Resilience and how to help children grow it

One thing most parents are keen for their children to learn is how to be resilient in the face of daily bumps and struggles. Parents try to knock down all the hurdles along the way, but life has a way of putting them back up again in different places. Resilience is key in overcoming them.

It doesn’t take much to wobble a child. It could be the classmate who pushes them in line at school, or the sibling who flicks their face with water while they’re doing the dishes. My four-year-old grandson fell apart in my kitchen this week because his bread and jam had too many seeds in it. The disappointment and rage is real.

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Fostering resilience at home

Your home is a great place to start fostering resilience in your children. Home is where life’s first spills and sibling spats take place. That makes it a supportive environment to learn how to cope with conflict and change. Showing empathy when something goes wrong in day-to-day life is one of the best ways to help a child develop flexibility and balance. Resilience is built into our lives little by little, and there are some ways to enhance this brilliant quality.

A helpful way to build resilience is to show our children what’s going on behind our feelings and responses. We are amazing and so are our brains. Dr Daniel Siegel has simplified the complexity of the brain and how it copes under stress. He talks about the three zones that our brain functions in.*

The green zone

The green zone sits between the red and blue zone, and is where the nervous system has found the balance between the accelerator pedal and the brake pedal. The accelerator pedal revs us up in response to what’s going on around us. The brake pedal slows us down and calms us. When a child is in the green zone, their body, emotions and behaviour are regulated. The brakes and the accelerator are working in a coordinated way. They feel in control and can manage themselves well, even when they’re facing adversity.

The red zone

At times, all children get overwhelmed, and that’s when they enter the red zone. The big emotion has busted out of the green zone and is easily seen in a younger child who has just heard that they can’t have another cookie from the pantry. The red zone is where the accelerator is on full bore. The child’s heart rate and breathing increases, and their skin might get blotchy and red. The result looks like a tantrum, lashing out, throwing their food on the floor, or a big combo of them all.

The blue zone

The blue zone is where the brain is more likely to freeze or faint. The child responds to a negative situation by shutting down. It could look like withdrawing, becoming quiet, or leaving the room. Their brain has hit the brakes hard. Their heart rate and blood pressure lowers, their breathing is slower, their muscles become floppy, and they won’t make eye contact. Children enter this zone when they can’t find a clear escape for a situation that seems uncomfortable or scary.

All kids enter the red and blue zones at some point. We can help by encouraging them to experience the full range of emotions. Those who do, will grow up with a large green zone to operate in. They’ll be developing resilience for life’s ups and downs. They are balanced and adaptable even in the face of adversity.

Big people sitting with big feelings

When life’s knocks come along, one of the most important things for a child is to have someone else know what it’s like. For someone to simply allow the feeling to be there.

When eight-year-old Hugo doesn’t do as well as he wanted to in the Weetbix Trythalon, his dad can refrain from telling him why he performed poorly. He can instead offer something soothing and comforting. It might sound like, “Buddy, I get how disappointed you are. I know how much you wanted to be in the first five.” It might look like, “Come and sit with me for a bit. It’s okay to cry.”

Grandma can invite her four-year-old granddaughter to have that big long cuddle on the couch when she finds out that all the ice blocks in the freezer are gone. Someone big is saying to this little person, “I see you, I hear you and this big feeling you are having is safe with me.”

Moving back to the green zone

The most effective way to help a child move back into the green zone is through connection. Children become resilient when they know a big person will sit with them in their hard time. They’ll become resilient when someone will help them to accept the big emotions.

It’s as simple as sitting down on the bed next to them and being present to how they’re feeling. From there, the big job of bouncing back from disappointment, or accepting that this time no is the answer, is possible.

The reality is that kids will be kids. Big emotions are going show up in your home on a daily basis. Parents can provide the welcome to those feelings, and that’s going to get the ball rolling in building resilience.

*The Yes Brain Child: Help your child be more resilient, independent and creative
Dr Daniel Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson

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