Parents often fear their child’s passage from adolescence to adulthood. You may have concerns about the risks of your child binge drinking or using drugs, driving safely, the risk of violence and inappropriate sexual behavior. When you hear stories of teens and young adults taking their life, you may worry about whether one day your child be tempted to suicide. You may wonder how to help your child be resilient to these risks and the many challenges that children face as they grow.
You can offer much in the early parenting years to help promote resilience. Psychologists like me, call the factors that are core to promoting emotional well-being, resilience, and reducing the risky behaviors that you may fear, protective factors. The good news is you can shape the development of these protective factors in your children. These four protective factors are:
1 | Connectedness to individuals, family, community, and social institutions
A sense of belonging is the foundation of well-being. We parents know the importance of belonging. It’s why most parents work hard to make sure our child is happy at school and has friends. We may fret when things aren’t going well or our child is feeling lonely and sad.
The first place of belonging is in the home. For many children, this is a source of strength when things are tough for them in other social arenas. Having a good connection with your child throughout their growing years is vital. The relationship with parents is both a springboard into the world and a safe place to fall when life inevitably presents difficulties.
Good relationships with children occur when you provide consistent care and love. Connection comes from providing for basic needs, being attuned to your child’s emotions and being available to help soothe and protect if needed. Creating your own family rituals and spending time together having fun as a family helps to make family seem worth belonging to.
Try to see the positive qualities of your child even when you are struggling with them. Some children, as a virtue of their temperament or unique needs, are more challenging to parent than others. If you are experiencing difficulties in your relationship with your child and it feels like more than just the day-to-day frustrations of parenting, for example, you dislike spending time with your child or most of your interactions are negative, seek professional help via a community parenting group or private practice professional. It is easier to work on this before the teen years when peer interactions are a priority, so do it sooner not later.
If your child is having difficulty belonging at school, enroll them in other activities to give them an opportunity to belong elsewhere. Belonging to a team or group is beneficial for your child. It will help your child build a positive connection with other children their age and lessen the sense that they are the problem. Some children move school in response to social difficulties.
Sometimes this is the best solution but often the same problem will follow to a new school due to a child’s personality factors so it is better to resolve your child’s difficulties at the same school if at all possible. If your child is not being protected and is at real risk of harm, a change of school is beneficial.
You will always have a place with me. Communicate to your child that while you expect they will leave home as an adult, they will always belong to your family unit. Although I hope that my children will leave my home and become responsible adults, one message I give is “if you ever needed to, you can come home; you have a place with us.”
2 | Problem-solving skills
Children who can problem solve tend to have better resilience. If you are reading this and panicking because your child struggles with problem-solving, take a deep breath. Problem-solving is a skill that takes time to build. Children’s ability to problem solve increases with age and continues to develop with improvements in logic and reasoning skills occurring until the age of 25.
You can influence the growth of problem-solving by offering opportunities for your child to problem solve. When your child is angry, upset or despairing spend a little time settling their emotions with understanding and care and then ask questions such as “what can we do to help? What might work?” This is helpful to develop the idea that all problems have solutions if we look for them.
Reduce the amount of control you place on your child’s day to day life where possible and give them opportunities to make choices and decisions. Some parents try to control much of a child’s day to day world from what they wear, to what they eat and play with. This type of parenting doesn’t provide children with opportunities to make choices or name what they need. Reducing choices will not help your child develop problem-solving skills and will also likely impact negatively on your relationship as they become a teen and dispute your control. If you struggle with giving your child choice, start with one choice a day and then build from there.
Model effective problem solving. When I ask parents of anxious children who forecast the worst “When things go wrong how you handle minor problems such as running late?" the answer is often with great stress and the use of statements such as “ this is a disaster, my day is off to a bad start, I can’t handle this.” Instead, model calmness and try statements like “I wasn’t expecting this, oh well I will work it out” or “it’s just a hiccup, what can we do about it?” Be optimistic in your approach to solving problems.
3 | Contacts with caregivers
Being able to contact you (or another caregiver they feel safe with) when your child is in difficulty provides a stable base. From a young age, make it clear to your child that you don’t just want the good news, you want to know when things aren’t okay. “Nothing is so awful that we can’t talk about it,” is a helpful mantra from a protective behaviors program.
Be calm and focused on your child’s feelings. When your child messes up and they come to you, be calm and stay with their feelings. As a teen or adult, your child is more likely to come to you if they know from past experience that you will hear them and help them problem solve rather than judge, shame or fall apart because you can’t handle your own feelings. Be your child’s rock; don’t make your child be your rock – ever. If you struggle with this, make a rule not to lean on your child emotionally. Counseling can also help.
4 | Effective mental health care
Seek professional help. If your child or teen is showing signs of depression, has fears that are restricting participation in daily life, are angry and upset often or seems disconnected from life, it is important to seek professional help. Your doctor or school psychologist is a good place to start. Find an effective mental health provider who provides evidence-based treatment. If the first practitioner or agency you try is not a good fit for your child, do try other options.
Keep in mind that parenting is a journey with daily opportunities to create connection and promote skill building. It is often frustrating when your child is struggling. Avoid excessive self-blame and instead remind yourself that consistent efforts over time are what count and that we all need a little help from time to time. In each day promote resilience by finding a way to connect with your child, letting them know they belong, give them opportunities to problem solve and show them that you see their innate worth even when they struggle.
What techniques have you used to promote resilience in your kids?
I now know there are steps I can take to change how I think, to find the true me again. That is why I am going to take better care of myself this year. In fact, that’s the only resolution I care to make. For both my own health, and as an important example to my kids, this year, I'm resolving to practice a kindness that starts from within.