Children growing up today have a different set of challenges than children in previous generations. How we prepare them to face these challenges can not only prevent them from developing mental illnesses, but it can set them up to be well-adjusted, resilient adults.
Studies on mental health in England, the USA and by the WHO have all found that between 10 percent and 20 percent of children between 5-16 years have a diagnosable mental health condition. When talking about mental health, there are risk factors and protective factors. Risk factors are events or situations which make it more likely that a child will suffer from poor mental health. For children, these situations commonly include illness, the birth of a sibling, moving, the death of a family member and family breakdown. Protective factors are factors which protect children from developing mental health conditions. These are factors that strengthen ones ability to cope when faced with risk factors. This is resilience.
Research shows that children who have positive connections with their parents, family members, teachers and the wider community will show much greater resilience than those who are isolated. Encouraging children to build a range of relationships, will help them be more resilient. Schools with strong pastoral care systems provide a range of different adults who children can go to if they need help or support to overcome challenges. Children connecting with other children is also important. Children and teens who can make friends, identify healthy and unhealthy behaviours in friendships, who understand that friendships change and how to deal with conflict in friendships are more likely to have strong bonds with their peers. At the British International School of Bratislava we teach these skills through our Personal, Social, Health Education programmes (PSHE).
Resilience is like a muscle and needs to be built up through practice. Children need to learn to overcome their own challenges to build resilience. It is tempting to predict and prevent children from experiencing difficulty but allowing them to feel disappointment or anxiety and move through those challenging emotions will build their resilience for when they are faced with something bigger.
Adults can help children to feel in control of their situation by knowing there are always three options. They can leave the situation (either physically or in their mind by distracting themselves), accept the situation or change the situation. This gets children to understand that while they cannot always control their circumstances, they can still choose how they respond to it.
When children do not know how to name their emotions, they will show how they feel in their behaviour. Instead of saying ‘I feel angry and need some help with this’ they may lash out instead. For young children you can play games like ‘copy my face’ where you pull a happy face or sad face and get your child to copy you. As they get older you can change it to ‘show me an excited face or a frustrated face’ or ‘what am I feeling?’ If children struggle to name their emotions, you can say ‘I can see you are feeling angry. Can you take some deep breaths and then we can talk about it?’
When children achieve a goal, they gain a sense of accomplishment which helps them to build a positive sense of self. These goals could be mastering a new language, an instrument, a sport, or academic subjects. Activities that have clear and specific skills progressions will have the most positive impact on children. Giving children age-appropriate responsibilities will also help to build a sense of independence, achievement and helps them to feel that they are needed in the family unit.
The most important protective factor is social connection. If children feel part of a community and supported in their relationships with their caregivers, teachers and friends, they are much more likely to be resilient. Putting in place these five protective factors will help children to positively respond to whatever life throws their way.
Deputy Head of Primary