Resilience –strengthening the neural networks for our kids

This week I attended a resilience workshop at our school. I’m so grateful for our school and principal who is passionate about focusing on the skills that our children need to thrive in the 21st C. She facilitated a wonderful discussion between parents on how to best encourage resilience in our children.

Later in the week I presented a 2 hour workshop on Wellbeing to the staff of a different school. It got me thinking..

 

Resilience is increasingly talked about as it becomes more and more clear that our kids are having difficulties ‘coping’ with everyday life and the mental health statistics are going through the roof..(Click here for more)

Improving our childrens resilience is surely a wonderful way to help them manage life’s inevitable bumps and troughs, keep them mentally well and able to thrive in their lives.

 

So how teachable are resilience skills? What does the latest brain science tell us about resilience? Neuroscience research is showing us that resilience skills can absolutely be learned.

 

Scientists have been able to study the neurological mechanisms underlying resilience. They have identified the associated neural circuits and are able to measure the specific parameters of recovery. i.e. the time it takes these circuits to come back to baseline after adversity. Individuals that show a quicker return to baseline in these key neural circuits (I.e. bounce back quicker) have higher levels of wellbeing and in a sense are more ‘protected’ from adverse consequences of life.

 

So the question is, can these ‘resilience circuits’ be altered? And the answer is yes they can.

 

Research has shown that mindfulness practices can modulate and improve the time for these circuits to return to baseline. However there is a caveat. To see real changes in the resilience circuitry it takes a long time of re-training. Richard Davidson and colleagues puts this number at between 6-7ooo hrs. In other words, to become naturally resilient, if you don’t already have the skills, takes a long time.

 

What can we take from this?

 

Firstly, the important thing here is that resilience CAN be learned. The neural circuits associated with bouncing back from adversity are plastic in nature and can be changed. It is never too late to improve our level of resilience.

 

Secondly, the quicker we start retraining and learning more resilience skills the better, as once circuits are set, it takes a long time to re-wire them.

 

When it comes to our children, it is important to be aware of how important resilience skills are and to recognise the neural origin of them. This means that we have the opportunity as parents to wire resilience skills into our kids. And the earlier and more frequently we do it, the better. The consequence of not building in these skills consciously, or allowing for them to naturally build, may take a long-time to undo. The message here is surely clear: when it comes to resilience it’s easier to wire the right circuits in than to try and change them later.

 

So what can we do as parents?

 

  1. Awareness is always the first step, so be aware that resilience is a skill, and that the earlier our kids learn it, the better.

 

  1. Allow natural opportunities for resilience building to occur.

This is often hard as parents as our gut reaction is often to jump in and help so that our children avoid discomfort. Arming ourselves with the neuroscience behind what we’re doing when we allow them to encounter adversity, may empower us to back off a little and allow nature to take its course..

 

  1. Consciously equip our kids with skills to enhance their resilience circuits.

Here’s some practical tips:

 

Promote Healthy Risk-Taking

A healthy risk is something that pushes a child to go outside their comfort zone, but results in very little harm if they are unsuccessful.

Examples include trying a new sport, participating in a school performance, initiating a conversation with another child.

When avoiding risk becomes a habit, kids can internalise the message that they aren’t strong enough to handle challenges. When they learn to embrace risks, they learn that pushing themselves can result in going further and being stronger than they thought they were.

 

Resist the Urge to Fix It and Ask Questions Instead

As parents, our natural response when dealing with a child that has come to us with a problem is often to solve it for them and explain. If instead, we bounce the problem back to the child with questions, we are helping our children think through the issue and come up with solutions themselves.

 

Teach Problem-Solving Skills

We can help our children with the above, in a caring supportive way, by helping them brainstorm solutions. Try encouraging them to come up with a list of ideas and weigh the pros and cons of each one.

 

Label Emotions

Fundamental in any emotional intelligence training is teaching our children that all feelings are important and helping them label their feelings. Labeling emotions helps us make sense of what we’re experiencing. The breadth of emotions we experience make us wonderfully human. By allowing our children to be okay with feeling emotions, they become less scary. Tell them it’s okay to feel anxious, sad, jealous, etc. and reassure them that feelings pass.

 

Teach them basic Mindfulness exercises

Deep breathing exercises help turn off the stress response and allow the thinking brain to come back online. We can’t implement problem solving until this has happened!

Focusing on the body can have the same effect. Have them focus on their hands or feet (or any body part) and watch the nervous system calm down. What sensations can you feel? Hot /cold /dry /sticky..?

 

Embrace Mistakes—Theirs and Yours

Encourage Failure!

Failure avoiders lack resilience and tend to be highly anxious kids (and adults!). When we parents focus on end results, our kids get caught up in the pass/fail cycle. They either succeed or they don’t. This leads to risk avoidance behaviours. Embracing mistakes (our own included) helps promote a growth mindset and gives our kids the message that mistakes help them learn.

Talking about the mistakes we’ve made can be very helpful. Focus on the wisdom and growth we gained as a result, (even if its just that we learned we are okay and life moved on) and importantly the thing we would do better next time –demonstrating that the mistake has been a valuable learning tool.

Do the same for them. When they make a mistake or ‘fail’, (and the dust has settled!) use it as an opportunity to brainstorm what they could do better next time. Helping kids identify what they could do differently and having them play it through in their minds is literally wiring in the new and improved strategy into their brains, which they simply wouldn’t have had they not had the initial “failure’ experience. Neurologically, a failure literally is an opportunity to grow.

 

Model Resiliency

The best way to teach resilience is to model it.

Particularly in the younger years, we all know how important modelling is for our childrens learning.

Become aware of your own coping skills, and amend where necessary!..(go to www.ourthrivingadults.com for help with this)

 

Look out for part 2, where we’ll be looking at other elements of Wellbeing where the underlying neural circuitry can be changed a lot quicker – i.e. the effects of teaching the skills have a more immediate impact on our kids well-being.