Author: Michael Grose
Two Australian studies support what teachers and mental health experts have been saying for some time: that exposing kids to safe challenges in childhood promotes resilience and better mental health in later life.
The results of a study into children’s wellbeing by mental health organisation Beyondblue found young people who were able to talk about their emotions and who were exposed to failure and loss at a young age are better equipped to deal with a variety of challenges as they grow. Similarly, findings of a Macquarie University long-term study into children’s mental health found that children who were exposed to safe risks were happier, less anxious and more able to handle everyday problems such as rejection, teasing and failure.
Both studies point to the need for children to experience failure, to be involved in play with peers and to be encouraged to face their fears rather than avoid them. With one in six Australian children and teenagers experiencing anxiety on a regular basis it’s essential that kids of all ages are provided with the skills and experiences they need to develop mental resilience. Let’s kick off this process with the following strategies:
Encourage kids to spend more time with other children
When children spend more time among themselves they rely less on adults to solve problems for them. In fact, when kids play among themselves they take on the authority of adults in their absence. They negotiate about what and how to play. They will often make up the rules of their games, modifying them as they go along and challenging other children’s interpretations. “You’re not playing by the rules” is a common childhood retort, but the important thing to remember is that, left to their own devices, kids will generally resolve such conflict situations more creatively and with more finality than if adults become involved.
Help children be good losers and gracious winners
In recent years there’s been an aversion to exposing kids to losing, particularly when it comes to the sporting field. Some codes, in an effort to improve the participatory experience for kids, don’t keep scores and give prizes for participation rather than achievement. However, these practices prevent kids from experiencing both the resilience building disappointment that comes with a loss and the confidence building satisfaction that comes from winning. More significantly, they prevent kids from refining the art of being good losers and gracious winners, both important skills to learn for future development.
Encourage kids to talk about emotions and feelings
It’s important that children become comfortable with unpleasant feelings such as disappointment, fear and nervousness rather than be debilitated by them. We need to allow children to experience events that lead to unpleasant emotions. We also need to feel comfortable ourselves with our children’s unpleasant feelings. Enabling children to verbalise their unpleasant feelings helps them process and make sense of their emotions. Healthy families and safe classrooms work on the principal that there’s nothing so bad that we can’t talk about it in the right way, but that there are behaviours we won’t tolerate.
Model calm and rational thinking
High emotions are very contagious. When a child is angry, fearful or upset we can easily feel the same way. It’s vital that we manage the ways that we react to our child’s emotions so that we can provide an effective, empathetic response. The best way to manage our own reactivity when kids are upset is through breathing. Taking a breath gives us a moment to regain control and remain calm. We can then ask questions and logically think our way through the situation rather than catastrophising and letting our thoughts run amok. Adults who model calm, thoughtful behaviours in the face of stress show children and teenagers how to respond in safe, effective ways to stressful situations rather than reacting at an emotional level.
Encourage children to become independent problem solvers
When adults solve problems for children and young people, we not only increase their dependency on us but we teach them to be afraid of making mistakes and to blame themselves for not being good enough. That’s fertile ground for anxiety and depressive illness. When your child brings a routine problem to you and expects you to solve it (such as leaving lunch at home or sorting out a friendship dispute), step back and invite them to resolve the problem for themselves instead. We don’t want to deter kids from coming to us for advice when they have a difficulty, but we do want to encourage them and teach them to work through their concerns themselves.
Stepping back and allowing children and teenagers to experience many of life’s challenges, whether social, academic or physical, can be a difficult thing to do for well-meaning adults. However, part of growing up means that children and young people need to develop the skills and aptitude they will need to manage a range of challenging situations well after they have left the safe confines of school and family. As the research is telling us, the best way for them to do this is to allow our kids to navigate their challenges by themselves, surrounded by supportive, rather than overprotective adults.
Wellbeing Coordinator / Registered Psychologist