How your words can develop a child’s resilience

How your words can develop a child’s resilience
Four phrases to help nurture a child’s resilient mindset

Resilience is a word that’s been used a lot over the last twelve months, particularly within school communities. In his latest article for Tribeca, education expert Andy Parthenopoulos shares his insights on resilience from a child’s perspective, and how best we can help develop their resilient mindset through the words we use.

We all want to raise our children to become resilient when faced with a challenge. But have you ever considered what “being resilient” means from the perspective of a child?

Ongoing research on the neuroscience of mental health and resilience is beginning to paint a clearer picture for parents and educators, but what’s needed is the confidence to help our children understand and apply the concepts to their lives.

It can sometimes appear as if the word resilience is bandied around as a catch-all buzzword for good mental health. But the concept is more nuanced than this. Children deserve to be supported with the complete picture in mind if they are to become truly resilient.

So what is resilience?

Resilience is generally defined as the ability to “bounce back” in response to challenge or uncertainty. Be You is the national mental health in education initiative delivered by Beyond Blue, in collaboration with Early Childhood Australia and headspace which states that those with resilient personalities “do well during or after an adverse event, or a period of adversity.” And “bouncing back” doesn’t necessarily mean stoically returning to a previous state of relative normality. It could simply involve mastering unproductive emotions while adapting to a new situation.

Resilience develops naturally in the early years thanks to the unconditional love children receive from their carers, as well as from the frequent challenges faced by infants such as falling when learning to walk.

Once children hit school age and begin their drive toward independence, educators know that making social-emotional learning explicit (teaching the how and why) is necessary to help children take the next step. This is why many primary schools now include resilience in their statement of values.

But take a moment to consider how your child would define the word resilient.

Their understanding of it may be at a surface level, leaving them unable to fully embrace all that resilience entails. Or might they hear it as just another word adults use in an unconvincing attempt to motivate or encourage?

Download recent findings by BeYou on building mentally healthy communities

Catchphrases can be counter-productive

“Never give up!” is a common response to my questions about what resilience means whenever I enter a new classroom. It’s a memorable catchphrase that can resonate in a group setting, so it’s no surprise that this derivation of “bouncing back” can become part of a child’s vocabulary.

However, this oversimplification is less than ideal.

Say a child becomes frustrated with a task and chooses to avoid it. There may be negative emotions tied up with this, or a very human urge to return to a comfort zone. Presume that same child has been encouraged to believe that “never giving up” is a desired behaviour. In doing the opposite, they may trick themselves into believing they are behaving poorly or letting others down.  

Instead, here are four things you can say to your child to help them develop an authentic resilient mindset without fixating on the concept of “bouncing back”.

“You made it to school (almost) every day this term
– that’s actually really impressive!”

A resilient mindset stems from small moments of ordinary magic rather than sudden and momentous life-changing hardship (which may in fact be more likely to induce trauma).

Your child likely won’t notice moments of positivity like the above example unless you make it a habit of pointing them out on occasion. Whether they’re loving school and not doing so well is beside the point. It simply recognises that subconsciously adapting to a certain way of life that may be occasionally tiresome or mildly stressful is something resilient people do. 

“I know it feels terrible, but it’s such a healthy thing to show your emotions”

Use this when your child has outbursts of anger, frustration or sadness, but silently wait for the most intense part of the outburst to subside before complicating things with too many words.

Once your child begins to calm down, let them know that most strong emotions last only for a brief 90 seconds. Reinforce that occasional overreaction is the brain’s way of releasing the pressure, just like a car’s exhaust pipe. And the lucky thing is that afterwards they’ll get a choice of how to feel (typically that will be “bouncing back”, and it will be your child’s natural inclination rather than an adult suggestion).

Read more about the 90 seconds rule that builds self-control

“I really like how you made the effort to *action* because of *adverse situation*”

For example, your 10 year old child begins helping prepare a younger sibling for bed because a parent has moved to evening shift work.

A child’s natural adjustments as they respond to their environment may be far more subtle than this, so show them how perceptive you actually are. Very young children tend to believe that all others see the world as they themselves do, but once they grow out of this phase it can be easy for them to feel completely misunderstood by others.

When you act to reverse this an amazing thing happens – children begin to relax in knowing that you really do respect the battles they face. This leads to more open communication and subsequent resilience against similar challenges.

“I’m so proud of you for putting up with *adverse situation*”

This could be used in a situation outside of your child’s control. For example, a younger sibling’s crying or attention-seeking behaviour is causing distress, or a barking dog is waking them constantly through the night.

Remind your child that even though there’s not always a straightforward solution to challenges like these, simply lasting through and getting on with things is a character building process. This completely takes the pressure off. Reassurance like this can free your child from the destructive guilt that can come with a perceived failure to fix a problem.

Want some more insights from Andy? Please read his previous article: “What lockdown has taught us about teaching our kids”.

Putting it all together

The above suggestions revolve around praising a child for their actions or response to a situation that has already occurred. In this way the value is labelled and reinforced in the positive, which will help them build robust neural pathways.

Whereas schools can sometimes focus on the theoretical side of social-emotional learning, at home you have the power to impart these valuable lessons in the most impactful way possible.

Just keep in mind that resilience is not a switch you can turn on and off in oneself or in others, and it should never feel taxing to maintain. It develops slowly over time and changes in response to a range of life events, sometimes in unpredictable ways.

But if your child can rely on consistent messaging and support from you, they’ll go a long way toward maintaining a healthy outlook on life.

Download Andy’s free eBook ‘7 Powerful Ways to Support Your Child’s Learning in a Post-COVID World’ for more teaching and learning advice tailored to parents of 4-13 year olds. Andy has also collaborated with picture book author Rick Foster to develop a wellbeing incursion for primary schools around the theme of worries. If you would like to find out more click here.
Andy Parthenopoulos

Andy Parthenopoulos

Andy Parthenopoulos is a primary school teacher and parent advisor who was trained under the Master’s of Teaching program at the University of Melbourne. Andy is passionate about empowering parents to effectively engage in their children’s learning as well as form meaningful relationships with classroom teachers. In response to the sudden shift to distance learning in 2020, Andy started up EdMentor to advise and coach parents on how they can adopt a teacher’s mindset to best support their kids from home.

You can connect with him on Facebook or LinkedIn, and find out more about his parent/teacher mentoring on EdMentor’s website.

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