Helping our children navigate the stresses and strains of daily life is more important than ever. Figures released in November last year by NHS Digital show a worrying rise in young people’s mental health problems: one in eight children aged between five and 19 in England has a diagnosable mental health condition; the prevalence of emotional disorders, including anxiety and depression, has risen by 48% since 2004.
Why is Resilience Important?
Building resilience – the ability to adapt to life’s misfortunes and setbacks, is an important life skill and, for young people, is particularly helpful for managing feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. Resilience is also a key skill underpinning academic success and is highly valued by employers.
Resilience doesn’t make the problems go away — but it does help young people see past them, find enjoyment in life and better handle stress. As parents, we may not be able to remove all these challenges but we can pass on skills to help young people cope with stress and adversity. If your children are not as resilient as you’d like, there are various sources of advice and guidance.
According to The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on Parenting and Resilience, there are general factors and behaviours which can affect a child’s well-being and resilience, namely:
- warmth, responsiveness and stimulation
- providing adequate and consistent role models
- harmony between parents
- spending time with children
- promoting constructive use of leisure
- consistent guidance
- structure and rules during adolescence
Whilst a lot of this is common sense, the practical steps that parents can take to help their children become more resilient are less clear. Furthermore, cultural shifts in parenting also tend to suppress opportunities for our children to develop key skills for handling uncertainty and the unexpected. According to Lynn Lyons, LICSW, a psychotherapist and author, who specializes in treating anxious families and children “We have become a culture of trying to make sure our kids are comfortable. We as parents are trying to stay one step ahead of everything our kids are going to run into.” The problem is that life doesn’t really work like that.
Tips for Parents
We have compiled a list of practical tips for parents to help teenagers become more resilient to the ups and downs of modern life:
1. Be calm and supportive. By being open and non-judgemental, parents can help their child feel more comfortable about discussing their views and feelings, supporting them through their inevitable set-backs and disappointments. For anxious teens, it’s especially important to avoid talking in catastrophic terms and to remain calm and optimistic. Helping your child remember ways that he or she has successfully handled past hardships also helps build their confidence about handling future challenges.
2. Avoid eliminating all risk. Naturally, parents want to keep their kids safe but risk taking and learning how to problem solve, if things go wrong, are key to becoming more resilient. By giving teens age-appropriate freedom, they can learn their own limits and also become more confident about their ability to handle problems.
3. Let them make mistakes. Failure is not the end of the world and it provides lots of incredibly useful learning opportunities. Whilst it is often tough for parents to see their teens make mistakes, especially ones that can be easily avoided, it helps children learn how to fix slip-ups and make better decisions next time.
4. Encourage teens to build social/support networks. As social relationships influence psychological and physical well-being, it’s not surprising that they also matter when it comes to resilience, in part because they help us feel less stress when we are suffering. Whether it be friends, team mates or class mates, encouraging your child to nurture social relationships is important, giving your child an additional source of support in difficult times.
5. Don’t accommodate every need. “Good” parenting is often associated with making sure our childrens’ lives are as comfortable as possible. However, overprotecting kids can fuel anxiety. For example, it might be tempting to give your child a lift to school because they are anxious about catching the bus. However, in the long run, they will need to be able to get their own way around so it’s better to find a way of supporting them, possibly by suggesting they travel with a friend, rather than accommodating their anxiety.
6. Help them to learn problem-solving. It’s very common for parents to help their children by answering all their questions or providing solutions to their problems. Saying “I don’t know”, followed by a question which helps them to think for themselves can be effective, helping them learn to tolerate uncertainty and think about ways to deal with potential challenges. For example, let’s say your teen wants to go to a festival, but they’re nervous about it. Rather than saying “Well, then there’s no reason to go” or “You’ll love it”, help them figure out what’s making them nervous and how to navigate those worries. You might also explain that there will be adults on site if help is needed.
Using “how” questions when talking to your child, rather than “why” questions also promotes problem-solving. For example, if your teenager left their phone on the train, and you ask “why?”, it’s unlikely to prompt much of a response and is unlikely to prevent it happening again. Asking “How are you going to get your phone back” might prompt them to contact the station or lost property to see if it has been handed in.
7. Teach your child self-care. Make yourself a good example, and teach your child the importance of making time to eat properly, exercise and rest. Make sure your child has time to have fun, and make sure that your child hasn’t scheduled every moment of his or her life with no “down time” to relax. Caring for oneself and even having fun will help your child stay balanced and better deal with stressful times.
8. Nurture a positive outlook and attitude to change. Teens often find change quite scary, worrying about the impact on their lives, families and friends. Helping your child see that change is part of life, which can also provide exciting new opportunities, can help teens feel more positive and confident about the prospect of change.
This list is not exhaustive but hopefully provides a good starting point.