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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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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