It’s a world of hard knocks and – especially when your children begin school – you
may worry how they’ll cope.
But you can help your child to survive and thrive
writes Dr Nicola Davies
By the time children start school, they should already be well-versed in accepting
challenges, coping with disappointment, and understanding how to turn failure into
a learning opportunity.
According to the famous psychologist Erik Erikson, as part of healthy development,
the pre-schooler (ages three to five) should show the following healthy expressions
of development: be a self-starter, accept challenges, assume leadership, set and
follow through with goals, be comfortable within their own body, and be able to move
freely. Sounds like a tall order: so how does it work in practice?
Some children are naturally disposed to face challenges with equanimity. This may
be genetic in that they come from a line of people who are good at facing setbacks,
as well as having positive and cheery dispositions. Sometimes, children of depressed
parents may battle more with challenges. Children who are responsive to other children
and adults often fare better than those with poor
Sasha Griffiths, counselling psychologist, deals daily with teenagers
who simply don’t know how to cope with real life challenges. Griffiths suggests that
children, from a young age, should be taught resiliency strategies.
‘Children learn to tackle some problems through failures,’ says
Griffiths. ‘It is human nature not to want to let a toddler do something we consider
too dangerous or too hard. But if you give a toddler the boundaries, explain what
he needs to do and have a few little practice runs together, it’s sensible to stand
let him have a go.’
Most adults can remember something they did as a very small child
which made them very proud. It might be climbing a steep flight of stairs all by
yourself, or doing something daring at the children’s playground. ‘It’s important
for parents to let children do things which challenge them,’ says Sasha Griffiths.
‘If we protect them from challenges, they grow up dependent. Making the transition
from home to school, for instance, can then become an issue as the child doesn’t
want to accept having to learn new experiences.’
Doing things that are challenging isn’t hard-wired into our nature: we usually want
to take the easy route. And it is very difficult for a parent to watch their child
struggle and fail. But if children don’t struggle to tie their shoelaces, never get
a question wrong in class (because they never offer to answer), and don’t face up
to kids who make nasty remarks, they will never learn the resilience to deal with
the rest of their school days.
Sasha Griffiths has some tips on helping your child become more
resilient. ‘Acknowledge your child’s fears, and discuss whether they are valid or
not. Support what they want to try, and allow them to work through various scenarios
and to problem solve whatever it is they want to do,’ she suggests.
She also advises: ‘Don’t use threats or bribery to get children to do things, as
this will backfire later when they refuse to do anything unless the reward is big
enough or the threat is severe enough. It’s better to discuss what it is they should
be doing, removing doubts or fears through looking at options. Try telling them a
story from your own life – when you found something particularly challenging – and
what you did to overcome your fear and self-doubt.’
Appeal to the hero inside them by using fairy stories and fables to show ways people
prepare to act bravely, emphasising how the challenges made these warriors better
and stronger people.
When it comes to bullying, teach children to stand up for their rights and not to
display emotion when called names. It’s better not to get involved in discussions
about it with other parents: often, long after the children have made up, the parents
are still at war! If bullying is making your child’s life miserable, it may be time
to consult a professional to establish whether the child is overly sensitive or if
there is a real problem.
Children are great mimics. Ask yourself how you, as a parent, react
to challenges in your own daily life. Are your own reactions explosive and angry,
or calm and rational? If children see parents taking stock of a situation, working
out alternatives and then
choosing an option, they are more likely to do the same – rather than resorting to
tears, withdrawing or even breaking things.
Although your child might not quite see it this way, positive challenges generally
include changing homes or schools, the birth of a sibling, failing in something at
school or not doing well in a sport.
Negative challenges include constant bickering between parents, separation or divorce,
or the death of a family member. Verbal or physical abuse at home or school is also
a negative challenge.
Within a few weeks, with the support of parents, teachers and good friends, most
children should soon adapt to positive challenges. Negative challenges are more of
a hurdle and Sasha Griffiths says the majority of children she sees come because
of such challenges.
Children tend to distort reality to fit in with how they feel. For instance, a child
may see only the negative aspect in a particular situation and broaden it so that
it becomes a general truth: ‘I got a sum wrong,’ instead of ‘I got nine out of ten
sums right’ – and
finally, ‘I’m bad at sums’. Parents can help by reinforcing the
positive, working out a plan to tackle what needs to be improved, and then acting
Reacting to a disappointment can go one of two ways –children accept it or they go
off to sulk. Your child’s cognitive style comes into play here. Children with a negative
attitude will tend to react with bad behaviour. They need to be reminded of the positives
in every situation: ‘Yes, you got a sum wrong, but you got nine sums right’.
Children with a more positive disposition are more likely, when faced with failure,
to accept the challenge and try to make things better: ‘ Show me how to do those
sums again Mum, so I can get it right next time’.
As children grow older, Sasha Griffiths sees the effects of ‘shifting blame’. Children
have grown up being allowed to believe that it’s the teacher’s fault if they don’t
do well in a particular classroom activity. While this may be partly true in a few
cases, it is often a
reflection of children not fully accepting challenges from early on in life.
Children may over-generalise: ‘I never catch the ball’ or ‘I can’t write’, after
only one or two failed attempts. This is where parents need to teach children that,
in order to be good at something, they need to practice it over and over.
If you as a parent would like your child to be more resilient, concentrate on what
he does well as this will give him confidence to move on to areas where he needs
Allow your children to make some decisions – such as what they are going to wear.
They may not always make the right choice, but will be aware in the future that they
were cold because they refused to wear a jacket.
Let them pack their school bags and have a say in sorting out what goes into their
lunchboxes: it’s a time to bond and make shared decisions. The easy way out is to
say: ‘Here’s your school bag – it’s all packed and ready. And here’s your lunch with
all the stuff you like in it’. Why not let them develop their own strategies for
putting their things together – and acquire extra confidence in themselves and their
abilities at the same time?
Finally, you should never underestimate the support of loving
parents, caring teachers, and good peer relationships in fostering resilient children
– born survivors!