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.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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