5 Simple Ways to Build Resilience and Well-Being in Children

5 Simple Ways to Build Resilience and Well-Being in Children

I’m often asked by parents how they can help their children to be more resilient and less vulnerable to mental health problems. Although we can’t stop all mental health problems, we can help children and young people to develop habits that build their wellbeing and resilience. But,  these habits can’t exist on their own. They need to grow out of strong, supportive, nurturing relationships that children can develop with their parents, caregivers and teachers.

Here are 5 ways for building wellbeing, all of them will be more powerful when done with your child, becoming habits you do together, and integrating them into your everyday lives:

  1.  Be yourself.

Helping children to recognise their character strengths is a great way to build their confidence and appreciate the uniqueness they bring to the world. 

By shifting the focus from the things they can’t do to what they can, you emphasise the positive aspects of their character. Character strengths aren’t dependant on an outcome, a grade or a particular achievement; they’re the core virtues that make us who we are. 

There are many ways you can encourage children to notice and appreciate their own strengths, and those of others too. Here are just three:  

 •  Spot strengths

If you’re one of the people spending time wth a child (a parent, friend, teacher, or example), start noticing and naming the strengths you see them display. So, say things like: “You really showed your strength of patience today while we waited at the supermarket” and “I noticed how you were working together in your football practice today; great teamwork!”

•  Take the VIA strengths survey

You may want to support children over 10 by getting them to take the Youth VIA strengths online survey (which is free). By answering a series of questions, the child discovers their strongest character strengths. To emphasise their top 5 strengths, write them down and make sure your child can see them every day.  

•  Find a character role model

There are so many fantastic stories and films depicting character strengths. Talk with your child about the strengths on display and see if they want to try emulating the role model in real life. If they do, use the “spot strengths” technique to praise them for working hard on the trait.

2.  Be grateful.

It can be easy to feel other people’s lives are better than our own, especially when we’re bombarded with perfect images on social media. We can get stuck thinking others are more beautiful, have more money and fun, or simply ‘have more’. And children are just as susceptible as adults to this comparison trap. So how can we help them (and ourselves)?

One idea is to bring attention to what’s working well in your/their life by developing gratitude skills. Here are three ways to do this: 

 •  Start a gratitude jar

Get children into the habit of writing a short gratitude note when things have gone well, and putting it into a gratitude jar. You can encourage them by modelling the behaviour and doing it yourself (it may boost your mood too!). To help get you started, there’s a 40 second video on our blog. 

•  Write a gratitude journal

Older children may prefer to keep a gratitude journal, noting down the things they appreciate and the things that went well for them each day. It can include the positive moments they witnessed too – perhaps good things that happened to their friends that they want to celebrate and give thanks for (learn more about the power of gratitude in this Hey Sigmund post)

•  Have a gratitude conversation

Find a time each day to chat about gratitude. Some parents like to do this before their child goes to sleep, prompting them to talk about what’s gone well that day. Some teachers build the chat into the end-of-school routine, by asking questions like ‘Tell me about someone who’s been kind to you today” or “Tell me about something you feel really thankful for today”.

Building gratitude habits doesn’t mean we diminish, or lack a response to, the struggles and difficult moments that children experience. These moments are really important to talk about too. But, having a time in the day when you focus on the positive can be useful in helping children to keep their thoughts balanced. 

3.  Be mindful.

Our minds can be very busy, getting pulled into thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Finding ways to focus on what’s happening in the present moment is another way to build your child’s wellbeing. 

Here are three different ways to help children develop their mindfulness skills, which will probably work best if you join in too (especially if it’s younger children involved). 

•  Draw for 10 minutes

Give everyone a pencil and paper, set a timer for 10 minutes, and draw something you can see. Bring your attention to the shapes, colours, and patterns. Look at the object from different angles. Challenge older children to see if they can spot when their mind’s wandering (or wondering!) and bring their attention back to the drawing. This activity isn’t about how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ the drawing is, it’s about whether you can focus on the activity and bring your attention back when it wanders. 

 •  Take a bear for a ride

Younger children may enjoy this simple mindfulness technique for bringing attention to their breath. Ask your child to find their favourite small soft toy. Lay flat on the floor and invite them to put the soft toy on their tummy. Set a timer for two minutes, and ask them to watch how the toy moves up and down as they breathe in and out. This simple act of noticing the movement allows your child to remain “in the moment” for more than one moment.

•  Train the “puppy mind”

Older children (and adults) might enjoy watching this video from the Mindfulness In Schools Project. It’s a 10-minute mindfulness practice that uses a fun and playful animation. 

4. Be kind.

Kindness is a win-win for wellbeing. The research shows us that when we’re kind to others, we not only boost each recipient’s wellbeing; it tends to have the same effect on our own sense of wellness too. Being kind can help us connect with others, and our relationships play a crucial role in our mental health and wellbeing in the long term. 

There are hundreds of ways children and adults can show kindness – every day. And it can be fun to sometimes turn these acts into larger events, to really emphasise their importance and value. 

•  Wear a “kindness cape”

Younger children often love pretending to be superheroes, from SpiderMan to WonderWoman. So they’re also likely to enjoy wearing an imaginary ‘kindness cape’ and working with adults and peers to do superhero acts of kindness. These could be at school, at home or in the community. You can use these opportunities to talk about why it’s important to be kind – to others and to ourselves.

•  Give something

Encourage children to consider donating toys or clothes they’ve outgrown to a charity shop. Involve them in the process, right from choosing what to give through to taking it to the shop. Talk to them about how they’re helping others due to the charity’s work, and helping the planet by recycling rather than adding to landfill.

•  Start fundraising and volunteering

For older children, connecting kindness to something they’re passionate about can be a great way to get them involved with their community and boost their wellbeing. They can do this through organisations like Step Up To Serve (#iwill), which aim to get young people involved in social action opportunities in the community.

5. Nurture a growth mindset.

Being resilient means bouncing back when you encounter challenges, set backs or failures. We all go through times when we struggle, so building our resilience is crucial to helping us cope. 

One way to build resilience in children is to help them develop a growth mindset. This relates to the belief that our abilities and intelligence can develop with practice, feedback and effort. At the other end of the spectrum is a fixed mindset, the belief that our intelligence is fixed and there isn’t much we can do to change it. 

Children with a growth mindset are more likely to try again when they fail at something, and also to attempt to learn how they can improve. Research into this ‘gritty’ quality and growth mindset approach shows that learning from failure is one of the crucial tools for success and resilience. In contrast, children with a fixed mindset tend to give up when they encounter failure, believing that that just don’t have what it takes.

Here are three ways to encourage your child to adopt a growth mindset: 

•  Add the word ‘yet’

Changing the way you talk about intelligence can help your child understand that learning is a process, and that our abilities and traits are not fixed from birth. When your child claims ‘I can’t do this’ (whether they’re talking about a new hobby, their homework, or tying a shoelace), say ‘You can’t do it YET’. Adding this tiny word emphasises the learning process.

•  Practise (and fail) with others

Trying new things can be scary, but it’s often less scary when you do it with others. As a family, you might decide to try something new and celebrate your failures when it doesn’t work (the 1st, 2nd, or even 99th time!). Children can learn a lot from hearing adults respond kindly to themselves when things don’t work out – and then from seeing them try again. 

•  Find inspirational stories of success and failure

With the Winter Olympics in full flow, it’s a great time to have conversations about how these athletes are able to achieve such elite levels of performance. Talent alone doesn’t make you an Olympian. You have to be prepared to dedicate years of training, sacrifice many things, and learn to accept – and grow from – failure to achieve these remarkable accomplishments. These conversations about inspirational people and their achievements can help reinforce the growth mindset message. 

Remember that we, as parents, teachers and caregivers are a crucial source of wellbeing for our children. Have fun with these ideas, try out the ones that fit for you and your family, and let go of the ones that don’t. If you try any of these ideas, we’d love to hear how it goes: the successes and the failures!

[irp posts=”1693″ name=”How to Teach Kids About the Brain: Laying Strong Foundations for Emotional Intelligence (by Dr Hazel Harrison)”]

[irp posts=”2566″ name=”How Gratitude Changes the Brain – And How to Make it Work For You (by Dr Hazel Harrison)”]


About the Author: Dr Hazel Harrison

hazel-1Dr Hazel Harrison works as a clinical psychologist in the United Kingdom. She founded ThinkAvellana to bring psychology out of the clinic and into everyday life. Her website is www.thinkavellana.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @thinkavellana and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thinkavellana

4 Comments

Jean Tracy, MSS

Thank you for sharing this article. Not only are there 5 ways to raise a resilient child but specific and fresh ideas within each strategy.

Thank you again, Karen. I will share this article on my social media sites.

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Jackie

Undeniably the best article I’ve ever read about raising children and teaching behaviour. Thank you!!!

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Lela

The article was great, but there was no way for me to email it to a friend. Could you please add that feature to your site please?

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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