Jen Mance looks at whether we can help our kids to ‘bounce back’

Most of us are familiar with individuals who seem more resilient than others. Some people seem to thrive despite enormous adversity, whereas others seem to crumble when faced with much smaller challenges. The quality of being able to ‘bounce’ back from difficult circumstances is known as psychological resilience.

The technical definition of psychological resilience includes a range of elements. These include protective factors intrinsic to the person such as genetics, personality, sense of humour, and factors external to the person such as their family environment and culture. These factors all shape the individual’s ability to access support when needed, and move towards a more positive outcome.

Adversity can take many forms. Even children in the most sheltered environments may experience bereavement, difficulties at school, or struggle with peer relationships. Other children are subject to more severe traumas such as domestic violence, fleeing their country of origin, or abuse, to name but a few. The good news is that there is much research about those factors which promote resilience in children, such as:

1. A warm and secure attachment relationship, where a child feels a sense of belonging and security
2. Good self esteem –where the child feels loved, worthwhile, and competent
3. A sense of self-efficacy -of being able to exercise choice, mastery, and control and an understanding of personal strengths and limitations.
(Gilligan, 1997)

Common sense tells us that a child who has a warm and secure relationship with parents, and who feels loved, will do better compared to a child who lacks these things.This is familiar to most parents. Is there anything more practical that we can do to foster resilience? The third factor mentioned here, self-efficacy, may be a useful area to think about in terms of intervention.

There are times when it is valuable to refrain from cushioning children from the impact of poor decision-making, or from seeing their parents experiencing distress, if the child is then supported to manage their own emotions and to make sense of what they have experienced. And for them to develop competence we will need to allow children to attempt tasks for themselves, without rushing in to support them too early. This means they can experience low-level failures and learn to persevere, find help, develop mastery and a sense of self-efficacy.

Paediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg, author of ‘Building Resilience in Children and Teens’, cautions against pushing children too hard to master the next step in a hierarchy of skills. Instead he encourages allowing them to progress at their own pace. He also suggeststhat we restrain ourselves from giving advice, in order to communicate to the child that we see them as a competent individual. For example, when witnessing a child struggling to put on their shoes, we might say ‘What do you think you need to do next?’ rather than saying ‘Undo that lace and start again’ or ‘It’s on the wrong foot.’

The social and cultural domains of resilience have also been found to have a powerful effect. Resilient children have a sense of belonging, whether to their families, an ethnic community, a school community or other social groups.

One of the most powerful factors contributing to resilience has been found to be the extent to which children feel part of a family narrative. Psychologists Marshall Duke and Robyn Fivush measured how much children knew about their family (e.g. where parents met, where they grew up and went to school) and found that those children who knew more about their family history also had higher self esteem, lower anxiety, and fewer negative internalizing and externalizing behaviours.

Two months later, their scores on afamily history scale were found to be strongly associated with the extent to which the children were traumatised by the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Duke and Fivush suggest that the sense of an ‘intergenerational self’ helps children to develop confidence, and that it is particularly beneficial to share with children how other family members have coped with both hardships and successes.

As a parent who often wrestles with suppressing the ‘helicoptering’ instinct, this kind of research is encouraging to me, and I have found myself able to take more of a step back from my children, knowing that they stand to learn something valuable from failure.

They seem to love family stories, and are particularly drawn to those which involve accidents, catastrophes, or plain stupidity! I do hope that sharing these things will have some value to them as they seek to understand how to cope with the ups and downs of life.

Dr Jen Mance is a Chartered Clinical Psychologist who works with children and families. She is starting a post-natal support group for new mothers in September. For further details email jenniferamance@gmail.com or see www.about.me/mancejennifer.

Suggested Reading
‘Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings’ by Kenneth Ginsburg (copy available to borrow if wished).