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Building resilience in children

It's so important for their mental development and growth


Have you ever noticed that when things go wrong in life, some people are able to bounce back quickly while others have a harder time coping? The difference is in their resilience – the ability to use inner strength and lean on external support networks to get through tough times.

Resilience is an important factor in mental health and is essential for developing problem-solving skills, building and maintaining relationships and setting realistic goals – so it’s not hard to see the value of building resilience in children from a young age.

How does lack of resilience affect a child’s behaviour?

A lack of resilience in children could see them struggle to cope with challenges down the track, says psychologist Dr Marny Lishman.

“A lot of children are not resilient simply because they don’t have enough life experience to build it,” explains Marny. “Couple that with parents who often overprotect their children and don’t allow them to be curious and brave in the world, and it can lead to children then not being able to cope when life gets a little bit tough when they are older. The normal ups and downs of life end up being very difficult and there hasn’t been enough experience for them to understand that they can get through it.”

While you might not think children have to deal with much upheaval in their daily lives, consider things like moving homes, changing schools, studying for an exam, parents’ divorce or dealing with the death of a loved one. These can all be major triggers even for adults, so of course they will affect kids too. Children lacking resilience can find it hard to navigate change, are less adaptable and can feel stuck when life gets stressful, she adds, which is why it's important to help a child build resilience.

Where does resilience come from?

Resilience is a case of both nature and nurture, meaning it’s shaped by traits we are born with, such as our genes, temperament and personality, as well as the environment we live in, including our family, community and society as a whole.

Though we can’t alter our genetic makeup, we can better develop certain skills to strengthen our resilience, help us cope in the face of future adversity and help prevent mental health issues – and the same goes for kids.

Resilient children will tend to approach new situations and people with confidence, be optimistic (but also realistic) and able to set realistic goals. They’ll also avoid self-blame and negative self-talk and will show positive self-image and high self-esteem.

How to build resilience in children

Not sure how to build resilience in a child? One way, suggests Marny, is to take a more hands-off approach to parenting – as long as it’s done with the safety of the child as the top priority, of course.

“Naturally, many parents want to protect their children from harm, so they cushion them too much or shelter them from some of the harsher realities of life,” says Marny. “However some safer but still challenging situations are important for building resilience.”

Building resilience in children is about fostering autonomy and responsibility, encouraging them to build and strengthen supportive relationships with others, helping them identify and express their emotions, and creating opportunities for personal challenges to build their confidence.

How to build resilience in your child can depend on their age, Marny adds, although having safe and supportive family and friends in their social network is key for all life stages.

Other things Marny suggests that are specific to your child’s development level are:

Preschool

  • Teach them to ask for help

  • Model healthy behaviours as parents and caregivers

  • Organise playdates

  • Creative play

Primary school

  • Organise playdates

  • Get them involved in sports or sporting teams

  • Play board games (teaching them winning and losing)

  • Help them face fear with support

  • Teach them meditation/mindfulness

High school/teens

  • Involve them in sport and other challenging activities

  • Provide opportunities for them to make decisions

  • Teach meditation/mindfulness

  • Encourage them to have a schedule

  • Nurture positivity, optimism and gratitude

  • Don’t always rush to help (unless they are unsafe, of course) – let them figure it out

If your child is struggling with resilience, speaking to your GP is a good place to start. You could also let them know about services such as Kids Helpline, or talk to the experts at Beyond Blue or Lifeline for help.

Of course, resilience isn’t just important in kids. Find out how to build resilience in adulthood.

Looking for more parenting tips and advice? From dealing with growing pains to how to treat fever in children and recommended health checks for your teen, check out The Check Up’s dedicated parenting section.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Dr Marny Lishman

Marny Lishman is a qualified psychologist who believes the challenges many people face are due to their lack of knowledge surrounding the mindset and lifestyle balance required to live a healthy, satisfying and fulfilling life. She is passionate about teaching the tools and techniques to promote a healthy mindset for better wellbeing and more success. Marny is partial to soy chai lattes and is on a mission to find Australia’s best avocado smash.

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