What Really Builds Resilience in Kids? (It’s Not What You Think) by Dr Nicole Carvill

What Really Builds Resilience in Kids (It’s Not What You Think)

“What is it with kids today? They don’t seem to have any resilience.”

“Life is tough. They need to harden up!”

Things you’ll never hear me say of course, but what many adults believe. And on the surface it may appear, especially to much older people, that today’s kids are too soft and spoilt to cope with life.

But ‘hardening up’ or ‘toughing it out’ does not build resilience in kids. It undermines it.

What is true is that many of today’s kids have a stress load beyond their bodies’ capacity to cope.

While many parents and teachers are dedicated to fostering resilience in kids, as a society we aren’t in agreement, and we’re often confused about what it really takes to build this resilience.

Earlier this year I found myself in a vulnerable situation. It was an unexpected health scare that left me in a state of panic. I was physically unable to calm myself by myself.  The way I felt, while alone, triggered a surge of compassion for children who frequently feel this way: unable to calm themselves after a stressful situation. After careful reflection, months after this event, I realised the vital importance of co-regulation on children’s emotional and physical wellbeing.

As adults, we often expect our kids to manage themselves (after all they’re not babies anymore!), but the brain does not fully develop until the mid-twenties. Teenagers especially, while appearing independent, need much more support than we realise.

What builds resilience in kids?

When I ask parents what helps kids build resilience, their answers will often contain a belief that independence and space is the key. Our expectation that kids need to learn to manage themselves – on their own – is rooted in our Western obsession with individualism. Only now, as a culture, are we realising the power of social connection.

In recent years, educators, psychologists and social scientists have seen a rise in the number of children and teenagers unable to cope with the challenges they face. There has been a tendency to worry about this generation of kids’ lack of grit and resilience. And of course, with this worry comes a wave of blame and shame toward not only the kids, but often their parents.

We may think kids just need to ‘toughen up’ and learn to ‘get over’ things faster. We may even believe that this lack of resilience is connected to the rise of the ‘helicopter parent.’

But it is more complex and nuanced than that.

So-called ‘bad behaviour’ is often much less to do with choice, than with the physiology of the stress cycle. Many kids, especially teens, are in a state, scientifically termed, of neuroceptive overdrive. The translation? Our kids are over-stressed. We are not imagining it. It’s real. And we can help.

What is clear, from the latest neuroscientific research, is that leaving kids to ‘figure it out’ on their own is not the way to build resilience. In fact, if we want our kids to become more resilient we actually have to support their self-regulation skills through co-regulation. And the only way they can learn to self-regulate is for us to stay close and coach them through life’s difficulties.

So what is self-regulation?

Self-regulation is foundational for emotional wellbeing, educational achievement and physical health. 

Self-regulation, put simply, is about how hard you have to work to deal with all the stressors in your life. According to Dr Stuart Shanker, this has nothing to do with a child’s conscious ability to control or inhibit impulses or delay gratification. Self-regulation is different to self-control. In fact, the ‘self-control’ or decision-making ability is housed in an entirely different part of the brain to where ‘self-regulation’ occurs.

It is self-regulation that makes self-control possible. 

This is so wonderful for parents and teachers to understand. By helping their kids self-regulate, they are actually supporting their ability to learn.

Self-regulation is a lifelong process.

It’s become a cliche, but the image of the oxygen mask fits really well here.

If that plane is going down, we can’t put on our children’s oxygen masks until we’ve put one on ourselves. As a parent, or teacher, ask yourself the following questions:

What do I do when stressed? How do you self-soothe or self-regulate? These questions can be confronting as many of us learnt less than healthy ways to self-soothe.

Self-regulation is not a one-size fits all approach. Learning to self-regulate is about coming to know yourself and your optimum levels of stimulation. It’s about learning your child’s needs too.

How to recognise early warning signs of dysregulation.

As I’ve expressed previously, here and here, what often looks like misbehaviour is actually a clue that your child needs support to deal with their stress, rather than a consequence of punishment.

When it comes to self-regulation, we cannot expect children and teenagers to do this on their own. Self-regulation is a life-long process. Our role is to notice when they are becoming stressed, showing signs of dysregulation. Ultimately, our aim is to teach them to become their own stress detective – looking for the vital clues that they are facing a potential stressor and need to take action to manage the feelings. This takes time and practice to master.

Early warning signs include:

  • Increased impulsivity.
  • Seeing everything as a negative.
  • Not being able to process language (under stress our hearing changes.)
  • Face feels hot.
  • Tummy feels funny.
  • Hypervigilance.
  • Increased sensitivity to processing certain information (e.g., more sensitive to noise than usual).
  • Changes in voice tone (e.g., voice may become louder).
  • Body may expand in fight mode to take up more space (e.g., hands on waist).
  • Body may contract in flight mode (e.g., arms crossed).

Also consider:

  • Lack of sleep.
  • Hydration levels.
  • Possible hunger.

The impact of technology.

Today, many kids’ relaxation time, or ‘downtime’ involves a device. Some teenagers, in particular, cling to their smart-phones as a small child might cling to a teddy bear. Adults, not just children, may seek comfort in their iPads or iPhones, and the bulk of relaxation could take place in front of a screen.

Even though using screens to self-soothe could seem like a viable option, we need to be careful about this.

To the brain, exposure to screens is an energy-depleting activity. Which is why when you try to take the screen away you’re often met with a temper tantrum. Dr Kristy Goodwin, a researcher on digital wellbeing, calls this the ‘techno tantrum.’ Parents of children of all ages might relate!

A state of quiet is not the same as calm. 

If a child is more passive during screen time, this doesn’t mean it has been a relaxing experience. Not neurologically anyway. The huge amount of energy expended means the child is usually completely exhausted after the experience.

This doesn’t mean you need to ban screens entirely. It’s simply important to understand how the use of screens can inhibit, rather than enhance kids’ ability to self-regulate. And if the goal is to help them self-regulate, it makes sense to set limits, and teach kids explicit ways to relax and reset their nervous system.

How can we help our kids self-regulate?

As mentioned earlier, self-regulation is a life-long skill and what suits one child may not work for another. Self-regulation needs to be taught. They can’t figure this out on their own. Parents can feel overwhelmed, naturally, many of us haven’t been taught how to self-regulate and may not be able to identify our own triggers early enough. This is not about blame or shame, but rather a beautiful opportunity to learn together.

It’s called co-regulation.

So what is co-regulation and how do I do it?

Co-regulation could become the most powerful way to build resilience in your children, whatever their age. Co-regulation is when an adult supports a child’s regulation. Think about when your little person was a baby. When they cried you would try to work out what was causing them to cry and then soothe them. This is co-regulation and it needs to continue beyond the early years of development. We are social creatures who are designed to soothe each other. It’s hard for an adult to support a child however, whether a parent or a teacher if they are over-stressed or physically unwell themselves. This is why it’s so crucial for you, as a parent, to come to understand your own stress triggers and develop your own personalised strategies to restore your energy.

Intuitively, we all know this. When we feel stressed, we enter survival mode, and find it harder to deal with our children’s behaviour. Today’s parents are especially sensitive to excess stress because of the demands that modern life places on us. In our work lives, we’re expected to be ‘on’ and ‘available’ 24/7. There are no longer clear distinctions between work life and home life. And many families have extras pressures that they have to manage.

Research into self-regulation, conducted by Duke University, identified three ways that caregivers (parents, teachers, coaches) can support co-regulation:

  1. Provide a responsive relationship.

This involves recognising and responding to the early warning signs, displaying affection and warmth, and communicating interest in the child’s world.

  1. Consider the environment.

This involves structuring a child’s environment so it is safe and secure. Consistent routines and expectations are helpful here.

  1. Explicitly teach or model self-regulation skills.

This will be dependent on age, but teaching kids to have a wide emotional vocabulary, begin to recognise their unique stressors and calming and soothing strategies – and about the importance of these is hugely important.

None of these ways will work effectively, however, if a parent or caregiver is stressed out! So the first step is to focus on your own capacity of self-regulation. Once you’ve spent some time doing this, you’ll feel more empowered to start to co-regulate with your child.

You can start simply by:

  • Noticing your own feelings, thoughts and reactions in stressful situations.
  • Observing your stress triggers.
  • Devise your own strategies: anything from deep breathing to talking softly and compassionately to yourself. Self-regulation strategies are not hard – but easy to forget to do!.

There are so many ways to recover and reset. When it comes to co-regulation, you’ll need to find the things that your child finds soothing. This may take a bit of experimentation. You will find some strategies that work for both of you however. And once you do, you can engage in these restorative activities together.

A 5 step plan.

Dr Stuart Shanker, an expert in self-regulation, put forward a 5 step plan for parents or caregivers to follow. The plan below provides both a big picture view of co-regulation and the order to follow:

  1. Read the signs of excessive stress in your child (and yourself!) and reframe the behaviour from misbehaviour to stress behaviour. This is critical.
  2. Identify the stressors
  3. Reduce the stressors (some stress is unavoidable but there’s always power to change things)
  4. Increase your own stress awareness, both emotional and physical
  5. Develop your coping strategies from the information above. Through trial and error find out what helps you to feel calm and restore your energy. Often we focus on when things are not going well. But, you get important information about what is calming for your child when you also look at what’s happening when they are relaxed and content.

Now that you know more about co-regulation and why it’s so crucial to resilience, I’d love you to share this post with your friends. The more than we can support each other, the better off our kids will be.

References:

https://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/Co-RegulationFromBirthThroughYoungAdulthood.pdf

https://self-reg.ca


 

    

Follow Nicole on Facebook, or click over to her website to find out more about her work or to book a consult.

One Comment

Veronika Y

Thanks for the post, it really helped me realize a couple of things.

I think modern parents have higher expectations from their kids (I mean toddlers and preschoolers), so we should just let them enjoy childhood and happy moments. While we think their emotional intelligence is minimal, they express negative feelings more efficiently than adults. Sometimes crying and yelling is all it takes to feel better in a while.

I guess teens are the most stressed-out. Society demands them to act like adults but yet puts restrictions like on kids. They are so overwhelmed with school, physical and hormonal changes, conflicts with peers, and personality growth that we should give them double as much support.

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When you can’t cut out (their worries), add in (what they need for felt safety). 

Rather than focusing on what we need them to do, shift the focus to what we can do. Make the environment as safe as we can (add in another safe adult), and have so much certainty that they can do this, they can borrow what they need and wrap it around themselves again and again and again.

You already do this when they have to do things that don’t want to do, but which you know are important - brushing their teeth, going to the dentist, not eating ice cream for dinner (too often). The key for living bravely is to also recognise that so many of the things that drive anxiety are equally important. 

We also need to ask, as their important adults - ‘Is this scary safe or scary dangerous?’ ‘Do I move them forward into this or protect them from it?’♥️
The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️

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