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Overcoming life's troubles

How to promote resilience in school-age kids

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Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, September / October 2012

 

Being a kid can be a lot of fun.

Kids don't have the responsibilities of adults - they can spend more time having fun with their friends and they have loads of energy. Generally speaking, kids do have a lot of fun, but they can have their troubles too; that's part of growing up.

The ability to bounce back from life's ups and downs is called resilience. Parents and caregivers all want their children to be resilient and to be able to handle problems and challenges when they happen. But how do adults help young people to build resilience?

This is a topic that is gaining attention, especially when it comes to the debate on how much children should be protected and how much we should let them experience life in order to gain skills that will give them the ability to handle challenges in the future. With kids now back in school and with all the new routines and experiences, it's a good time to think about how we can help build resilience in the young people around us.

If we want young people to be resilient we need to think about what they already have, and what they may need.

For example, resilient youth tend to have more supportive relationships. Family plays a huge role, but extended family, teachers, coaches and other adults can have a big impact, too. Young people need to know that others care about them, and being acknowledged and encouraged by adults is important. A simple "Hi, how's it going?" from a teacher or coach acknowledges a kid who otherwise may feel invisible to the world. Adolescents can sometimes give the message that they don't care, but they do. Being supportive can simply mean being friendly, accepting and encouraging. Noticing a young person's strengths and talents can be a huge boost to confidence, especially when it comes from someone outside of their immediate family.

The ability to identify emotions and talk about feelings is another critical skill. When we can talk about how we feel, we provide an outlet for our emotions. Emotions that get bottled up can be overwhelming and can interfere with school work and other responsibilities. Again, children often learn this skill by seeing it in action. Instead of slamming around the pots and pans as you cook supper after a bad day at work, why not just say, "Wow, that was a frustrating day I had. I am really in need of some time to unwind." Encourage children to say how they are feeling too, and then listen without judgment.

The ability to manage emotions is also a big part of resilience. When school-age children and youth can talk about how they feel and find healthy ways to express and handle strong emotions, they are in a better position to deal with struggles along life's way. We can help them develop this skill by role-modelling healthy ways to manage emotions. This could mean going for a walk to "cool down" when we are angry or listening to soothing music when we are anxious. Showing respect for their feelings is also very important. Strong emotions are just a part of adolescence and, while we can help them to gain perspective on these emotions, we don't want to belittle their feelings in any way.

Resilient youth tend to have an optimistic outlook and generally feel self-confident. Self-confidence is gained by being able to do things for yourself and having opportunities to make decisions that affect your life. These two factors go hand in hand. For example, a young person who learns how to use the bus, or make a sandwich for themselves will gain skills and autonomy that can boost their selfconfidence and their belief in their ability to manage things in life. Skills such as these are built slowly over time as they grow and develop maturity.

Adults play an important role in seeing when children are ready to take the next step in doing things for themselves. An overprotective parent can deny a child the opportunity to develop these skills and "bubble-wrap" their kid. On the other hand, expecting a young person to take on more than what they can handle can be a problem, too. A caregiver who spends time with their child will be able to notice when they are ready to take on a little more responsibility, and will be in a position to encourage and guide that process. This can get harder as children grow into adolescents and they have their own schedules. Find new ways to connect that are fun for them such as going for a walk or out for lunch, shooting some hoops, or catching a ball game.

Resilience is not only an individual asset - we need to have resilient families and communities as well. We are all connected to one another through school, work and other social settings, and how well we support one another and have a positive influence on each other is also a big part of resilience. We can't do it alone. If a child is upset about losing a family pet, for example, their ability to cope with this event will be affected by how their family and friends react and how they are supported through this loss. Resilient communities are very important in helping build children's resilience, particularly in a time when things can change very rapidly. We all need a network of support to help us through tough times but also to share good times as well. Get your family involved in responding to the needs of others. Find ways for your family to be neighbourly by offering to rake a neighbour's leaves if they can't or getting involved in a neighbourhood clean-up.

Resilience is something we can all continue to work on. With support, children and adolescents can find ways to bounce back from life's challenges. Having resilience means they will have the strength and courage needed to strive for and to reach their personal goals and aspirations. The sky's the limit!

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

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Tips for building family resilience

Play together

Doing fun things together will strengthen your connection. Toss a ball, play a board game or cards; when times are tough it will be easier to talk and support one another.

Be a positive role model

Make sure the young people in your life see and hear that you are capable of handling problems in life. Show them how you demonstrate empathy, caring, and generosity.

Encourage a "can do" attitude

Teach young people simple problem-solving skills, and support their efforts when they try something new.

Focus on strengths

Everyone has strengths they can build on; help young people to see their strengths and capabilities.

Be flexible

Give the message that there are many ways to do things. Be open to supporting your child's own way of doing things and learning from it - it's part of the process.

Make healthy choices most of the time

Be physically healthy together, eat well and get enough sleep. Being healthy helps everyone to manage life's challenges.

***

Simple steps to effective problem-solving

State the problem

Be specific about the problem.

Think of all possible solutions

Make a list of possible solutions without judging them. What are your options? Be creative.

Evaluate each option

What are the things that affect your decision? How will it affect other people? What are the consequences of each option?

Choose a solution

Think about which solution makes the most sense in this particular situation. Do it.

Evaluate the outcome

How did it go? What did you learn? What would you like to do differently next time?

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