Five-year-old Tom has had a new bike for his birthday and can’t wait to try it out. In the park with his mother, he zooms off along the path, not really looking where he’s going despite her warning to watch out for potholes. Fifteen minutes later they are back at home; Tom is sitting on the kitchen table, tears streaming down his face as she applies copious amounts of kitchen roll to his grazed knees.
What happens the next day is an important test for them both. His mum can see he’s in two minds about going on his bike again, and the thought of him hurting himself further means she is sorely tempted to simply put a stop – at least for the time being – to any further attempt. But even as they both hesitate, she knows that what Tom does next is important in building his emotional resilience. He needs to learn from the experience – in other words, get back on his bike.
In an attempt to make their lives as stress-free as possible we try and fill in the pot holes and control their circumstances. But if living through a pandemic has taught us anything, it’s the realisation that we aren’t in control. The reality is that our children will experience knocks and setbacks every day. They are unlikely to pass every test, win every match, succeed in every job interview, or never have a broken romance.
The old saying advises us to “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”. As parents, we can’t, and shouldn’t, remove negative events, but we can help our children see them as part of everyday life. And we can pass on skills to help them cope. The truth is that an appropriate level of pain and difficulty can be a catalyst for building emotional resilience.
A definition of emotional resilience is the ability not only to ‘bounce back’ and recover from setbacks, but to ‘bounce forward’. In other words, it’s not just about getting back to normal after a difficult experience, but about learning things from it that helps us deal with future challenges.
Resilience is key to our children’s wellbeing. Resilient children tend to be more optimistic and motivated, think more creatively, develop strategies for problem-solving, enjoy good friendships, communicate well and have higher self-esteem. It used to be thought of as a characteristic more or less set in stone, but while some children will be more naturally resilient than others, professionals now view it as a skill that can be learnt.
Clinical psychologist Meg Jay likes to describe resilience as a heroic struggle: ‘It’s really a battle, not a bounce – an ongoing process that can last for years … [it’s] not a trait. It’s not something you’re born with. It’s not something you just have.’
Whether it’s a 7-year-old dealing with the frustration of a difficult Lego project, a 12 -year-old whose guinea pig has died, or a 15-year-old who has just lost out on the lead part in the school play, it is the lessons our children learn through struggle and disappointment that will be the seedbed for growing that important quality in their lives – emotional resilience.
Katharine Hill is UK Director of Care for the Family her latest book, 'A Mind of Their Own' (a great read!) can be purchased here.