There’s been a fair bit of talk recently about resilience – and how our children somehow lack it. Your own children might even have been taught about it in school and perhaps even had special ‘resilience days’. My own son’s school now grade pupils on resilience as well as all their academic subjects, and while I’m not so sure if this is the best way to promote resilience, I certainly believe that resilience is a vital skill that can be nurtured.
Resilience can mean different things to different people but generally refers to a person’s ability to cope with adversity in their lives and their capacity to ‘bounce back’. It is thought to develop through experience and many children who have gone through extreme adversity (such as poverty or abuse) are often better at dealing with difficult situations that occur later on in life. While children don’t have to experience extreme adversity in order to become resilient, regular challenge and setback can help them to cope better with failure and view it in more positive terms.
So how can we nurture resilience in our children? Here are my top five suggestions.
- Get out of the house.
Psychologist Eirini Flouri and her colleagues at the Institute of Education in London found that children living in urban areas who have regular exposure to green space display greater emotional well-being and more positive attitudes towards adverse situations than those with little access to gardens, parks or other similar open spaces. Being in the countryside has often been associated with greater levels of well-being, but you don’t have to plan a day trip out of the city – urban parks and woodland are just as good.
- A little bit of risk can go a long way.
Eventually you will have to take the stabilizers off the bike and chances are they will fall off a few times. Without some risk, resilience cannot grow and constantly protecting children from experiencing risk will scupper those natural evolutionary survival instincts. Allowing (and even encouraging) small amounts of risk mean that children can encounter life beyond their comfort zone and widen their experiences of the world around them.
- Fail better.
It’s often heart wrenching when we see our children upset because they have failed to achieve something important to them. Failure, however, is a vital part of the learning process – without failure we can’t learn from our mistakes; neither can we truly appreciate our successes. As parents we should support our children when they fail, but we do them no favours if we prevent them getting into situations where failure is a real possibility.
- Nurture positive emotions.
Negative emotions narrow our possible choices and can lead us to give up if the task becomes too difficult. Alternatively, positive emotions such as joy or interest broaden our view and allow us to see alternatives more clearly. Children, who are able to nurture a positive emotion like interest, are motivated to explore and become fully engaged in activities.
- Encourage self-control.
In a classic study from the 1960’s, American psychologist Walter Mischel, had young children enter a room where they sat at a table on which was placed a marshmallow. The child was told they could eat the marshmallow immediately or wait alone in the room for a set time with the marshmallow still sitting on the table. The child was also informed that if the marshmallow was still on the table when the experimenter returned they would be rewarded with a second marshmallow. Mischel describes how some of the children would immediately eat the marshmallow while others might pick it up, smell it, lick it or simply leave it where it sat. When Mischel conducted follow up studies with the same children as the grew into adulthood, he discovered that the children who showed greater impulse control by delaying eating the marshmallow were more successful in a number of areas including academic achievement and general well-being. Impulse control isn’t only related to success.
Those children who display a capacity to cope with adversity are also more likely to be able to delay gratification, for example, putting the money received for their birthday in the bank rather than spending it immediately. There are many ways parents can promote impulse control, including establishing house rules or modelling positive behaviour.