Hardly a day goes by without a report in the media about the rising rates of anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses in children and young people. The causes are, no doubt, complex and varied. We live in a busy world, with many demands on children and their families and sometimes the pressure to ‘do it all’ places an undue burden on us and our kids. As well, using technology and engaging with social media may be affecting us and our children in ways we had not foreseen.
If we think about mental wellness and resilience, it is more than just the absence of mental ill health. It is the ability to enjoy life, to bounce back from difficulties (this is also known as resilience), to set goals and enjoy achievements and to form positive social relationships. Children learn to do this from the time they are infants by watching and interacting with those around them, by developing a sense of competency and self-efficacy by learning to do things for themselves and by having fun, playing and making friends. Mental wellbeing is also enhanced by having positive connections to family and the wider community.
So, what steps can we, as parents, take to help our children gain the skills and mental fortitude to cope with the challenges and difficulties life brings their way? How can we build their resilience?
Clearly, providing a safe, happy family environment helps our children feel secure and can nurture their confidence to try new things outside the comfort of familiar environments. Promoting mental wellness and resilience is key for building strong stable young adults.
Normalise making mistakes and see them as learning opportunities.
When children are learning new things, we can show them and encourage them, giving them time to learn and make mistakes, rather than jumping in too soon to do it for them or to save them from failure. Children need to make mistakes occasionally to understand that that they can survive mistakes and mistakes are a part of life.
Model constructive self-talk.
When you have a problem or an unexpected difficulty arises, show your child how you think about it. Instead of saying, ‘It’s all my fault’, ‘I’m so stupid’, ‘Bad things always happen to me’, demonstrate a more realistic way to interpret what has happened. For example, ‘I made a mistake but I’ll be able to fix it’ or ‘I didn’t do as well in that task because I was tired. I’ll make sure I get a better night’s sleep next time’. Catastrophising and assuming one difficulty will automatically lead to another are not helpful ways to view the world. If we model a negative mindset that interprets problems as being unfair, insurmountable and a reflection on who we are, then our children will learn from us. Try to encourage the view that mistakes are an opportunity to learn about ourselves, reassess our values and to do things differently.
Challenge distorted thinking.
School age children are especially prone to coming home and saying things like, ‘My teacher hates me’, ‘I’ve got no friends’ and ‘I hate school’. This is your chance to challenge this way of thinking. Take time to sit down with your child and do some ‘detective thinking’. Look at the statement from all sides and see if there is evidence that suggests the statement is not true. For example, ‘Your teacher kept you in a lunchtime because the class was too noisy, and you think this is unfair. But has there been a time when your teacher allowed you to do something you really enjoyed?’. Teaching problem solving skills can also build resilience in your child. If your son or daughter says they have no friends and your detective thinking suggests that perhaps your son or daughter would like more friends, ask your child to come up with some other ways they could make some new friends. Discuss ways to meet other students and help your child to decide on some lunchtime activities or strategies that might help them extend their social connections.
Watch out for perfectionist tendencies.
Another group of children who may suffer from distorted thinking are children or young people with perfectionist tendencies. These children can set unrealistically high expectations of themselves. They may engage in negative self-talk when things don’t turn out as they planned, blaming themselves and exaggerating the negative consequences of the failure. They are often prone to anxiety. Again, try to challenge these distorted views, help them to see things in a more realistic light and let them know that it’s okay to fail and it is part of the human experience. When appropriate, help them problem-solve around ameliorating the impact of their mistakes.
Resilient people are flexible
. Flexible people can cope with change and the unexpected. Help your child to expect change and give them strategies for adjusting to change. Some children’s temperaments allow them to deal with change more easily than others. Acknowledge that change is part of life and sometimes change can present new opportunities and more positive experiences. For children who struggle with change, give them notice of any planned change and remind them of the ways they have coped with previous changes. Talk about why the change is happening and how it could be a positive experience for them.
Positive connections to friends, family and their community are protective factors for children growing up.
Social connections help children to feel part of something bigger, they build a sense of belonging and identity and help children develop their resilience. Social connections also mean children have more people to learn from and more people to seek help from. Encourage your children to see their extended family and community as positive resources who can help them when they are struggling.
Mental wellness and resilience is something we all can work on, just like our physical health. Look for opportunities to build your children’s capacity to deal with life’s ups and downs, learn from mistakes and have a robust sense of their own abilities.