Resilience is becoming increasingly talked about as it becomes clearer that our kids are having difficulties ‘coping’ with everyday life and the mental health statistics are spiralling dangerously upwards. Improving children's resilience is an effective way to help them manage life’s inevitable peaks and troughs, keeping them mentally well and able to thrive in their lives.
What does the latest brain science tell us about resilience?
Scientists have been able to study the neurological mechanisms underlying resilience. They have identified the associated neural circuits and are able to measure the specific parameters of recovery. i.e. the time it takes these circuits to come back to baseline after adversity. Individuals that show a quicker return to baseline in these key neural circuits (I.e. bounce back quicker) have higher levels of wellbeing and in a sense are more ‘protected’ from adverse consequences of life.
So the question is: can these ‘resilience circuits’ be altered?
Research has shown that mindfulness practices such as this, can modulate and improve the time for these circuits to return to baseline. However there is a caveat. To see real changes in the resilience circuitry it takes a longterm re-training. Richard Davidson and colleagues puts this number at between 6-7ooo hrs. In other words, to become naturally resilient, if you don’t already have the skills, takes a long time.
What can we take from this?
Firstly, the important thing here is that resilience CAN be learned. The neural circuits associated with bouncing back from adversity are malleable in nature and can be changed. It is never too late to improve our level of resilience. Secondly, the quicker we start re-training and learning more resilience skills the better, as once circuits are set, it takes a long time to re-wire them.
When it comes to our children, it is important to be aware of how important resilience skills are and to recognise the neural origin of them. This means that we have the opportunity as parents to wire resilience skills into our kids. And the earlier and more frequently we do it, the better. The consequence of not building in these skills consciously, or allowing for them to naturally build, may take a long-time to undo. The message here is surely clear: when it comes to resilience it’s easier to wire the right circuits in than to try and change them later.
7 practical tips to support children's resilience:
1. Promote Healthy Risk-Taking
A healthy risk is something that pushes a child to go outside their comfort zone, but results in very little harm if they are unsuccessful. Examples include: trying a new sport, participating in a school performance, initiating a conversation with another child. When avoiding risk becomes a habit, kids can internalise the message that they aren’t strong enough to handle challenges. When they learn to embrace risks, they learn that pushing themselves can result in going further and being stronger than they thought they were.
2. Resist the Urge to Fix It and Ask Questions Instead
As parents, our natural response when dealing with a child that has come to us with a problem is often to solve it for them and explain. If instead, we bounce the problem back to the child with questions, we are helping our children think through the issue and come up with solutions themselves.
3. Teach Problem-Solving Skills
We can help our children with the above, in a caring supportive way, by helping them brainstorm solutions. Try encouraging them to come up with a list of ideas and weigh the pros and cons of each one.
4. Label Emotions
Fundamental in any emotional intelligence training is teaching our children that all feelings are important and helping them label their feelings. Labelling emotions helps us make sense of what we’re experiencing. The breadth of emotions we experience make us wonderfully human. By allowing our children to be okay with feeling emotions, they become less scary. Tell them it’s okay to feel anxious, sad, jealous, etc. and reassure them that feelings pass.
5. Teach children basic mindfulness exercises
Deep breathing exercises such as this help turn off the stress response and allow the thinking brain to come back online. We can’t implement problem solving until this has happened! Focusing on the body can have the same effect. Have them focus on their hands or feet (or any body part) and watch the nervous system calm down. What sensations can you feel?
6. Embrace mistakes: encourage failure!
Failure avoiders lack resilience and tend to be highly anxious kids (and adults!). When we parents focus on end results, our kids get caught up in the pass/fail cycle. They either succeed or they don’t. This leads to risk avoidance behaviours. Embracing mistakes (our own included) helps promote a growth mindset and gives our kids the message that mistakes help them learn.
Talking about the mistakes we’ve made can be very helpful. Focus on the wisdom and growth we gained as a result, (even if its just that we learned we are okay and life moved on) and importantly the thing we would do better next time –demonstrating that the mistake has been a valuable learning tool.
Do the same for them. When they make a mistake or ‘fail’, (and the dust has settled!) use it as an opportunity to brainstorm what they could do better next time. Helping kids identify what they could do differently and having them play it through in their minds is literally wiring in the new and improved strategy into their brains, which they simply wouldn’t have had they not had the initial “failure’ experience. Neurologically, a failure literally is an opportunity to grow.
7. Model Resiliency
The best way to teach resilience is to model it. Particularly in the younger years, we all know how important modelling is for our children's learning. Become aware of your own coping skills, and amend where necessary!
By utilising a few or all of these strategies in a classroom or at home, you're giving our next generations the maximum opportunity to thrive in learning, life and adversity.
Sally Boardman initially worked as a psychologist before discovering the power of helping people understand how to use their brain and bodies to create true lasting change and transformation. She completed her MPhil in Psychology in the UK and originally worked is a rehabilitation psychologist when she came to Australia in 2001. She has extensive presentation skills and experience which she has gained through her career as a trainer, coach and facilitator. She has previous experience delivering PD to educators as well as within many other sectors.
She is a TEDx speaker and currently serves on the Leadership team for Dr Joe Dispenza where she assists with weeklong trainings of up to 2000 participants. Sally is passionate about helping the leaders of our next generation of leaders to thrive, and sustaining the mental health and well-being of our children and educational leaders.