Children are constantly forming beliefs about themselves and the world around them from the very early years of life. These beliefs and ideas develop from the experiences and relationships children are exposed to throughout their childhood. The messages being absorbed and the stories children tell themselves occurs outside of conscious awareness. The beliefs about the self that are formed therefore become part of the subconscious mind and carried with us throughout life. The subconscious mind effects everything, our thoughts, feelings, judgements, behaviour and response to any given situation. According to Freud, ‘The unconscious mind is the primary source of human behaviour’. It is therefore crucial that we help children to develop positive and healthy beliefs about themselves that filter into their unconscious memory from the start.
The variation in responses that people have to the same situation is fascinating. The stories we tell ourselves are fed by our beliefs, memories and perceptions, these then create our thoughts and feelings which drive our response. Our awareness about our thoughts and the stories we our telling ourselves in response to an event, play a crucial part in our ability to recognise ‘thinking traps’ which may be preventing us from seeing the situation with clarity and accessing the tools we need to move forward and grow with our self-esteem intact. This variation in thinking forms the backbone of mental resilience.
There is a direct link between self-esteem & resilience. Self-esteem is a sense of worth that a child develops about themselves, it is linked to feelings and beliefs about the self. High self-esteem requires a deep acceptance, confidence and love towards the person that we are. A resilient mind supports this, as we learn not to measure ourselves on successes or failures, but instead are able to extract lessons, grow and move forward with our self-esteem intact.
So how do we help our children to develop positive beliefs about themselves and a resilient mind with the desire to keep trying and practicing despite setbacks?
A crucial starting point is positive relationships and feeling a sense of connection, belonging and significance. A child’s belief that he/she is worthy of love and care is the basis of mental health and learning. Children need to know that they are unconditionally loved, fully accepted and celebrated for the unique person that they are. A healthy relationship with their main carer provides children with a secure base from which they are able to venture out with confidence and enthusiasm. When this primary need for connection and belonging is not met, children are merely coping instead of thriving as they spend their energy in ways to try and get this requirement fulfilled. Showing your child that they are your main priority nurtures beliefs that they are loved and that they matter. Spending one on one regular time with your child helps to nurture a deep connection and shows your child how important they are to you. Focussing this time around your child’s interests and passions, further affirms their significance and your support and interest towards the individual person that they are.
Emodiversity, a study into our ‘emotional ecosystems’ involving more than 37,000 people, showed that those experiencing the largest and most varied number of emotions were mentally and physically healthier. It is therefore crucial to teach children the importance of the whole spectrum of emotions, as feeling all of our emotions plays a key role in our overall health and wellbeing. Help children to learn that all feelings are ok and part of human life, but not all actions are appropriate. We are not to blame for the way we feel, but we are responsible for what we do with that feeling. Show understanding towards your child’s feelings, validate them and offer empathy and support without trying to fix or talk your child out of their feelings. Once children are aware of their feelings and accepting of them, they are able to work though and overcome difficult emotions. Teach and model to your children techniques that help them to recognise and work through their emotions, such as the R.A.I.N 4 step programme for mindfulness in difficult times, breathing techniques, taking time out to feel better, doing something they enjoy and find soothing etc. Through this awareness and knowledge, children realise they can survive the ups and downs of life and develop skills to take care of themselves in order to feel better and do better. This helps children to become resilient in situations, as they realise that they are not their thought or emotion, they are the awareness that is always there, they become able to work through feelings, access the rational thinking part of their brain and respond to situations with greater clarity and success.
Helping children to develop a healthy attitude towards mistakes and failures is also crucial. How we think about failure and mistakes is a huge part of mental resilience. Our self-esteem should not be contingent on success, because life is full of successes and failures. Our sense of self-worth should not be governed or defined by such events. Mistakes and failures are great opportunities for learning and growth when we extract the lessons and apply them going forward. It is said that the most successful people fail the most, their drive towards achieving their goals and dreams is so great that they do not lose their enthusiasm or sense of purpose on their journey, despite the set backs they encounter on the way. Practice is a form of controlled failure and it is only through having the confidence to keep trying that we will ultimately achieve our life goals. “The only failure is quitting, everything else is just gathering information.” Jen.Sincero.
A key part of this is your own attitude towards mistakes and failures and what you model to your children. How do you respond to failure and mistakes? Are you aware of your own thoughts and mindset? We can teach resilient training to children as they get older, through helping them to become more aware of their thinking when they encounter the circumstances of their lives. There has been a lot of research into this area and different programmes offering support have been developed. The most well-known teaching technique of this kind is called the Penn Resiliency Program (PRP), developed under Professor Martin Seligman. This programme was built on Stoic philosophy and Albert Ellis’s Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The PRP teaches us to pay attention to, and become aware of, our typical thoughts in the face of adversity, so that we can learn how to modify our ‘explanatory style’.
Seligman divides explanatory style into two categories: optimistic and pessimistic. An optimistic thinker thinks that they can have an influence on the world and make a difference, whereas a pessimistic thinker believes that the world is the way it is and that there is nothing they can do about it. There are clear links here with the work of Carol S. Dweck, and her work on the mindset psychological trait. In Dweck’s work she explains the two mindsets, fixed and growth. A growth mindset believes that ability can be developed through effort and hard work, a fixed mindset believes that talent is inborn and cannot be improved upon. Growth and fixed mindsets demonstrate different characteristics and qualities. For example, a child with a growth mindset welcomes and feels good when working on things they find challenging, they realise that through working hard on tasks they find difficult they are able to improve and refine their skills and make great progress. A child with a fixed mindset on the other hand, tries to avoid tasks they find difficult, they believe that having to work hard and potentially make mistakes makes them look less intelligent.
So how do we nurture a growth mindset and optimistic explanatory style within children? To start with we must teach children that beliefs and facts are not the same thing. Once we have identified what happened in a situation, what we thought in response, how this made us feel and then how we responded as a consequence of our beliefs, we can examine if our thinking was flexible and accurate or if we fell into ‘thinking traps’. A thinking trap is a mistake in our perception towards an event in our lives, believing something to be true without properly exploring the evidence. Falling into thinking traps puts hurdles in the way of being able to access the tools and information needed to overcome a situation and can then therefore prevent us from being able to move forward successfully. Examples of thinking traps are, Personalising: believing all events are entirely our fault, that we did badly because we are no good at something; or the opposite Externalising: blaming others for events and outcomes. Identifying thinking traps is not effortless, it is a skill of awareness, reflection and identification.
Support your children without rescuing them or trying to fix the problem for them. When your child comes up against a challenge show faith in their abilities to handle the situation. Offer limited support where necessary, ask open ended questions to encourage them to think, problem solve and overcome the obstacle themselves. This demonstrates that you have belief in your child’s capabilities. When we do this children develop courage and faith in themselves, they learn that they can survive the ups and downs of life and develop the beliefs, ‘I am capable’ and ‘I am resilient’.
Focus on finding solutions to problems as oppose to punishment. Although punishment might provide a quick fix, long term it can cause many negative traits and beliefs within our children. Focusing on solutions to problems helps to prevent them from re-occurring and nurtures a growth, flexible and resilient mindset in children, as they become accustomed and skilled problem solvers.
Another important part of helping children to feel comfortable and positive about challenges, is to recognise the difference between and effects of praising for intelligence versus encouraging for effort and progress. Carol Dweck says praising intelligence and ability doesn’t create self-esteem or lead to accomplishment, in fact it is one of most damaging things we can do for our children’s ability to succeed. When we encourage children based on their hard work and progress, they feel good when they are working on something they find difficult as they know it will help them to improve. When we praise children for intelligence, for example completing a puzzle quickly, they do not feel good when they find something challenging as they believe it makes them look less intelligent.
Being able to think more flexibly to given situations helps children to become more resilient, as Aristotle teaches, to unite emotion with reason, enables us to understand the root cause of our emotions and actions by being aware of our internal thoughts. This skill also supports children to become better learners. Learning involves feedback, the ability to work through challenges and set-backs, extract lessons and the tools needed to grow and make progress. When children struggle to make progress, it may not be because they are finding the work too difficult, but instead be due to the way in which they are thinking about the challenges and feedback they are receiving. When children are not thinking flexibly they put barriers in the way of their learning.
When children learn to pause, reflect and explore facts and thoughts, they learn where to exercise control, see situations with greater awareness and clarity and realise whether or not they submit to their thoughts is fully within their control.