Build Resilience: Here are the strategies your child needs to cope in the midst of an anxiety epidemic
Life for our children today can be really tough and full of demands and challenges that previous generations of Irish children have never encountered.
Through my work as an art psychotherapist, working with families in crisis situations, I have seen many children struggle with the pressure to be perfect. This does not necessarily come from the parents, but more often from society.
Take, for example, the kid I met who was only six years old and was still dying to get a perfect score on a spelling test. That worried them a lot. Why do little kids put so much pressure on themselves?
Well the expectations are high because there is so much to see and hear. Children have to deal with the influence of social media. And they have to deal with society’s high expectations of their educational achievements.
With so much information at their fingertips on a phone or iPad, it’s natural for children to feel that being good at something is easy — or is an instant process rather than something that takes a long time a lot of hard work.
This can cause a lot of stress for them as they often tell their parents that they are not good enough or even a failure.
The pandemic has exacerbated many of these challenges. For the past two years I have worked in the area of cancer services in the Co Kerry area with a particular focus on children and family ministries.
I have found that since the return to “normality” – with the reintegration into everyday children’s everyday life – I hear from both the children and their parents that they are struggling. That’s perfectly understandable. The children experienced two years of interrupted schooling. They missed out on important experiences and experienced a lack of social connection. For months they couldn’t play with their peers or be outside of their bubbles with other adults.
Then they were suddenly drawn back into the strict structures of formal education.
It was a time of constant stress and anxiety. Several children shared with me that they were scared of going back to school after a lockdown, worried about the social consequences of not being with friends they hadn’t seen in a while or feared they could get Covid bring into the house.
At the height of the pandemic I was working in child and adult mental health services in the UK. I led a parent group for children referred to the ministry because of anxiety and provided them with the necessary coping skills.
It opened my eyes to the importance of educating families about what anxiety is: its causes, side effects, and how to develop coping strategies.
Anxiety can be understood as a feeling of unease, such as B. Worry or fear, which can be mild or severe. Everyone experiences anxiety at some point in their life. Parents told me that understanding fear gave them real insight into their child’s feelings, gave them more empathy and also removed some of the fear of the unknown, making them feel more present and able to support their child better.
I remember the joy of a father sharing with the group how he had acknowledged his son’s fear and had sat down and listened to his concerns. This in turn had led to a surprising conversation where they could explore and problem solve together. It made them feel more connected, calmer, and happier.
In recent years, resilience has become a buzzword that may gloss over the real root causes of mental health problems.
However, it is important to understand resilience. It is defined as “the ability to withstand and recover from adversity” but it is important for us to realize that resilience is contextual.
In fact, several protective factors must be in place to foster resilience: family support, a broader network of community supports, and also an individual’s ability to develop coping skills and positive thoughts.
We know there are things that are beyond a child’s control that affect their resilience – a prime example of this is Covid – but adults can help with children’s resilience. How do we do that?
This question inspired my new children’s book. The little otter who tried. I wanted to write a story full of strategies to build resilience and a growth mindset, told through the story of a little otter and her journey to the Big River.
What are these strategies and how can parents develop them at home?
Spending time together with our kids to strengthen those bonds is a great way to introduce coping skills — taking the opportunity to unplug together and give our little one those moments of unconditional support. We can help a child feel empowered and give them opportunities to seek advice, ask questions, and try to overcome challenges.
Strengthening the connection also creates an opportunity for adults to model coping and problem-solving skills for children.
We all encounter stressful situations in life, but showing that we can use coping strategies is sharing these resources with children. This helps them understand that they are not alone in their struggles and that there are ways to overcome these challenges when they arise.
Naming our emotions is incredibly important for children; Let children know that all feelings are valid and that naming their feelings can help them make sense of what they are experiencing.
Tell them it’s okay to feel their feelings, be it sadness or happiness, and reassure them that difficult feelings will pass.
You must also resist fixing the issue, which can be a challenge. As adults, it’s incredibly difficult to watch a child struggle, and our instinct is often to pick them up and sort them then and there.
A better strategy, however, is to listen, acknowledge, and ask questions.
Begin by asking the child what they think they could do to improve the situation. Solving problems together helps the child think through the challenge and find solutions.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk about a mistake you made and what you learned from it
This in turn really empowers the child and provides a great reference point for future challenges, knowing they have the resilience to think them through and apply solutions or strategies.
Children cannot be resilient on their own. It’s really important for them to know that we all need help sometimes and that they have someone to turn to when challenges arise.
Help them embrace mistakes, both theirs and yours. Try to focus on the effort, journey, or process rather than the end result.
Sometimes it can be helpful to talk about a mistake you made and what you learned from it. Helping children to reformulate their thoughts and to acknowledge the positive factors and any challenges they face goes hand-in-hand with resilience.
I had these strategies in mind as I wrote and illustrated the story of Little Otter, who is afraid to swim alone. But with the support of Mama Otter and advice from her friends along the river, she gains confidence and is soon surprised at how far she has traveled all by herself.
The duckling, kingfisher and toad all tell their stories about learning to swim, fly and hop, and Little Otter realizes that every living creature has to start somewhere.
The book also includes a small nature guide to the animals and their habitats, which stimulates children’s interest in nature.
So if you’re able to be out with your little ones this week, take the opportunity to unplug and relax, strengthen your bonds, and model that important self-care.
We all experience challenges navigating the rivers of life with its rapids and bends, but when we have support we can persevere, rest when needed, try again when we feel ready, always knowing that we are are not alone.
Katie O’Donoghue’s The Little Otter Who Tried is published by Gil Books and available now
https://www.independent.ie/life/building-resilience-amid-an-anxiety-epidemic-here-are-the-strategies-your-child-needs-to-cope-42391318.html Build Resilience: Here are the strategies your child needs to cope in the midst of an anxiety epidemic