Raising Resilient Kids

Our First Tuesdays talks prove as popular as ever with many parents attending educational psychologist, Naomi Holdt’s talk in June on the topic of raising resilient kids and teens in an upside- down world. It’s something we’re all concerned about. With anxiety and depression rates on the rise (Naomi said that, in the 10-17 year-old age bracket, 1 in 7 children now has a mental health disorder), words like ‘grit’ and ‘resilience’ get thrown around as coping mechanisms. So, when Naomi began speaking about resilience, we all sat up and listened, waiting for the magic combination of words that would make our Redhill students feel better equipped to take on an increasingly complex world.

It turns out that building resilience is both easier – and harder – than we thought. There is one thing that has been proven to increase resilience, even within very sensitive children: relationships. No matter what issue your child is facing – sibling rivalry, anxiety, temper tantrums, attachment difficulties, friendship issues, bullying, academic struggles – the biggest buffer to the stresses of life is the relationships your child forms. The causes of these stresses are often beyond your locus of control, but the development and nurturing of healthy relationships with your children is something that’s within your control. These positive relationships with your children make them more likely to respond to stress as an elastic band, instead of a matchstick.

So how do we go about building these relationships? Well, the answer isn’t luxurious holidays. Naomi said that parents often think that a big holiday somewhere else with their kids will be just the ticket when it comes to quality time and building relationships. But that’s not the case. Choose presence over presents. Relationships, according to Naomi, are built in the everyday moments. The day-to-day minutiae, where nothing special is happening. The moments where you close the laptop, turn your phone face-down, take the pot off the stove and fully engage with your child. And in those moments, seek to understand before you seek to fix.

A healthy, positive relationship will give your child the tools they need to fix a difficult situation themselves. And no matter how easy it is for you to see a way through and give them the solution, the magic happens when they figure it out themselves. Naomi then took us in an unexpected direction. She told parents how to work on themselves first, by focusing on the qualities of parents who raise resilient children. At first, the audience was confused. They were here to learn how to make their kids resilient, not themselves. But, as Naomi explained, it’s one and the same.

Resilient adults raise resilient kids. Your children are always learning from you, observing how you handle problems that come your way. Interestingly, parents of resilient children also prioritise themselves. In a world where you may want to be parent of the year, providing anything and everything for your kids, perhaps the best thing you can do is look after yourself. When you prioritise self-care, you are modelling the same for your children. The result of taking care of yourself is less stress. When you operate from a place of tranquillity instead of stress, every interaction is more positive. And the result of that? An easier starting point for building positive relationships.

Naomi also spoke about the importance of being brave enough to look in the parenting mirror. Self-awareness is absolutely essential. Parents are wise to confront the things that trigger you, that make you snap at the people around you. It is wise to consider where you can do better and accept that it’s not failing – it’s learning. Problems most likely arise when you genuinely believe that you have nothing left to learn as parents. Naomi recommended focussing on your family foundations, building strong roots to weather the storms that may come each day. If home is a place of refuge, then you’re starting with something strong. Naomi also encouraged parents to welcome big emotions. Instead of telling children to bottle it up or dial it down, Naomi believes big emotions (and a safe space to display them) can be vital for building relationships. Don’t negate big feelings. Let them be felt. Open a conversation and take it from there.

Naomi spoke about the importance of play – and not just with little ones. Play with your teens, play with other adults. Play is a time of connection and fun, so you should seek out every available opportunity. Whether it’s whipping out the Nerf guns, hopping on the trampoline or having hoop-shooting competitions with the laundry basket, find ways to bring play into everyday life.

Parents were urged to let your children make mistakes, even big ones. Mistakes are the very best teachers when it comes to learning. The role of parents is to be a safe space when mistakes happen but try to resist the urge to swoop in and save the day. Naomi also encouraged parents to use your words carefully and ensure that you aren’t making your own ‘stuff’ your children’s ‘stuff’ too. A flippant comment can have a greater impact than you may think. By the same token, try to be cautious with shouting and sarcasm, which can wound more often than not.

One of the most important things a parent can do is apologise when you do something wrong. In the talk, Naomi did a quick poll to see if anyone had grown up in an environment where parents admitted fault to their children. Unsurprisingly, almost no one grew up in that space. By saying sorry, you show your children that everyone is capable of making mistakes and you can model the importance of owning those mistakes too. Ensure your apology is sincere and doesn’t contain a ‘but’ that justifies the wrongdoing. In doing so, you teach our children to do the same.

Grit doesn’t develop in isolation. It develops in the context of loving relationships, which is why connection is the most important factor for determining resilience. It’s the reason your kids work hardest for the teachers they like most. It’s the reason they’re happiest after spending time with their favourite friends. And it can happen in the home too. When you create a warm, safe space for your children to fail and fall, they realise that they have the capacity and support to keep going.
That’s resilience.