Thursday 14 December 2017

In my opinion by Karen Hand

Karen Hand, social psychologist
Karen Hand, social psychologist

Resilience - the ability to deal with whatever life throws at us - is a critical life skill for people of all ages. Many child experts in Ireland believe that we need to start building a stronger culture of resilience for all of our children, rather than only supporting children when serious problems arise. This could help younger children gain confidence in naming their feelings and learning to tackle their issues, before they start experiencing the highs and lows of puberty.

Sometimes, younger children can feel that they don't want to bother parents and trusted adults with their worries and fears. Even if these worries seem relatively minor, it can be valuable for younger children to practice speaking up about something that bothers them. This helps a child learn for themselves that it is okay to be worried, scared or sad and builds a greater sense of self-acceptance and empathy for others.

Parents, teachers and trusted adults are a great source of support and advice but as children grow up, it is also important to strengthen competence and confidence in tackling their own problems. In some American psychological studies, researchers found that children and teenagers who are not encouraged to learn to solve practical and emotional problems for themselves, can suffer from 'learned helplessness' and be more susceptible to depression or anxiety.

Teachers and parents can encourage children to try to imagine different ways to tackle their own problem or worry. This ability to become a 'detective' - who can help you work out your own problems - can build a deep sense of personal resilience and become a positive skill and habit for children, over their lifetime. The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) model defines the three key elements for resilience as self-esteem ('I am'), support from at least one trusted adult ('I have') and self-regulation of feeling and emotion ('I can'), which together combine to help children to deal with life's ups and downs.

There are lots of things parents can do to help children talk about how they feel: making time to ask children about their day, and really listening, from a young age, so it becomes a habit; reassuring them if they feel sad or worried that it's okay to feel this way, and that they can always tell you about anything that is worrying them; as they get older, checking in with what is going on in their friendship circles, and, for example, what they are doing online. All of these help develop healthy communication, and this, in turn, helps children to build their own resilience and coping skills.

Childline has developed a campaign called Headbomz, for 8-10 year-olds, around the core message of 'Talking Makes You Stronger'. It was created after doing research with child experts from education, psychology, youth work and social services, and consulting with Irish parents and children. It uses animation and song to capture children's attention to communicate in the high-energy style of Roald Dahl or David Walliams to get across the importance of speaking out when you are worried. This campaign also provides parents with a tool they can use when talking to children.

Resilience is complex, influenced by myriad factors like a child's temperament, experiences and family background, and there are no quick fixes. However, Headbomz, along with other interventions and programmes, can help strengthen it. Building a resilience culture means that parents, teachers, children and society will have to work together to encourage children to speak about their worries and to listen actively and support children when they do.

Karen Hand is a social psychologist, adjunct in Trinity College Dublin School of Psychology and Centre for Global Health.

She conducted market research with experts, parents and children into resilience on behalf of Childline and the Vodafone Foundation

Irish Independent

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