Remember, a child who is resilient is not immune to stress, but rather is a child that can manage that stress, writes Richard Hogan
I’M returning to the topic of resilience, because, out of all the issues I explore, resilience is something readers write to me about the most.
I have recently finished a series of talks, with The Institute of Education, on how to develop resilience in students, so that they can manage themselves during that Everest of stressors, the Leaving Certificate.
Education has changed and our understanding of mental health has developed, so that we know that to achieve a top grade in an exam, the student must not only be academically well-trained, but mentally refined.
In short, the modern student must be able to cope emotionally and physically with the Leaving Certificate. Nearly all of us have been through it, so we know the demands it places on young minds. However, the pressures have become greater, so our children need to develop their resources to manage it all successfully.
An analogy I like to utilise when speaking with parents on the topic is how we teach our children to cross the road.
I put up two contrasting images: one of parents standing at a zebra crossing, holding their child’s hand and looking to see if the road is clear; and the other of a child standing on their own, nervously about to cross the road.
The questions I ask are: how did we teach our children to cross the road? Why do we teach them how to safely cross the road?
Parents generally answer the first question by explaining we model crossing the road and we go through it many times before we would ever think about letting our child cross the road by themselves.
For the second question, parents explain they model it for them so that the child can do it safely when they are not around. I can’t think of a better analogy for managing stress and anxiety.
How does one child cope more than another child? Is it simply that one child is born with more resilience? The answer is a resounding no. Resilience is the tool the child has been given to cross the road. What will happen when they come to the crossing on their own and there is a car approaching at speed? Well, if they have been taught well, they will see the danger, wait for it to pass, and then cross the road successfully. Because they know the danger is only temporary. What happens to the child who has not received adequate training for crossing the road? More than likely, they will not know that the car is only a momentary danger and that it will soon pass, so they might run out in front of it, in a bid to get to the shop quickly.
You can see why this analogy is such an important one, when thinking about your child’s ability to deal with difficulties that will arise as they go through their young life.
Resilience is the ability to be able to view obstacles as they truly are: temporary.
Children who lack resilience view obstacles as permanent. A child whose resilience is not well-developed will say things like, ‘I will always be anxious’ or ‘I will never be free from these feelings.’ A resilient child sees challenges as transient and manageable.
Remember, a child who is resilient is not immune to stress, but rather is a child that can manage that stress.
We are hardwired to experience stress, so try not to think of anxiety as something you can’t help your child get rid of. I spoke about this at a conference in Milan recently and a professor from the Central University of Gujarat, India, told me he noticed that current college students are less resilient than previous generations.
I explained that children are not being exposed to enough challenges in their formative years. When I used the analogy of how we teach our children to cross the road, he said that, for the first time, someone had explained to him what he was witnessing around his campus.
Resilience is not an elusive thing. We must teach our children how to manage stress. Ask yourself this question: when I’m stressed, how do I react? Let’s just say you’re running late and you can’t find the car keys. What do you do?
Are you shouting and out of breath, running around, turning the house upside down?
Think about that child crossing the road .Are you manically showing them how to cross the road? Or are you calm?
Nothing promotes a maladaptive response to stress more than the behaviour you exhibit when you are stressed.
Children are always watching how we react to situations and challenges.
If we want to have a resilient child going into the world, we must start by showing them how to manage adversity.
That is the true gift of parenting.
Richard Hogan is a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three.