Building resilience in children and teenagers

Teachers, the school and parents play a huge part in building a child’s resilience so they can maintain a positive mindset and are well equipped to thrive in the world.

classroom resilience
Cluey Learning Thursday, 4 November 2021

At times, children can feel like their lives have been turned upside down. What’s going on in the world around them, or upsetting things that happen closer to home, can have a significant influence on their mental wellbeing.

The home front as well as teachers play a huge part in helping our youth build resilience, and we all have a responsibility to make sure our young people are as best equipped as they can be to thrive at school, despite challenges or setbacks. Children that have learned how to be resilient can manage stress and feelings of anxiety much better than those who haven’t been taught those skills.

Common sources of stress at school are adapting to new classrooms and different ways of teaching, teasing and bullying, conflict with teachers or parents, competition with peers, homework, tests and class presentations, and the transition to different levels of schooling. 

Many students understandably feel anxious, and their resilience gets tested through the course of school. Most students will experience challenges that test them, both academic and social, but there are practical tools and skills you can teach them that will strengthen their mindset.


What is resilience?

Resilience is the capacity to adapt well when faced with adversity or stress. It involves more than continuing to persist despite difficulty. Resilient students interpret academic or social challenges in a positive way (such as increasing effort, developing new strategies, or practising conflict resolution).

Resilient people display courage and motivation to face problems and difficulties accurately (rather than denying or exaggerating them) and they maintain a positive mindset and confidence to persevere.

Resilience fluctuates at different ages and developmental stages, and also varies across different contexts.

Resilience is strongly influenced by mindsets — their patterns for interpreting events including why they happen, who is to blame for the difficulty, and what impact a problem will have. In addition, people’s thinking about the permanence of the problem and its prevalence across various aspects of their life affects their ability for resilience.

Behaviours that threaten resilience include jumping to conclusions, personalising issues, making assumptions about what others know or think, allowing emotions to dominate reasoning, over-generalising, magnifying the negative features or minimising the positive features of a situation, and catastrophising or exaggerating the likelihood or extent of negative outcomes.

Resilience is not a character trait that children are born with. It’s a developmental process that’s mostly influenced by experiences and relationships. Fortunately, this means that psychological resilience can be learned and developed.

Resilience involves developing tools and skills to cope with challenges, including:

  • Emotional regulation: the ability to keep calm and express emotions in a way that helps the situation.
  • Impulse control: making a conscious choice whether to act on a desire to take action, and the ability to delay gratification and persevere.
  • Causal analysis: to analyse problems and identify causes accurately.
  • Empathy: the ability to understand the feelings and needs of another person.
  • Realistic optimism: keeping a positive outlook without denying reality.
  • Self-efficacy: belief in one’s ability to solve problems and handle stress.
  • Opportunity seeking: the ability to take new opportunities and reach out to others.

Being resilient does not mean that children won’t have trouble or distress. Emotional pain, sadness, and anxiety are common whenever we suffer trauma or personal loss. Resilience is learning the positive reactions to adversity that will help children and teenagers not become overwhelmed.


Tips for building resilience in children and teens

1. Make connections

Talk to your child about the importance of engaging and connecting with their peers, including the skill of empathy and listening to others. This can be fostered at a young age at primary school. Help children find ways to build friendships and connections. Hold a barbecue at home, or have friends for a sleepover. 

Helping others is a great way of making connections as well as engaging in the community. Children who may feel challenged by their own problems can feel empowered by helping others. Engage your child in age-appropriate volunteer or ask for assistance yourself with tasks that they can master – such as prepping food, doing the shopping, accompanying you to visit older relatives.

2. Maintain a daily routine

Sticking to a routine can be comforting to children, especially younger children who crave structure in their lives. Work with your child to develop a routine, and highlight times that are for schoolwork and play. With lockdowns, at times when you might be homeschooling, try to maintain a routine for when they are doing their online study. Likewise with homework. Encourage them to set aside time for it.

Create a pleasant area in the home for them to do it without distraction. Involve them in the choice of decor such as desk, chair and home computer. They can decorate the area with things that stimulate them or provide comfort such as inspiring quotes, family or pet photos, crystals or paintings.  Burning natural oils such as lavender or lemongrass in a diffuser on a desk can be relaxing.

3. Validate their feelings

These are challenging times, and it is important to acknowledge that with your child. Teach your child how to focus on something that they can control or can act on. Help by challenging unrealistic thinking by asking them to examine the chances of the worst-case scenario and what they might tell a friend who has those worries. Be aware of what your child is exposed to that can be troubling, whether it’s through the news, online, or overheard conversations. Practise naming and talking about emotions with others.

Help your child identify situations that make them feel distressed, anxious or angry, and talk about ways of dealing with these feelings and identifying these feelings in other people. Being able to control one’s feelings and behaviour is a big part of resilience.

4. Teach your child self-care

Teach your child the importance of basic self-care. This may be making more time to eat properly, exercise, and get sufficient sleep. Make sure your child has time to have fun and participate in activities they enjoy. Caring for oneself and even having fun will help children stay balanced and better deal with stressful times. Establishing a healthy work/life balance in stressful times is a good tool for the future, not only all the way through schooling but also in tertiary study and employment.

5. Set goals

It can be overwhelming for children to face a task like a project or learning a new topic. Teach your child to break things down into reasonable goals and help them to move toward them one step at a time. Establishing goals will help children focus on a specific task and can help build the resilience to move forward in the face of challenges. Acknowledge accomplishments on the way to larger goals.

6. Nurture a positive self-view

Help your child remember ways they have successfully handled hardships in the past and help them understand that these past challenges help build the strength to handle future challenges. Help your child learn to trust themselves to solve problems and make appropriate decisions.

7. Keep things in perspective

When your child is facing difficult challenges, they can get caught in a rut of negative thinking about the problem which may seem insurmountable to them. Help them look at the situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Help them see that there is a future beyond the current situation and that the future can be good. An optimistic and positive outlook enables children to see the good things in life and keep going even in the hardest times. You could talk to them about events in history to show that life moves on after bad events, and even the worst things that happen are only temporary. You can use situations in your own family.

8. Accept change

Change is a constant in school and in life but change can often be frightening for children and teens. Help your child see that change is part of life. Examine what is going well, and to have a plan of action for what is not going well.

9. Positive interpretation of events

Teach children not to exaggerate problems or jump to conclusions but to look on the bright side of things and laugh at their mistakes. Find positive meaning in obstacles. Help students to normalise, rather than personalise or catastrophise, stressful events.

Practise using positive self-talk, and practise using humour. Greater levels of humour are associated with more positive self-concept and higher levels of self-esteem, and more positive responses to both positive and negative life events.

Ask children “What are you saying to yourself?” and “What are you thinking inside your head?”, and if necessary, help them to reframe these thoughts. Teach students to think “What’s wrong with this situation?”, not “What’s wrong with me?” or “Why me?”.

10. Active coping

Help your child discover ways to calm down when stressed. What helps them self soothe eg listening to music, going out for fresh air, resting, seeing friends, watching a movie.

Talk to your child about how to take the initiative in dealing with problems. You could introduce them to a framework for problem solving involving stages such as: identifying the problem, analysing the cause or contributing factors, determining who might be able to help, and seeking other ways to think about the problem that invite different solutions.

Ensure young people know who to talk to at school if they have a problem or are experiencing difficult emotions. Ideal people are school counsellors or empathetic teachers. Encourage them how to tell someone how they are feeling, and to reach out to ask for support from others when they need it.

As mental wellbeing problems among Australian youth are escalating, it makes sense to teach students as many ways as possible to protect their own mindset while they are still at school. We should all take responsibility and give our young people the tools they need to overcome their challenges and enable them to live their best life.

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