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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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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