A few weeks ago I was invited to speak to parents and teachers on the topic of resilience building. A school based survey had identified a "felt" need to receive some support on the topic, particularly within the context of technology use. The following information is derived from several sources as well as being based on my clinical and personal experiences.
Some personal reflections
Eight months pregnant with me, my mother would drive the six hour round trip to see my father in hospital, every weekend. He'd hurt himself at work, losing three of his fingers on his dominant hand and became depressed about the uncertainty of his working future as an interstate truck driver.
At some point, a nurse wheeled him down to the paediatric ward for a dose of perspective. Upon his return to his room he requested a rope. While staff would've been concerned for his safety, it turned out he wanted to practice tying is truck knots with his left hand.
Every day we watched this man, who to this day has a work ethic second to none, go to work, laugh, enjoy time with his family, live an exceptional life despite the adversity he'd been forced to endure.
My sister and I were lucky to grow up where, with whom and when we did. At a time when resilience was acquired outside, the hard way, we'd get on our bikes and ride all over town, from sunrise to sunset. No-one there to kiss our skun knees, or push our bikes up the Banyan Street hill. No-one to sort out our fights except for us.
When we got bored we were forced outside to play – we had to rely on our imaginations and it didn’t matter what the weather was like. We played team sports every night of the week and all weekend and if we were hungry we had to eat an apple! If we were lucky, we got Donkey Kong for Christmas but we could only play it after our homework was finished and the dishes done.
We learned to count with plastic counters and quite literally an abacus! Technology at school meant watching the television. Ah, the good old days.
Now here we are in 2017, scared about what changes technology will bring to the health and wellbeing of our children and ourselves.
It’s natural to worry whenever there’s a revolution in communication. It happened when television was invented. Even Socrates worried that writing would impact negatively on how people would remember things!
But technology is not the only thing that’s changed. Families have too.
The cost of living means that it’s more common to have two parents working.
There are endless opportunities for children which means more after-hours activities, and busy, busy households. Tired parents. Tired children.
Life is more uncontrollable and we’ve had to adapt and continue to learn to adapt to that.
Before we go jumping to any conclusions about where our children are in terms of their resilience though, it’s a good idea to have an understanding of what typical childhood development looks like, by age range.
As you read the following points, consider them a check-list of your parenting tasks:
5 – 7 year olds
• Already have strong relationships within the family
• Still need assistance to structure and regulate their emotions
• They’re anxious to please and require a lot of praise and reassurance
• They’re reassured by predictable routines
• Their friendships might still be changeable and they still might need some assistance becoming a part of a group
• They’ll probably have mood swings
• Their level of self-regard is already established
• Their most valuable learning comes through play
• They’ll be more likely to follow rules if they’ve been able to contribute to them
7 – 9 year olds
• These guys have a strong need to belong to and be a part of the family and friendships
• They’re increasingly able to regulate their emotions
• They’re increasingly independent, but still need comfort and security
• They begin to develop empathy
• They’re able to resolve conflicts verbally but know when to seek adult help
• They’re conscience and moral values have become internalised – they know right from wrong
• There’s an increase in confidence, independence and they take on greater responsibilities
• They need reassurance but they also understand that hard work and increased effort leads to improvements and gains
• Their feelings of self-worth largely come from their peers
• Learn to deal with success and failure
• They can exercise self-control
• They can manage their own daily routine
9 – 12 year olds
• These guys have a growing need for independence and separate identity
• They might challenge parents and other family members
• Parents and home are important for support and reassurance
• They might experience embarrassment, guilt, curiosity and excitement because of their new sexual awareness and pending puberty
• Belonging to a group is extremely important – peers influence self-esteem and identity
• They have a strong desire for their opinions to be sought and respected
• They think and reason in a more adult way
• They’re capable of abstract thinking and complex problem solving
• They can concentrate for long periods of time but they still need help sorting out their worries
• Pop culture is very important!
• They know the difference between fantasy and reality
• They appreciate the value of money
To acquire each of those skills, we need to experience life’s ups and downs in a safe and supportive way and that’s where resilience comes in.
I want to emphasise here that resilience is an ongoing process throughout our entire lifetimes. It’s a process of adapting and recovering from adversity. It’s how we cope with stress and grow as individuals.
We know that higher levels of resilience means having a reduced risk of developing mental health issues and it can reduce the negative impact of adversity in our lives.
Are we born with resilience?
Research tells us that resilience is 50/50 nature and nurture. This means that our resilience tendencies are partially genetic and partially shaped by our environment.
Where we were born, how we were raised, the education we received, the key people in our lives, and behaviours modelled for us are some of the environmental factors that contribute to our resilience, as do all of our experiences in life.
The good news is, it’s not a situation of either being resilient or not, resilience can be learned and it’s never too late to learn it. Thank you neuroplasticity - our ever-changing brains!
How to Conceptualise Resilience
One way to understand the development of resilience is to visualise a seesaw.
Up one end we have protective experiences and coping skills and counterbalancing this is significant adversity on the other.
Resilience is evident when a child’s health and development tips toward positive outcomes – even when a heavy load of factors is stacked on the negative outcome side.
The role of stress in developing resilience
The Inverted U hypothesis (Yerkes & Dodson) teaches us that not all stress is bad, and in fact, for optimal outcomes we need stress. This good stress is known as eustress. When there isn't enough stress we may lack enough motivation to actually try to approach the situation and of course, when there is too much stress (distress) it impedes our ability to concentrate and ultimately perform. It's the Goldilocks and the Three Bears principle really - we need our stress levels to be just right!
There's a whole host of research now pertaining to stress related growth - developing positive outcomes from stressful events - highlighting the role stress plays in personal development.
Exposure to appropriate amounts of stress provides you with the ability to cope with future stressors, reducing the risk of future mental health problems, while too little stress prevents the development of resilience.
This is a beautiful clip to highlight that point - click here.
There are numerous opportunities in every child’s life to experience manageable stress and with the help of supportive adults this “positive stress” can be growth promoting.
Over time we become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships, both physically and mentally.
Helicopter parents tend to deprive their children of learning natural consequences for their behaviours. The children are not permitted to make mistakes or feel pain from negative experiences so when they do make mistakes or experience uncomfortable emotions, they don’t know how to deal with them or, expect somebody else to solve their problems for them. They also miss out on learning how to avoid or reduce conflict.
Boredom, failure, sadness, frustration, fear, anxiety are all very normal human emotions and will come up time and time again throughout our lives. If we can learn to manage these as children when the threats and risks to our safety are relatively smaller, and when we have more support, we’ll be learning skills for life! These skills need to be developed through experience.
What can you do?
Children need stable, committed relationships with at least one supportive adult. Chances are your children have many of these kinds of relationships in their lives which is awesome.
There’s so much more that you can do.
One of the most important first steps, in my opinion, is to educate our children about emotions.
I've noticed a trend of eight-year-old boys being referred to psychologists because of their anger. What I've noticed is that they have lacked the understanding and the language to express how they feel.
They haven't been socialised to discuss their feelings, nor have their feelings been explained to them in order for them to be able to interpret why their muscles feel tense or they feel butterflies in their tummies.
Anger for example, is a secondary emotion. This means there are usually other emotions bubbling away under the surface. When we can't comprehend what's happening inside our bodies, the confused mix of emotions can be felt and expressed as anger.
Once they can understand their physiological experiences, give them a name, and assess what has contributed to them, children can then learn to self-soothe and regulate their emotions.
They can also learn to problem-solve – something they need to be able to do on their own, with your guidance.
They need to develop some adaptive coping tools – not avoidance! These will allow them to manage their stress in healthy ways. In essence, you'll be teaching them to respond, not react.
Positive experiences to build self-confidence are essential to the development of resilience. Help your children discover who they are. Help them set healthy boundaries for themselves which are based on their/your family's value system and make room for assertiveness. Teach them to value themselves. Praise them! Show them how to practice self-compassion and self-praise.
It's important to consider the language you use with your children. There isn't an adult I work with who hasn't internalised some adult's voice from their childhood telling them what wasn't good enough.
Know how to argue – fight fair – teach them to resolve differences, share, negotiate and problem-solve – they’ll need these skills outside the family.
Children also need to learn to lose.
To develop a sense of control over their life and environment, give them choices and consequences for their choices. Let them get to know themselves – their strengths, their passions, their interests, their tastes.
Teach them self-reliance and independence. This becomes more important as your child gets older, but they need to fall and help themselves back up again, don’t be so quick to rescue them. Children are resilient and they need to develop a sense of mastery of their environments in an appropriate and safe way.
Help your children develop interests and goals and sources of inspiration – allow them to be spontaneous and curious – let them investigate.
This is where most of my adult clients fall over. They do too much of the "have to" stuff and not enough of the fun, social and physical stuff. It's no surprise then that humans go in search of that wonderful release of dopamine - a neurotransmitter which is heavily involved in our brains reward and pleasure centres. Often this can be found in the activities that are not so good for us, at least in the long-term including, alcohol and drug use and gambling.
If we are taught as children to include pleasant activities, including rest time, as a part of our lifestyle, we become better equipped adults when it comes to achieving a healthy balance and foundation for our wellbeing. We'll have a whole arsenal of healthy activities to actively engage in to get our dopamine fix, with no risk factors attached!
While in general, we'd hope children are naturals at having fun and laughter, that isn't always the case and so modelling and encouraging this is very helpful.
Children and Technology
Over the past few decades, technology has changed virtually every aspect of our society from the way we work, to the way we socialise and one of the most noticeable differences is the change in the way children play and interact with each other compared to other generations.
There are many benefits to technology use:
Obviously, technology is always changing and advancing. Using that technology as a part of the education process allows our children to stay current with the technology they’ll need when they join the work force.
It really provides the world at our finger tips including exposure to other cultures. It enhances learning and social connectedness and it allows you to keep track of your children!
Technology encourages reading and even at primary school level, tablets are helping children to make decisions, take action and observe the outcomes of those.
We have to be mindful that there isn’t a great deal of research out there yet about the long term impact of technology use as it hasn’t been around that long.
The risks that we are aware of are not actually in relation to technology use per se, but in regards to excessive usage.
We have to ask ourselves, what is the screen displacing? Social interactions? Other pleasant activities? Physical activities? Family time?
There's some evidence to suggest:
• It reduces physical activity and contributes to obesity
• Reduces reading ability and impacts on language expression
• Reduces time outdoors and exposure to sunlight which impacts on sleep patterns
• Headaches and eye strain
• Melatonin suppression
• Less ability to focus attention
• Reduces the ability to critically evaluate information because of the superficial information processing
• Lowers self-esteem and creates negative moods
• Reduces interaction with peers
• Inability to read social cues and develop meaningful relationships
• Impacts on the development of emotions
Later on there’s the potential for cyber-bullying, sexting, exposure to violence, instant gratification, and ongoing sleep disturbance.
The great news is that children’s brains are resilient and with what we know about neuroplasticity now, brains are always changing!
How to Manage Your Child's Technology Usage
Remember that children mimic behaviours learned from their parents. Model healthy amounts of usage yourself.
Remain the distribution point for any new books or activities and communicate with your child about the reasons for setting the rules and boundaries that you do.
Don’t over-react! You don’t want your children to fear technology or the internet. It’s here to stay.
Teach them about it from a young age. Tablets etc. are not toys.
Discuss the benefits and the risks and the importance of privacy and not sharing personal information, in age appropriate ways.
Use your judgement.
Protect bed time.
Teach good online behaviours and foster real friendships.
Limit the time spent on screens to less than two hours of recreational use per day (includes television and tablets).
It’s not enough to monitor and limit time, you also need to set limits on content as well – parental involvement in what the children are doing creates opportunities for learning and bonding.
To make meaningful rules, you must be up to speed on the nature and quality of what they’re doing online. Remind your children that technology is a privilege and not a right!
Set a family media policy.
Establish consequences – both positive and negative - for appropriate technology use.
Establish technology free zones and times in your home when you all unplug and concentrate on communicating with each other and enjoying each other’s company.
Help your child to achieve balance in their lives by encouraging them to stay physically active, enjoy reading, and learn to relax without having electronics.
There’s a big difference between reliance and addiction.
Signs of a technology addiction in children include:
• Lack of interest in other activities
• Constant distraction by technology
• Problematic behaviour when unable to access digital devices
• Constant talking about screen time
• Withdrawal symptoms when the technology is removed
If you have concerns that your child has developed an addiction to technology, deal with it as soon as possible.
Wean them slowly, don't go cold turkey!
Set up healthy habits when they are young. Set boundaries as previously described.
Make a hierarchy of priorities – homework, chores, preparing for school, family time... then screen time.
Make a hierarchy of screen time – communal first, then individual and educational before games.
Replace screen time with other enjoyable activities - teach your children that the lovely dopamine release is achievable through a whole host of healthy activities.
Slowly implement these changes and the children won’t even know!
It's true that we live in a changing world, but this doesn't have to be daunting. It brings with it so many opportunities and benefits. It is natural to worry about the impact of the changes, but it's also possibility to learn to adapt in meaningful and healthy ways. Your children look to you to learn how to adapt, so always be conscious and aware, because we never know what might have a lasting impact.