of empty praise phrases like 'you're so beautiful/so clever/so brave'.

7. Ensure your child has enough sleep

"If your child is sleep deprived, they won't be mentally resilient during the day," says Linda Blair. And that's not just toddlers throwing tantrums because they need a nap; children aged 10 to 16 should be having at least nine hours sleep according to NHS advice.

8. Teach - and show - that seeking help is a strength, not a weakness

One of the most important life skills you can teach your child is to know when to ask for help. Talk to your child about all the interested, trusted adults in their lives who they can confide in, from godparents to grandparents to family friends.

"Children and young people need to develop the skill to be able to connect with others, to not feel alone and isolated," says Keith Harvey. "They need to be able to seek out other people in tough times - friends, family, teachers, even counsellors - and know that it's a sign of strength, not weakness, to ask for help."

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