If there is one gift we can give children, it is that of psychological resilience. My work as a therapist tells me that the pandemic and world events have deeply impacted their sense of hope, perception of the world and how safe and secure they feel. Given how early technology finds a way into their lives, we need to start addressing how we can build resilience at different life stages so that children feel equipped and empowered to cope with challenges.
No matter how much we try and protect our children, insulate them from stressors and bad news, we need to accept that they will go through their own set of difficult situations, whether it is bullying, cyberbullying, loneliness, not feeling understood. While parents may feel helpless and powerless when they see a child suffer, it’s possible to work towards teaching children skill sets, resources that contribute not just to resilience but also allow for a better quality of life and self-esteem.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), resilience can be defined as “the process and outcome of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences, especially through mental, emotional, and behavioural flexibility and adjustment to external and internal demands”. So, resilience requires us to develop trust in ourselves in moments when situations become overwhelming and have the social support, resources and coping skills to deal with them.
The very first step in building resilience involves acknowledging that life is hard and our children will have to deal with it. Sometimes this can be challenging for parents to acknowledge. I remember a parent telling me that they couldn’t understand why their child was feeling lonely when they organise play dates, go on holidays and spend quality time with her. The child, on the other hand, felt guilty conveying her feelings; she felt that while she was not blaming them, they would take it personally.
We need to remember that resilience can be taught and cultivated. There are many teachable moments where there is scope for us to drive home a gentle lesson that allows our children to bounce back from difficult situations and also recognise that things won’t always go our way.
Introduce children to what I call the three pillars of resilience: the ability to regulate emotions, build community, supportive relationships and rebuild hope. Helping children learn that they can learn to self-soothe when difficult and big feelings arise and the variety of techniques that are available is a big step towards helping them make sense of their feelings. Self-soothing can be a big step towards regulating one’s emotions.
Children learn best when we role- model the skills we want them to imbibe. It may be a good idea to examine and ask yourself, across difficult situations, what your outlook is like. Simple ways of role-modelling include learning to regulate your own emotions, using calming techniques in stressful situations, reaching out for help, learning to talk about feelings and embracing the fact that we need both independence and interdependence. Research has shown consistently that having community, friendships, people who understand what we are experiencing goes a long way in fostering resilience. Encourage children to build social connections, meet friends in person and talk on the phone rather than passively spending time on their screens.
Most importantly, introduce narratives of hope and human resilience, whether through music, books, plays or personal history. This goes a long way in driving home the fact that we as human beings do go through difficult situations and yet are capable of dealing with them.
We also need to tell children our stories of failure and tales where life still turned out fine. Both psychological flexibility and our ability to set boundaries are part of resilience and recognising this can help children feel empowered and develop greater autonomy.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health With Sonali.