You can’t protect your children all the time – help them protect themselves
John Sharry on practical measures to help build resilience in your children
Family communication – can you easily talk to an adult in your household about your problems?
Over the last six articles in our series titled “Pressure Points” we have explored what parents can do to empower their children to make responsible choices around risky behaviours such smoking, drinking, sex and the dangers on the Internet.
In this last article, we explore how parents can build resilience in their children so they have the capacity to deal with challenge and adversity as it occurs in their lives.
Risk and protective factors
Many research studies looking at the prevalence of serious adolescent problems such as delinquency alcohol/drug misuse, early sexual activity, etc, attempt to identify the protective factors that reduce the likelihood of these problems occurring. While you don’t have control of many of these factors – such as the child’s individual temperament or adverse experiences that might have happened in the past – you have control of many of them and and most can be cultivated and encouraged in children’s lives.
For example, several studies show that children brought up with good family communication, positive school engagement, and exposure to responsible peer groups are significantly more likely to succeed at school and to avoid drug and alcohol misuse. As a parent, you can work at creating these protective factors in your children’s lives.
Developing your children’s developmental assets
Some of the studies list these protective factors as “developmental assets” that can be accumulated for children and I find this a useful way of thinking about protecting our children and equipping them to deal with future challenges. For example, the Search Institute in the USA propose an asset-focused approach to ensuring the best outcomes for children. They list 40 key developmental assets that parents and educators should encourage in children in order to maximise their chance of being well-adjusted and successful as adults.
When working with families, I often summarise these assets into a short list as a means of inviting them to reflect on what strengths their children already have and what strengths they can work on encouraging. Sometimes, I present the assets in the form of a checklist that the teenager can complete a means of assessing their current well-being and what resources they have access to. The teenagers are asked to rate the 11 statements below on a scale of one to five, with one meaning you strongly disagree and five meaning you strongly agree.
1) Parental connection – Your parents love and support you.
2) Parental rules – Your parents set clear rules and enforce them.
3) Non-parental adult role models – You know adults that encourage you often.
4) Peer role models – Most of your friends are responsible.
5) Family communication – You can easily talk to an adult in your household about your problems.
6) Use of time (groups/sports) – You participate in an organised activity after school.
7) Use of time (religion) – You participate in church/religious activities.
8) Community involvement – You work to make your community a better place.
9) Aspirations for the future – As you look to your future, you think it important is that you stay in school.
10) Responsible choices – You can say no to activities that you think are wrong.
11) Good health practices (exercise/nutrition) – You take good care of your body by eating well and exercising.
A high score indicates a high level of assets and means that the teenager has a number of protective factors operating in their lives.
As you can see, the list is written to be rated by the teenagers rather than the parents – as it is the teens’ perceptions that matter most rather than parents.
As a parent, you might think you are loving and supportive or that you set clear rules, but if you teen does not perceive this as happening then it is not an asset nor a protective factor.
Improving your child’s assets
When you complete a checklist, such as the one above, it is not meant to make you feel bad about what is missing in your lives, but rather it is meant to highlight some of the assets that already exist, as well as to identify positive positive changes.
When I review the list with families, I first ask them to highlight what assets are already present so they can make a plan to keep these. For example, I might be working with teenager who is struggling at school and at home, but who belongs to a sports club with a supportive coach. In helping this teenager, the goal is to first preserve this supportive interest and connection in his life.
In addition, when reviewing the assets that are less present in the child’s life I ask the parent to identify one or two positive changes they want to make to address these. For example, they might realise that family communication has become strained and so make a plan to spend more relaxed time at home or to join their child in a special interest or even to seek family therapy to provide a space for the family to talk. Or if rules have become lax, then I support parents to make steps to create good rules and routines to get the family back on track.
There are always simple small steps that families can take to improve things
Tips for building your children’s assets
Review the assets in the list above, thinking about each of your children and teenagers. Have a think about what their perception/answer to each question might be.
– What assets do they already have in their lives?
– What ones could you develop further for them?
Consider sitting down with your children and go through the list together and use it as a means of opening up an important conversation and even making plans and targets about changing things for the better.
This article was one of a six-part Pressure Points series. Read the others here . . .
Part 1: Don’t be a helicopter parent, but don’t be permissive either.
Part 2: Five ways parents can connect with their children.
Part 3: Talk early and often to kids about dangers.
Part 4: Responsibility vs freedom: Teens who drink at home are more likely to binge.
Part 5: How to stop a child ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a course on Helping Children Overcome Anxiety starting on Monday, February 6th, 2017. His new book Bringing Up Happy, Confident Children is now available.