From the School Psychologist – Building Resilience 

Hi everyone, 

Here we are in Week 9, rushing toward the end of the school year. As this will be my last article, I want to wish you all a happy holiday break and to thank you for reading these articles I have prepared for you over the course of the year. I am afraid that I will not be continuing with the School Psychology Service next year, and it is with sadness and gratitude that I leave Churchlands PS. It has been a pleasure to support this wonderful school, and I am content to know that you and your children are in good hands. For our final entry, I thought I would leave you with some ideas you can play with over the holidays around building up your child’s resilience. 

Resilience is a strange word, because everyone understands what it means, but few people understand how it’s formed. What is clear is that resilience is an outcome – the product of some psychological process. In understanding the process, we can better influence the outcome. 

You could think of resilience and confidence on one side of a spectrum, and anxiety on the other. Anxiety – or a pattern of anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviours – could be considered a belief that one cannot cope with something; whereas resilience and confidence could be described as a belief that one can cope with and overcome something. Believing one cannot cope typically leads to avoidance, withdrawal or other forms of self-protection, and that ‘confirms’ the belief in an inability to cope. On the other hand, someone who is resilient has a belief system that leads to approach, problem-solving, and engagement, which ‘confirms’ that person’s ability to cope. As you can see, it’s about the relationship we have with the things we’re afraid of which leads to certain actions, which, in turn, affect the relationship and future behavioural pattern. 

These ideas also tie in very closely with ‘self-esteem’ or ‘self-concept.’ Over time, if we notice that we have a pattern of avoiding, we may come to see ourselves as weak and incapable – because we’ve acted out the idea ‘I cannot cope.’ If, instead, we have a pattern of approaching, tackling and overcoming, we may come to see ourselves as strong and capable – because we’ve acted out the idea ‘I can cope.’ 

So, in order to build resilience, we need to provide opportunities for children to be challenged – situations in which they experience some manageable level of anxiety, use their personal resources, approach the source of this anxiety, and successfully deal with it. So far, so good. But we’re dealing with a primal emotion here – fear – which means we need to have a carefully thought-out approach (for some specific pointers, please check out Building resilience in children 3-8 years | Raising Children Network). 

The general approach is this: take a fear, break it into smaller pieces, and let your child tackle each little piece at a time. The feeling of small, frequent successes, coupled with having made something overwhelming more manageable and concrete, already goes a long way in building up enthusiasm for tackling challenges. Try not to solve every problem for your child, but involve them actively, based on what is appropriate for their age and developmental level. Brainstorm with them, get them to figure out what they could do – rather than relying on you to fix the source of discomfort. Praise effort, and ‘giving it a go’ rather than outcomes – after all, it is forward movement that we’re after, not an unbroken streak of perfection. 

As a parent, it is worth asking yourself ‘do I want my child to be safe, or strong?’ Safety is an important jumping off point, but only if it is a platform being used to leap from. We all need to recognise that at some point, we won’t be around to help our kids; and – whether it’s when they’re 13 or 30 or 53 years old – there will come a time when they have to face something overwhelming and difficult, and no-one can help or do it for them. In that moment (which comes for all of us), we cannot guarantee or provide safety – but we can prepare by giving our kids every tool available, so that when the moment comes, they know they are the kind of people that can get through it. 

Thank you all, once again, for the opportunity to be your school psychologist. I wish you and your children all the best as you move forward into 2023 and beyond.