Growing resilience is not about getting our kids to ‘harden up’, explains neuroscience educator NATHAN WALLIS. By KATE BARBER.
As parents we worry about our kids: we want to prevent falls and fix problems. But, regardless of the support and shelter we offer them, our children will face setbacks and stresses: from daily squabbles over who had it first, to playground bullying, to frightening earthquakes.
Before having kids I hadn’t given much thought to this thing called resilience. Now, with three young children, the world looks and feels different. As I look to an uncertain future, mindful of the prevalence of anxiety and depression among young Kiwis, it strikes me that I need to do all I can to help my kids grow resilience.
In his presentations across the country and overseas, Nathan Wallis emphasises the profound importance of a baby’s/young child’s attachment to a primary carer in terms of the development of their brain, in particular, their frontal cortex – the part of the brain where thinking happens.
“Everything that makes you brainy, plus everything that makes you a nice person happens in the frontal cortex,” explains Nathan.
So, how does this primary attachment and the development of a child’s frontal cortex factor in when it comes to their resilience? Put simply, “how well you relate to others and how well you problem-solve determines how resilient you are,” says Nathan. The relationships a child has in their early years are so important in terms of wiring their brains up so that they are able to both reach out to others and problem-solve when they encounter challenges, he says.
Essentially, when it comes to helping them to grow resilience, children need to experience relationships where there is love, trust and empathy – especially when encountering challenges and when emotions are running high. “Your kid needs to know what it’s like when you get down and help them to process their emotions,” says Nathan.
The extent to which a person is driven by their emotional brain (or limbic system) fluctuates throughout their life, but is at its peak around the age of two and again at fourteen, says Nathan. By extension, young people, driven by their feelings, access their thinking brain (or frontal cortex) the least around these ages.
Regardless of age, if you think of any time when you or your child have experienced stress and have had a meltdown, you’ll recognise that your/their emotional brain is in the driving seat and that at that moment your/their logical, rational brain is ‘offline’ and inaccessible.
With this in mind, ‘emotional processing’ is about engaging with the child’s emotional brain – that is, being responsive, loving and empathic. First and foremost, says Nathan, it’s about “validating their emotions by naming them”: I can see you are feeling really frustrated because he is having a turn before you.
It’s about supporting and comforting an angry or anxious child, rather than leaping to a logical response – one that invalidates their emotions: you are being ridiculous – you can have a turn after your brother; this is silly – there is nothing to be afraid of. “Put a bit of logic in there,” says Nathan, “but engage with their emotional brain first, and don’t hurry them through their emotions.”
As adults with fully mature brains, this isn’t easy: we operate in our frontal cortex most of the time so by default we tend to jump to the logical response, he says.
There is this embedded cultural assumption that growing resilience is about getting our kids to ‘harden up’. But, says Nathan, this runs counter to what the research says about growing resilience.
Telling your child to ‘stop crying’ isn’t helpful, and can be damaging. With Big Feelings running rampant in his head, when he is told to ‘stop crying’ or ‘calm down’, the child has no capacity to make sense of these feelings, no language to name them, and no-one to help validate his response and comfort him.
As Nathan emphasises, you don’t have to be some sort of Super Parent. “Your kid needs to know what it’s like to emotionally process with you,’ and to feel that genuine love and empathy when the wheels fall off; but, he says, ‘it’s not realistic that you’ll be able to do this every time, and you don’t need to. It’s what you do most of the time that matters.”
In moments of quiet, there is value, says Nathan, in reminding your child about things they have done well, including how well they have managed a challenging situation (and demonstrated resilience). By recalling an observation from the past where your child was able to manage a stressful situation/Big Feelings, you’re helping your child to access those same strategies in the future – whether it’s moving away from a difficult situation,
using breathing exercises, or reaching out to a trusted adult for a cuddle.
Essentially, when it comes to helping them to grow resilience, children need to experience relationships where there is love, trust and empathy – especially when encountering challenges and when emotions are running high.
In the last 20 years, there has been a proliferation of information about the brain and how it grows. Nathan Wallis talks about the importance of our interactions with babies and young children in the first 1000 days as their brains ‘wire up’ for life.
Get ready to sparkle for the month of May
Cholmondeley Children’s Centre provides short-term emergency and planned respite care as well as education to children aged 3-12 years whose families are experiencing genuine stress or crisis.
Cholmondeley is asking Canterbury to sparkle for its Little Gems Awareness Month this May, by reaching out to the community to bring people together and fundraise so they can continue to be there for children in times of need. There are lots of ways you can contribute to their Awareness Month in May. To get involved, head to littlegems.org.nz and download the Little Gems toolkit today.
Can you lend a hand and help Cholmondeley sparkle?
Do you have a few spare hours? Want to help make a difference in your local community?
Cholmondeley is looking for volunteers to help with their Little Gems Street Appeal
on Friday 24 and Saturday 25 May. Sign up at littlegems.org.nz or email
Thriving in a changing world
MICHELA HOMER shares how educators at BestStart teach resilience to children in their care.
In a rapidly changing landscape, education across the world needs to be focused on providing a curriculum that is responsive to children so that they are able to thrive in a world that we can’t yet predict.
We all want our children to be problem solvers who don’t give up when things get tough. As a result of this, early childhood educators are gaining awareness that a vital part of healthy child development is teaching resilience.
So, you may be asking what this looks like in practice? When children are frustrated because they can’t do an activity, we don’t do it for them but we scaffold their learning in ways that encourage them to persevere and try and try again until successful.
You may see this when a child first attempts the monkey bars, for example. They may edge forward at the end of the climbing box and place their hands tentatively on the bars. A trusting teacher will stand near them and initially observe. They’ll encourage the child as they do this over and over again, slowly removing their support so that the child is able to this independently.
Another example is when two four-year-olds are arguing over a toy. Thoughtful trusted teachers will step in and support, only when needed, by helping the children to voice their frustrations in a positive way and encourage them to come up with a problem-solving idea. This takes careful and intentional teaching and deep knowledge of each child. Building resilience sets children up for navigating each new experience that they learn in a healthy and positive manner.
As educators, we know the importance of this and ensure that our teaching and environments promote this at all times.