Over the last ten years there has been a lot of talk in primary education and wellbeing about the importance of resilience.

What exactly is resilience?

A commonly used definition is that resilience is a person’s ability to ‘bounce back’ from adversity.

A popular educational program called ‘Bounce Back’ is widely used in NSW primary schools to teach kids exactly how to recover if and when bad stuff happens to them. I have taught children lessons from this program myself and agree with lots of the content. Here are some sample pages from the Yr 3 & 4 program.

The underlying psychologybehind the program is that our thoughts about something bad happening to us are the cause of our emotional pain and that to recover we need to view the experience as a learning opportunity and gain wisdom from it. Reframing our thoughts or changing to ‘helpful thinking’ about an event in our lives will change our resultant feelings and behaviour. This program is based on cognitive behaviour therapy.

I absolutely agree with most of the ideas in cognitive behaviour therapy, however from my experience with my own fearful thinking and that of kids and parents I have worked with – you can’t realistically expect yourself or others to be able to look on the bright side of something until you have fully explored the bad side! This is especially the case when we have past emotional hurt and baggage about something. For instance I couldn’t recover emotionally and look on the positives from my motorbike accident until I dealt with my baggage about; not being loved, not being worthy and life being unfair.

My personal theory is that true resilience comes after true adversity.

Resilience is not something you can teach a child until they have experienced something ‘bad’ happening to them. (I’m not ditching the Bounce Back program here as it does focus on kids remembering their own adversity). I put bad in quotation marks just now because we judge things as being good or bad depending on how they make us feel. The things that happen to us that make us feel bad can actually make us wiser, stronger and more willing to take on challenges (this is my definition of resilience) so therefore ‘bad’ isn’t really the right word to describe them.

This theory of mine also suggests that the more intense, severe or ‘bad’ the adversity, the more resilient a child could potentially become.  I say potentially because it could also go the other way depending on the support, teaching and role modelling the child receives from significant grown ups in their lives.

Saying that however, the best way to support, teach and role model resilience to children is to do it with the small ‘bad’ things that happen daily! Stuff like: being left out of a game, not doing well in a task at school, being embarrassed about something, not wanting to try something new, being bullied by someone, finding out some bad news, being late for something important, forgetting to do something, hurting someone’s feelings and the list goes on.

So let’s get to the point – how do you help your child to be more resilient?

  1. Model resilience!
  2. Teach your child how they workso they understand why they feel bad when things don’t work out for them and that it is normal and healthy to feel bad in these situations.
  3. Support your child to be ‘Shady’. Give them free reign to be scared, angry, disappointed, sad, revengeful, and guilty or whatever they are feeling. Encourage them to talk about what went wrong, without judgment (that means don’t judge them, other people or their experience – if you are upset too, do these steps yourself first and then support your child. Emotional parents often make things worse for their children by taking a defensive Shady position*). Let your child whinge, moan, complain and go deep into their darkest place so they can explore everything negative (or more correctly fearful). This is paramount! You cannot look on the bright side and move forward until you have fully explored the dark side. Carl Jung suggests, ‘what you resist persists’. In other words if you try to fight your fearful thoughts (and feelings) and pretend you don’t have them they go into your subconscious and cause all sorts of problems!
  4. Support your child to feel and express their bad feelings. Our bad feelings are supposed to move through us, they are supposed to be felt and expressed. The human body is physically designed to feel emotional pain. Emotional pain is normal and healthy. Yes it is painful, but that’s part of life! Resilient people are ‘strong’. My definition of strong is someone who is willing to be vulnerable, that means willing to feel their bad emotions and willing to cry to release their pain.
  5. Move forward! When your child has explored all their fearful thoughts and felt all their fearful feelings it is time to do that ‘reframing’ or ‘look on the bright side’ of the situation. If it’s a small ‘bad’ thing this could take 10 mins, if it’s something traumatic it could take a whole year (or more – and that’s okay). What could they learn from their experience? How could it make them wiser? What could they do now to make something loving or positive come from their adversity? This is where Sparky comes in! When your child has truly finished exploring and feeling all the bad stuff, ask them to ask Sparky, “What now?” As in “What do I think, believe, say and do now?” Then support them to think, believe, say and do whatever their Sparky suggested. For traumatic events Sparky can and will give them bits of pieces of wisdom throughout their journey of recovery.

*It is natural and normal for parents to protect their children from pain. You have been doing this since your child was a baby so don’t be hard on yourself if you are still doing it! However it is NOT helpful for you to be Shady while you are supporting your child to be resilient. If you bitch, blame others, take on the problem as your own and try to shelter your child from the natural and normal consequences, you are taking away their power (which is their chance to learn resilience)! That’s why ‘Model resilience’ is first on the list. Children learn from us! If we do these steps ourselves when faced with our own challenges and with our child’s too, then it will become natural that they will do it too!

Love Kathy