‘We’ll fix it’ parents do their children no favours

Raising a resilient child: future happiness lies in learning to cope with adversity, says Sheila Wayman

We all want our children to be happy and the temptation, in this era of “over-parenting”, is to rush in to try to fix their problems. A child down the road was mean? Let’s ring her mother. The teacher was giving out? We’ll complain to the principal. Dropped from the A team? We’ll have words with that “stupid” coach.

Too often we’re overprotective, we overintervene and we can also be overgenerous with material things, for fear of disappointing a child. In misguided attempts to remove all causes of unpleasantness, we’re not recognising that children have to learn to cope with unhappiness in order to be happy.

We concentrate on raising our children for success and not failure, although life, inevitably, is about both.

Parents would love to spare their children all pain and suffering, agrees psychologist Tony Bates, founding director of Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health, "but that is not going to happen". The best thing we can do is to equip children to deal with adversity.

These coping skills will help them develop resilience: an ability to “bounce back”, to persevere and not be unduly affected emotionally by setbacks.

Resilience, however you get there, comes down to “a young person having a good sense of self”, explains Bates. “Knowing by 17 or 18 who they are – at least having some sense of who they are – knowing what works for them and what doesn’t; knowing their strengths and knowing where they are vulnerable.”

They learn that sense of self through their interactions with adults in the world, primarily home and school. If they experience low expectations, that’s hurtful and leaves them feeling lost but, equally, unrealistic high expectations are very damaging.

“Young people are trying to discover who they are and what they are capable of. Our interactions with them communicate a lot of important information about that: if we underdo it or overdo it, we are selling them short.”

Boosting self-esteem

Jolanta Burke, positive psychologist and PhD researcher at Trinity College Dublin, says that the kind of feedback you give a child is crucial. It can either make them resilient or lead them to shy away from challenges.

Growing up in Poland in the mid-1970s to 1980s, she is of the generation whose parents were told to boost their children’s self-esteem by continually telling them how wonderful and smart they were.

“Now research shows that lowers resilience in many kids,” says Burke, who would include herself in that group. As an adolescent, she was very pessimistic and this wasn’t helped by the fact that her father was prone to depression and her mother struggled with anxiety.

If anything bad came up, “I preferred not to think about it, so I wasn’t solving any problems,” she says. It was only in her 20s that she began to learn about positive psychology and to change her way of thinking.

Her advice for giving a child feedback is to praise the process – the effort and strategy – not the person. “If you praise the child for being smart, when they don’t do well they automatically think it is because they are not smart.”

Look for situations where they are not doing well and praise their persistence. Challenge them to give it another try. It is about teaching children optimism and it is important that, when things go wrong, they don’t blame themselves unduly.

“If a child has a pessimistic way of thinking, they will be less resilient in life and have more suicidal ideation; they may be more depressed and anxious.”

The initial reaction of a pessimistic child to a bad school test result is “I am stupid,” she continues. But the optimistic child says “I didn’t put effort into this particular test” or “I was distracted by a friend” or “my teacher was bad . . .”

The parent needs to take the child aside and say, “Okay, these things happen, but what can you do to make sure this won’t happen again?” You bring the child back to a sense of responsibility for the result but at the same time you don’t blame some personal quality that they can’t change.

Pessimistic children believe an adverse situation will last “forever”, says Burke. But it is important for a child to realise that if you put effort in, you can change the situation. “If children believe things can change, it will help them to become much more resilient.”

Positive feedback needs to be meaningful if it is to be constructive. She sees parents who despair that their children always draw the same picture – but if their efforts are just met with a “you’re so talented” response every time, is it any wonder that they are afraid of painting something different?

You need to comment on something specific, such as the way they used a colour, so you are praising the strategy of drawing. “If you are praising the child on the process, you are enhancing their resilience.”

Be authentic with praise

We’ve all said “wonderful picture”, while holding a child’s drawing upside down without giving it a second glance, agrees parenting mentor Sheila O’Malley. And the child knows perfectly well we’re not looking at it. We need to avoid overpraising, and to be authentic.

Small children love to learn and they don’t have a difficulty with failure: they fall, and they get up and have another go, she says. Failure may become a problem only when they see the effect it has on their parents.

The mistake parents make is confusing the child with the performance, she warns. Kids who are under pressure from their parents may feel their being loved is dependent on winning their next race or getting a certain number of points in the Leaving, rather than for who they are.

Burke is passionate about teaching children optimism and resilience and believes that schools are not doing enough to teach these skills. She works with teachers and sees that they too can have a very pessimistic way of thinking.

She doesn’t want to blame teachers but thinks it would be good for them to get a chance to learn positive psychology, for their own sakes as well as for the children they are interacting with every day.

She is about to be announced as a global representative of the International Positive Education Network, which was established in 2013, and she hopes to promote its philosophy to the education system here and to bring relevant Irish research out into the wider world.

Burke will be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC) in Waterford later this month, where the theme will be "Being Positive in Guidance".

Burke’s message of positivity and building resilience will have resonances for this group of professionals who, according to IGC president Betty McLaughlin, are in “self-preservation mode” ever since the cuts of Budget 2012.

Building resilience in children is “getting the message to them that life isn’t fair and everybody doesn’t have to love you; it’s how you deal with these things when they come along”, says McLaughlin, a guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire CBS in Mullingar, Co Westmeath.

She recommends pupils get involved in sports or some other activity in the community, thereby “building up a little group for themselves so that when things go bad, they have somebody to turn to”.

The "social ecology" of a young person is key, agrees social scientist Prof Pat Dolan, head of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, as is non-formal activity.

“You need to have good community development, good extended family and schools with a good culture”: all these help young people to be resilient.

People often confuse the concepts of resilience and coping, he says. Coping is the mechanism that leads you to resilience.

“For resilience to exist, there have to be two conditions: bouncing back from extreme stress and doing better than expected.”

‘Ordinary magic’

A lot of people think resilience comes from turning points but the evidence shows it is based on “ordinary magic”, he says.

“It is the mundane things in life that enable you to be resilient: the parents who are there for you every week, the friend who makes sure you are okay in a constant way.”

Services working with young people focus on resilience and better outcomes for children, he says, rather than focusing on whether or not they can cope with stressful situations; with school next week; with a parent who is drinking too much . . .

“The notion of coping deserves better airplay in the whole conversation about resilience,” he argues. “You can’t change everything in the world for everybody.”

Parents are trying to repair things all the time for their children, says Dolan. But what you really want is for them to be able to solve their own problems and learn to withstand stress.

So next time you’re rushing in to dig your child out of a hole, ask yourself whether standing back and encouraging them to climb out themselves would be a better “fix” in the long term.


Exercises for building resilience in children

1. Give your child a “positivity” book and every day ask them to draw something they did that made them smile. Tell them that every time they feel blue, all they need to do is open the book, read it, smile, and do one of the activities from the book to cheer themselves up. Aim: To give a child control over their mood.

2 Take three healthy plants and set up three conditions for them: water and light; no water, and no light. After 10 days, compare the plants and talk to your child about what has happened. Then water the dry plant and put the third plant in the light. Observe how the plants bounce back and discuss it with your child. Aim: To help children see that when bad things happen, they are not forever.

3 Sit with your child and decide which of you will play the positive (fortunately) and the negative (unfortunately). Start telling a story by taking it in turns to provide the next sentence. You might end up like this: “One day, as Aoife was walking down the road, she found a lost dog. Fortunately, the dog was cute. Unfortunately, it was aggressive and chased after her. Fortunately, it chased her into a sweet shop . . .” Aim: To show that there is always a silver lining.

These activities have been adapted by Jolanta Burke from Bounce Back: a wellbeing and resilience programme for children (McGrath & Noble, 2011) For more ideas, see jolantaburke.com

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