What Is Resilience? And Can Therapy Make Your Child More Resilient?
Takeaway: Resilience is your child’s ability to rebound from challenges and tough times. And thankfully, it’s something we can teach children to develop — either at home or through therapies like CBT, ACT, and more. And the great thing is that we can match your child’s personality and needs to the type of therapy that will best help her.
Stressful things happen to all children, but some seem to handle tough times better than others.
Children often have to face a range of stressful challenges. For instance, they might lose someone they love (e.g., a parent dies or parents get divorced), their daily routine might change (e.g., they shift houses or change schools), or they might witness a traumatic event (e.g., a serious playground accident). And these experiences can affect them in many ways, such as making them more anxious, disturbing their sleep, disrupting their concentration, and even physically affecting them through headaches, tummy upsets, and more. But while some children struggle through all this, others seem to adapt to their setbacks gracefully and thrive. It’s like they have a special shield to protect them from life’s hardships and help them rebound from troubling events. It’s a shield that psychologists call ‘resilience,’ and it’s a sign that a child can nurture and coach herself through tough times.
This resilience often develops early in life, usually when children have particular traits and childhood experiences.
Child psychologist Emily Werner from the University of California tracked the growth and development of a group of children born in 1955 in Hawaii. And she discovered that the ones that became resilient, well-adjusted adults all had a few things in common:
- They’d been active and sociable babies.
- They’d had at least one skill or ability they were proud of and which their friends respected.
- They’d had a positive role model to teach them how to trust people, take initiative, and be independent.
After this study, psychologists have added to these initial findings. For instance, they’ve noted that optimistic children with a good sense of humour tend to be more resilient. And it’s even better if they come from stable homes, go to good schools, and have an extensive network of friends and relatives for support.
But the vital part of this puzzle is that we can teach resilience. So, just because a child isn’t resilient right now, it doesn’t mean she has to stay that way.
Resilence describes a way of approaching life where we focus on what we can control rather than fretting about what we can’t. So, it’s a mindset children can develop with practice rather than a trait they either have or don’t have. And just like muscles get stronger with physical activity, resilience develops as children practise healthier ways of thinking and behaving. The good news is that it’s never too late to start resilience coaching. With young children, we can use their impressionable minds that are primed to learn quickly. And with adolescents, we have their newly-emerging critical thinking and self-regulation skills to work with.
As a simple example, let’s look at how goal setting can help lay the foundation for resilience.
Goal-setting exercises at home or school are the ideal controlled environment for children to learn resilience. They start by setting a goal that excites them – for instance, learning how to play their favourite song on a new musical instrument. Then they break down that goal into smaller tasks and habits – for instance, ‘practise the piano every day’ or ‘learn how to play one new line of the song every week.’ And now comes the real challenge: dealing with all the little setbacks and frustrations along the way. On some days, it might seem like there’s too much other work to do, and on others, they might not be in the mood to practice. But if we help guide them through these obstacles, they’ll learn to stop fearing hardships – seeing them as something to handle and plan for instead. It’s how they’ll gradually craft their resilience shield and not lose themselves in worry and fear over day-to-day challenges.
Here’s where therapy can help because it offers children more structured support.
Therapy is a great way of developing resilience in children. It teaches all the same things we’ve discussed (goal setting, emotional regulation, etc.) but in a more structured way, using psychological theory and techniques as a guide. Further, it can help spot any other factors at play. For instance, ADHD or a learning difference like dyslexia can add more stress to a child’s life, making it harder for her to be resilient without extra coaching.
Crucially, there are multiple types of therapy to tackle the challenge from different angles.
Each branch of talk therapy uses a different approach to nurture a child’s resilience. For instance, cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) explores how a child’s faulty thinking (e.g., “I’m bad at maths”) can make it harder for her to tackle obstacles (e.g., she gives up too easily when preparing for maths tests). So, through CBT, she can learn to recognise and correct her thinking errors, practising her new skills out in the real world in-between sessions. In contrast, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) focuses on teaching children how to be mentally flexible, so they can adapt – rather than break – when tough times come. This means learning to accept the current situation (however unpleasant it might be) and committing to healthy, constructive activities to solve their problems. Mindfulness-based therapy can help here, too, to teach children to root themselves in the present moment, without judging it. And in the process, they’ll learn to face unpleasant feelings instead of running away from them.
There’s even play therapy for younger children.
Playing is such an integral part of a child’s life, and for good reason – because aside from being fun, it can heal children from emotional pain and trauma. And psychologists harness this by repurposing play into a form of therapy. With ‘non-directive’ play therapy, the therapist lets the child play with whatever toy she wants, however she wants. The assumption here is that the child intuitively knows what will heal her, and the therapist is simply a facilitator and companion on the journey. Meanwhile, with ‘directive’ play therapy, the therapist assesses a child’s needs and chooses therapeutic toys or themes accordingly. The focus here is to use the session to emphasise a child’s strengths, show her what she’s capable of doing on her own, and encourage her to be creative and self-driven.
These are just a few ways resilience-oriented therapy can help your child adapt to life challenges. But there’s so much more to it if you’re keen on exploring your options.
If you’d like to help your child become more resilient, feel free to reach out to us for guidance. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- Email: Office@TheEdPsych.com
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