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Expert Insights: Talking About Resilience with Lorraine Hirst of Way2be.me

March 6, 2013

by Michelle LaRowe
Editor in Chief

For many parents and caregivers, helping their children bounce back from defeat is a real challenge, so I reached out to Lorraine Hirst, emotional intelligence and resilience expert, to see how parents and nannies can help children develop their bounce-back factor and foster resilience. Here’s what she had to share.

eNannySource:  Why is resilience important?

Lorraine: There are some children who don’t seem to recover quickly from problems or don’t seem to want to keep trying, i.e. they lack resilience. Resilience, known as the ‘bounce-back’ factor, is a character trait that is argued to be more vital than IQ and of more value to employers than good math and literacy. School teachers and other caregivers can tell you in a few seconds which children these are. They are the ones lacking in self-esteem, who may be victims of bullying, don’t join in group activities or clubs, and seem a bit vulnerable, and despite possibly receiving some additional academic support, they are not quite reaching their potential or coping as well as they could.

In younger children it can manifest as lack of social skills, inability to manage their emotions, lack of impulse control and so on. Having said this, they are still young, so these are the things we help them with as they grow!   As these children get older, they can become more vulnerable to risks such as problems with transition to secondary school, alcohol abuse (and there’s growing evidence that young binge drinking is on the increase, especially in the UK), drugs, self-harm, eating disorders, other mental health problems and even teenage pregnancy. Underlying problems such as anxiety and behavioral issues can be compounded by a lack of emotional resilience.

eNannySource:  How can parents and caregivers help a child become more resilient?

Lorraine: Helping children deal with their emotions is key. This is often called, ‘emotional coaching.’ That’s doesn’t mean dismissing problems, i.e. ‘don’t cry about that, be strong.’ These messages are not helpful. They suppress the emotion. The opposite is also unhelpful, i.e. to over-react, rush in or ‘marshmallow’ the child. This gives the child the message that they are helpless, an opposite trait if you trying to foster resilience. A hug or arm on a shoulder goes a long way to helping a child (or adult!) deal with the stress hormones that follow physical or emotional incidents. Secondly, acknowledge what a child is experiencing. If they can’t articulate what they are feeling, then do that for them, e.g. ‘you must be feeling really sad about that’ or ‘I expect you feel angry right now.’ Offering a magical solution, such as, ‘I wish we didn’t have to do homework or that there weren’t any bullies in the world,’ quickly followed by some adult reality, e.g. ‘sometimes there are some things we have to do or there are some people in life who don’t like us and want to make us feel bad.’ When the child is calm, they often come up with their own solutions to a problem (or you offer some solutions to a younger child, structuring the aftermath). Often, a child who is nurtured in this way will simply get on with what you wanted them to move onto in the first place.

Self-esteem is often linked to resilience, although resilience (also known as the ability to thrive) can be present when low self-esteem is also experienced, studies have shown. Having said this, healthy self-esteem can aid resilience as it can support a ‘can do’ attitude. Self-esteem is learned from adults around us, according to many experts, therefore building children’s self-esteem alone, without addressing your own, is often quite difficult and a whole other topic on its own. Whilst there are many other ways to build resilience in children, including taking up a hobby, praising the effort and not the end result of a task, moderating language that creates limiting beliefs and many more, the emotional coaching would be my number one.

eNannySource:  What is self-compassion?

Lorraine: The point about self-esteem and resilience leads me directly to the issue of self-compassion. Quite simply, I think of this as, ‘giving yourself a break!’ I don’t mean a chocolate (although those can be useful in moderation!), but not being so self-critical. It’s about forgiving ourselves when we mess up. We, including myself, can often hear ourselves saying the ‘should’, ‘must’, ‘ought’ words in our own minds. E.g. I ‘ought’ to be able to do this.’ ‘I ‘should’ be working right now.’ Worse are the voices that tell us we’re not capable, that we are silly, stupid, etc. I’m not talking about real voices but the critical parent in our own minds.

Self-compassion is a willingness to look at your own mistakes and shortcomings with kindness and understanding – it’s embracing the fact that to err is indeed human. When we are self-compassionate in the face of difficulty, we neither judge ourselves harshly, nor feel the need to defensively focus on all our awesome qualities to protect our fragile egos. Studies have shown that having a good dollop of self-compassion leads to higher levels of personal well-being, optimism and happiness, and to less anxiety and depression.

eNannySource:  Why is it important?

Lorraine: Lack of self-compassion may explain why some confident, bright individuals sometimes have less resilience than other people, i.e. they don’t take changes or constructive criticism very well, possibly due to their high expectations of themselves or lack of true self-worth. Ultimately, children (and adults) are more likely to have resilience and be able to ‘bounce back’ if they are willing to see their own weaknesses as changeable things they can correct, to move on from mistakes, committed to learning and improving. Everyone makes mistakes, but resilient people learn and move forward because they know how to forgive themselves first.

eNannySource:  How can parents and caregivers foster it?

Lorraine: In addition to helping children deal with their emotions and view mistakes as learning, it’s important to emphasize that it is entirely normal to feel sad, jealous, angry, etcetera, sometimes. There is no inner state or utopia where we are 100% immune to these feelings.

Modeling self-compassion is probably the key way to teach this skill. This is about not being too hard on yourself when things go wrong or, if you catch yourself being self-critical, such as saying out loud, ‘Bah, I’m such an idiot,’ we can rephrase this and say something like, ‘Well, that was a bit silly but it happened. I wonder what I can do now?’

We can judge the behavior, not the child. For instance, we can say, ‘That was an unkind thing you did,’ rather than, ‘You are disrespectful.’ The former describes the behavior and leaves some room for improvement, while the latter is rather judgmental and can set up a negative view of himself/herself in the child. Also, praise the task, don’t over-praise the child, i.e. ‘That was a clever idea’ is better than saying ‘you are brilliant.’ This is because the latter sets up an expectation, which may be difficult to maintain and then effects the child’s self-worth when they do something which is not so perfect.

Focus on positive behavior and changes, rather than harshly punishing the past. Yes, it’s important to teach children good behaviors, but they need to feel that they have some say in how to find better solutions. That way, they build the ability to reflect, learn from mistakes and move on. For instance, if a child hurts another child’s feelings, s/he can be invited to reflect on the effect of his/her actions (or given some suggestions, if the child is younger) or you can say, ‘How do you think you can behave in future?’

Ultimately, my hope is to explain that self-compassion is NOT about instilling a huge sense of awesomeness, as this is the road to narcissism and potential heightened self-criticism. (An ‘I’m OK, you’re not OK’ life position isn’t very helpful to building a cohesive society.) Parents and caregivers can sometimes overdo the self-esteem angle, which is a form of over-indulgence in itself. It is not realistic to think we can all be rock stars, for instance. Firstly, though, a look at our own inner critic is a good starting place for parents and caregivers. If we have self-compassion, then our compassion for others or ability to nurture children in this important life skill will naturally flow.

Lorraine Hirst lives in the middle of the UK with her family and she loves helping people explore their own inner resilience. Lorraine’s most recent work has been the development of www.Way2be.me programs, which are a series of lessons for children and sessions for parents and caregivers that are tailored to their needs, but that focus broadly on emotional resilience and other essential life skills. Lorraine holds a Masters in Public Policy & Management of Care Services. True to her core values, Lorraine has always worked in the areas of early intervention and prevention. Her motto, borrowed from Jean I Clarke, is ‘Take care of the needs of the parents and you take care of the needs of the child.’

A free factsheet and a regular newsletter are available from www.way2be.me  for those who would like more information on resilience, self-esteem and self-compassion.


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Alex Smith says:

Great post, I find your comments about “marshmalowing” the children very truthful and honest. I set up my own teenage website offering teen advice , and you wouldn’t believe the amount of emails we receive from teenagers parents asking for tips on how to deal with their teenagers emotions! Perhaps we’ll link them here in future…

Great blog, thanks!