Recently, a friend of mine and principal of an esteemed private primary school called me to talk about her pupils in upper primary school. She had asked them to write down some of the challenges they were going through especially from home. The feedback that the young children wrote was surprising, shocking, and saddening. From getting stuck to porn, parents being too busy for them to being bullied and feeling alone in school, the list was marked with experiences the young ones should have been protected from having. You’d hope that 10-year-olds should be simply studying, playing, and making friends. Instead, the problems they are facing would easily be similar to those being faced by any adult on the street.
The principal posed a question, how do we help these children? Initially, I suggested that we could have a workshop that targeted the parents and then another for teachers and finally for the children. She was adamant that the talks had been done severally but the parents did nothing or changed very little. There was always 30% of parents who were not willing to change much. And so she asked, “How do we help the children without the parents? How do we help them to have the strength needed to survive their sufferings?”
In all honesty, that question surprised me. I have rarely thought of helping children without their parents because their parents are not doing anything to help. As a psychologist, I know well that children need adults, and especially their parents, in order to find their strength; they need to have models and significant adults to guide them and walk with them. It struck me with sadness that we do live in a world where some children need other adults, even though their parents are there, to help navigate their world and make of themselves something. Here are a few suggestions and interventions on how we can help such children to face adversity creatively. Basically, helping children become resilient.
Tips to building resilience in children:
- Validate their emotions. There is nothing as terrible as making someone feel that their emotions do not matter or are wrong. Even when there are moments, and there are many, where we should not make decisions based on our feelings, having someone dismissing those emotions and feelings is wrong. Teach the children that “bad” emotions are okay and that they will pass even when they feel so strong. My suggestion is, you can respond to the child in this manner: “It’s okay to feel the way you are feeling my child. It’s okay to feel jealous, angry, sad, and lonely. It’s okay. Now, let’s figure out a way to address those feelings. What do you think we can do?”
- Insist that the child plays. Playing is important in regulating stress hormones and producing feel-good hormones. Playing and exercises have been found to provide strong defenses against stress (distress) and other mental illnesses.
- Encourage the child to make friends. There is nothing as bad for anyone in the world as to feel alone. It’s almost impossible to improve the mental health of an individual who is without any kind of friendship. Teach the child to share, to listen, and to be concerned about others. Teach the child to keep finding new friends if some reject him or her. Tell her/him not to give up. Moreover, if there are clubs and associations, encourage the child to join in.
- Ask them to help others. At all ages, people, even those who are suffering, tend to feel better about themselves if they take the time to help others. Helping others helps to take the focus from yourself and realize that others are suffering too.
- Insist on sleeping time. Encourage the child to sleep and wake up at the same time and with sufficient hours. She can share with her friends or with an adult about her sleeping schedule. Sleep consistency, i.e., sleeping, and waking up at the same time, have been found to be very useful in protecting people of all ages from mental illnesses.
- Talk to the child about their dreams of the future however childish they sound. One of the best ways to face suffering is to have a vision worth living for. What does the child want to be and to do when they grow up? What kind of world would they want to build? How can they use their current suffering to motivate themselves to build a better world for children?
- Encourage positive self-talk, self-image, and self-worth. When children do not feel encouraged by adults, they can believe that they are not good people. This can end up with them having private conversations where they criticize themselves. Help them to counter that by asking them to write down their strengths and talents, activities that they like to do, times and moments when they have been strong, and when they have helped others. They can also write down compliments that they have received and generally what they like about themselves and their appearance.
- Almost always, children just need an adult who believes in them and who truly cares about them. Just a little encouragement will go a long way. Where you can, tell them that you are available to listen to them and if you do so, please do create time to listen to them. Offer them encouragement and hope. That might go a long way than even trying to solve the problems they are facing.
- Challenge them to do other activities other than spending time on any type of screen. They can read a book (suggest or even give one. There are many novels and storybooks that are free online), cook, create something among others. You can come up with these activities together if you are the available adult. Encourage them to share their results with you.
- Suggest the path of forgiveness. Instead of telling the child that the parents mean well thus making the child feel like they are guilty of feeling the way they have felt, you can suggest the child forgive his or her parents. Forgiveness is: (a) Accepting that my parents or family should have treated me well and as a child, I ought to be loved and cared for. (b) Accepting that I feel angry or sad that this has not happened and that it’s okay for me to feel angry or sad. (c) Letting go of this sadness and anger and treating my parents with love believing that if they knew any better, they would have not treated me in this manner.
- Tell them stories of heroes and heroines. Children love stories. Real or fictional. Tell them stories of people who have survived pain and suffering and have come out strong. Tell them stories about Lion King, the Tortoise, and Kung Fu Panda, and other heroes that they admire. Tell them about Wangari Maathai and Nelson Mandela and Josephine Bakhita.
- In every school, there are some really good children who are kind and considerate. If you are a teacher or a school administrator, “gang up” with them and encourage them to make friends with “so and so” who has no friends. Let them come and tell you what they did with them and reward them for it. They should not tell their friends that the teacher sent them. Tell them that it might be hard but you encourage them to do so since it shows maturity or holiness and heroism. Don’t forget to reward them.
- It could be worse! Ask the child to describe ways in which their life could be worse. This does not mean that their current sufferings do not matter but that it’s still possible for their life to be tremendously worse.
- Remember, most children, in spite of their childhood suffering, will grow to be quite well-adjusted adults. In fact, within the challenge model of resilience, what doesn’t kill you literally makes you stronger.
- Religions and spirituality have been found to be very strong protective factors against mental illness. Teach and encourage children to pray. Encourage vulnerability in prayer where the children talk to God about their sufferings and hopes, their joys and dreams, their teachers, friends, and parents.
- Bounce Back! A great resource for suggestions for resilience building in young children comes from Professor Helen McGrath’s Bounce Back! program. “Bounce Back!” is an acronym for some of the foundational principles of resilience, specifically:
- B – Bad times don’t last, and things get better.
- O – Other people can only help if you share with them.
- U – Unhelpful thinking only makes you feel worse.
- N – Nobody is perfect – not you, not your friends, not your family, not anybody!
- C – Concentrate on the good things in life, no matter how small.
- E – Everybody suffers, everybody feels pain and experiences setbacks; they are a normal part of life.
- B – Blame fairly – negative events are often a combination of things you did, things others did, and plain bad luck.
- A – Accept what you can’t change and try to change what you can.
- C – Catastrophizing makes things worse – don’t fall prey to believing in the worst interpretation.
- K – Keep things in perspective. Even the worst moment is but one moment in life.
Some further useful exercises:
Self-confidence and worth journaling
Write something that you did well in the last two days and another that you had fun engaging in. Secondly, write something that you accomplished and a moment you felt happy or proud of yourself in the last week. Thirdly, remember and write about someone you had a positive experience with and what that positive experience was. Are you kind? Write something that you nice that you did to or for someone. Finally, write your strengths, talents, and what you like about yourself.
If someone you loved was experiencing pain and suffering or had made a mistake and is feeling bad about themselves, how would you treat them? How would you not treat them? Now, you are your best friend, how can you treat yourself with self-compassion? How can you be more kind and forgiving to yourself when no one is or when you have made a mistake?
Best Possible Self
Who would you be if you were the best person you can be? Write down ways in which you can be the best possible self in studies, with friends, in relation to God, as a sibling, as a son/daughter, and in sports and hobbies. Dream!
Your life could be worse than it is. It is very important to be grateful for what we have. Write five things every week or just two every day that you are grateful for. It could be experiences you had or someone who helped you or someone you helped. It could be a gift you received. Think of how your life could be worse without the people or things that you have. Be grateful for those people or things you have in your life even if those people are not the best or those things are not what you would have desired.