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How to help a child build mental resilience

BY Alison McClymont

Co-founder Ali often uses an image of a bouncing ball and broken egg with her children when she talks about being resilient. She asks them which they would rather be like when they fall. But how can we help a child build mental resilience? Child psychologist Alison McClymont gives us her tips.


Alison McClymont is a child psychologist with over a decade's worth of experience. She spoke to co-founder Finn all about confidence in children over on our Positive Doodle Diary Instagram this month. You can catch the interview here if you missed it. We also asked Alison to give us the lowdown on a subject very close to our hearts and a cornerstone of our Positive Doodle Diary here for our blog post page: how we can help a child build mental resilience.  



We can’t always fix it

No parent wants to consider that there might be times where we can’t just” fix it.” We want to believe that for every scraped knee, every head bump, every tearful altercation, that we will be there. This becomes even harder as our children start attending nursery or school, where maybe for the first time they find themselves in social situations that we can’t be there to help them navigate. 

This is a normal struggle for both the developing child and the developing parent; when do we intervene in a dispute with another child and when do we let things run their course? General advice ranges from ‘let them sort it out themselves’ to ‘get stuck in and mediate’. 

So what do we do? Do we stand back and let the “social learning” commence without us, or do we get in the thick of it and show them that we are alongside them in every difficult aspect of growing up? If we do this will they feel supported and nurtured or will we deny them that all-important social skill of resilience?



But we can help

There’s no straightforward answer to this, and as we read all the time in parenting media, every child is different. So like adults, some children find navigating social situations much more inherently difficult than others. As any parent of an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) child will tell you, social interactions with others can be a painful and anxiety-creating experience.

In these circumstances where your child or a friend of your child has atypical behaviour, and some things may not come easily to them such as reading social cues or deviating from a certain routine, it is wise to try to find a compromise where the child can feel safe and happy. It is also supportive in these cases to help those around the child be aware of the challenges their friend faces and how they can help. This models a wonderful lesson in empathy and developing compromise skills, and is of great benefit to all involved. 


How children with atypical + typical behaviour see things  

With children with ASD or other atypical behaviours it might be the case that finding this compromise might require a little bit of adult involvement, but that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t encourage resilience. For children with ASD the world is a very intense place, and it comes with a lot of unspoken rules and cues that don’t always make sense. By helping them to navigate their own way in this strange and confusing universe, you are building resilient little spirits who embrace their challenges and find a path around them. 

For neurotypical children, we know that they might find some things a little bit easier than their atypical friends. They can likely interpret social cues more accurately and don’t find deviation from structure as distressing. But this doesn’t mean that they don’t also find the world a confusing and tumultuous place. 



The difficulty of the playground

All school-aged children are faced at some point with the difficult and possibly frightening experience of the playground. Very quickly they have to learn things like social hierarchy, individual vs group games, and setting personal boundaries around space and attention. Most of all, they have to learn how they will fit into this landscape and how they will get their needs met. 

Some children will do this through controlling methods towards others, giving strict instructions for their games, selecting carefully who is “allowed” to play and who is not, maybe even isolating others. In some cases they might even resort to behaviour often categorised as bullying. This is, of course, undesirable and likely not encouraged by the adults around, but as anyone who interacts with school-aged children regularly will tell you, it happens regardless. 

So how can we help children express their needs in a kind, confident manner and also manage the disappointment that comes about when this does not happen? Lastly, how can we encourage children to recognise that some children just don’t “play very nicely”?



Accepting difficult realities

Accepting the difficult realities of life is something almost every one of my adult patients struggles with, and therapists too. We are simply not programmed to want anything other than the best possible outcome for ourselves, so others often frustrate, anger or irritate us when this doesn’t happen. In some cases this might promote feelings of betrayal, loss, or rejection. Children don’t deal with these feelings any better than adults, and it’s helpful for parents to remember that. 

Everybody can probably recall a time in the playground when someone did or said something that caused them embarrassment, hurt or anger and the reason we hold on to those memories all these years later is that those feelings were very big and very real at the time. So when your child comes home and says that somebody caused them distress today, try to avoid minimising it with a “don’t worry” or “ I’m sure they didn’t mean it”.  Of course children, like adults, can misinterpret others actions, but maybe the other child really did try to cause intentional hurt and minimising this isn’t going to help your child. What can help your child is reminding them straight away that you love them, that you are absolutely filled with awe and pride about every part of them and in your eyes, they are perfect.


Starting a conversation with your child

Now once that “love bombing” has helped to hopefully lessen the sting of recalling the experience and reminding the child that they are in a safe, nurturing place to share all their difficult feelings, you can begin to ask a few questions to get the details of the incident. Once this conversation begins, it may well turn out that there is a different interpretation than the negative one your child feels, and now is a good time to gently “offer” it as a possible explanation, without forcing it! You could, for example, say “maybe it was like this because he/she felt this today?” 

This is also a good point to encourage your child to consider the other child’s emotions and what might have prompted them to behave the way they did. By doing this we promote empathy and understanding in others and this, in turn, greatly aids social connections and relationship building with others.



What resources does your child have?

Once this has happened, now is the time to ask your child to consider their own “resources”. How might they have successfully dealt with something like this in the past? You can then help them devise a creative way they might deal with this in future. This could be through role playing or modelling behaviour for future encounters like this or you could simply discuss different possibilities with them. 

Above all, model a hopeful attitude that next time things will have a positive outcome, and that your child will feel differently than they do today. Encourage the thought that change can always happen and it’s not something to be scared of. This interaction will change certain things but it might change them for the better, particularly if it has given them the opportunity to consider their own boundaries and how they can protect them kindly and confidently.



What does resilience look like?

Resilient people are people who approach life with a hopeful, positive attitude and who have a sense of their own agency (their own ability to create change) in their life. They are also people who empathically consider others and the situations that surround them that might promote certain responses. They are people that remind themselves regularly of the possibility that maybe “it’s not about me, the person had something else going on”, and also “I am important and worthy of respect, I will show kindness and respect to others and I would like them to do the same for me”. 

Resilient people are also those who realise that sometimes this simply isn’t going to happen, and the best course of action is to leave the situation and look for a more positive one elsewhere. Try to model this behaviour in your own life and set an example for your child to follow suit.


Alison McClymont is a British-trained, Masters-level therapist who provides psychotherapy and counselling to treat and provide support for conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and Aspergers syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, ADHD and ADD, bereavement, sex and relationship problems, fertility concerns and sexuality questions as well as addiction and eating disorders.

You can find Alison on Instagram and LinkedIn.



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