Children tend to see the world in extremes. When they make a mistake, they think they are stupid. When they misbehave and are called out for it, they view themselves as a “bad kid”. When one person calls them a hurtful name, they think other people share that opinion of them too.
You can witness this extremism in the way they speak. Almost everything is described by young children as either “the best ever” or “the worst ever”. They constantly use words like “always” and “never”, and “everybody” and “nobody”- when these absolutes are so rarely the case.
Even older children can be affected by the feeling that as soon as one thing in their life goes wrong, it feels like everything in their life is going wrong.
So it doesn’t take much for kids to slide from feeling positive to feeling negative.
When kids encounter negativity, whether it seems minor (like a dropped ice cream, an argument with a friend/sibling, a poor exam mark or a cold) or is more major (like a serious illness, a death or natural disaster) as parents we want nothing more than for them to be able to manage the big emotions that coincide with such events. We want to raise resilient kids who can experience negativity, as we all do, but come out the other side without it bringing them down.
In this two-part series, we’ll discuss several helpful tactics drawn from Stoic Philosophy and experts in this field, which you can use to help your kids build resilience in the face of whatever challenges they may come up against and see the bright side of life once again.
Stay in control
When things go pear-shaped in your child’s life it’s imperative that we tell them (and remind them again if you have told them before) that we should focus on what is within our control.
Let children know that dwelling on that which we can’t control does nothing to help us, it only wastes our time, mental space and adds to our stress.
Generally, we can control our values and our choices. We get to determine what we value and should choose how to react (what we say and do with our bodies) based on those values.
It’s a good idea to talk to your children about values and help them highlight those that are most important to them, so that they will come to mind in turbulent times.
Example 1: Your child is concerned their best friend is replacing them with someone else- Explain to them that we can’t control who other people like. Instead, we can choose to value friendship and make the choice to continue to be a good friend, despite feeling a bit replaced.
Example 2: Your child is hurt physically by somebody-
Explain to them that we can’t control what other people do with their body. We can choose to value our personal safety and make the choice to remove ourselves from the situation or tell an adult charged with keeping us safe.
Example 3: Your child misses a friend’s birthday party due to COVID isolation rules-
Explain to them that we can’t control the rules around isolation, which are set by the Government. We can choose to value connection and make the choice to cherish family time by playing, dancing, reading, cooking and watching movies together. And also make the choice to celebrate that friend’s birthday using the time in isolation to make homemade cards/baked goods/gifts, video call them and set up a belated one-on-one birthday celebration.
In each scenario above, identifying the value that matters will help children decide what their next step should be, rather than ruminating on the past.
Gift them perspective
When something feels like the worst ever moment in your child’s life, it’s important not to discount it. If they feel like something is the end of the world and you tell them it’s not a big deal, they will simply think you don’t understand and will likely stop confiding in you on the issue. We also, however, don’t want to blow things out of proportion by giving them too much weight. So how do we help them gain a more realistic perspective on the situation at hand?
Anchoring is a technique described by William B Irvine in his book The Stoic Challenge, whereby you ask (in this case, your child who already feels like they have hit rock bottom) how the situation could be worse. By asking them to consider the ways that the situation AND their life could be worse, they will be forced to compare it with even less desirable situations. In turn, they will reflect more positively on their current state and benefit from an adjusted perspective.
Close the gap with gratitude
Irvine describes a “Gap Theory of Happiness” as being the cause of unhappiness for many people who “recognize the existence of a gap between what they have and what they want…they’re convinced that happiness will come to them if only they can raise that one level and get the thing they want.”
How do we use this information to prevent our children from falling into that trap? Essentially we must teach them to learn to want what they already have. This entails accepting what we have and where we are at in our lives and surrendering to it with grace and gratitude.
We can support this by helping our children to practice gratitude more regularly. Encourage them to first try and notice the moments within each day that make them smile, feel happy, warm and loved, and to say a quiet (or audible) thank you when the moment occurs. Model this for your children by noticing and saying aloud what you are thankful for too.
We can further encourage this gratitude by asking kids about what they were thankful for and, for older kids, asking them to keep track of it in a journal.
Studies have shown that regular practising of gratitude, such as writing in a gratitude journal even once a week, is enough to “help people sleep better, lower stress and improve interpersonal relationships.”
When we spend more time noticing what we have, it better prepares us to take hits in the future.
Author and motivational speaker Mike Robbins suggests the following questions will also help you to want what you have:
- “What good is here that I’m currently not seeing?
- What is this situation teaching me that I’m grateful for?
- Why is this happening for (not to) me?
- What would it look like if I surrendered to this instead of fighting against it?”
Next time your children can’t see beyond the devastation of the moment, pose these questions to them to help ground them in the here and now and find acceptance and appreciation for the good in their lives.
If wanting more than what you have is something you struggle with too, Simply Fiercely offers even more practical tips to help you.
Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll be sharing four more strategies for raising positive and resilient kids!