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 Coming soon: Boosting Teenage Resilience video for homes and schools

Resilience webinar – your questions answered

At my recent public webinar, Boosting Teenage Resilience, I said I’d answer questions on my blog as well as at the event. All are below.

I will have the recording ready for sale soon, so if you missed it you’ll be able to buy it and watch at your leisure. A school licence will also be available, offering a phenomenal value for schools wanting to play it in a staff INSET. People buying my recordings also get all the handouts that attendees received.

Your questions and my answers

“How open should we be about attachment and trust issues when speaking directly with a young person/teen who is adopted and experiencing challenges with resilience and who catastrophizes?”

This was referring to something I had said about attachment theory. John Bowlby’s original attachment theory sought to underline the crucial role that secure attachment to a primary caregiver has for a baby and child’s development as a secure individual. But the research has come a long way since then and we understand that these secure attachments can very well be formed with more than one caregiver and, crucially, that this does not have to be the mother (which was the original emphasis in Bowlby’s work.)

This all becomes particularly relevant and sensitive when you have a situation where, for whatever reason, a baby or child had a “damaged” experience of bonding with one or more secure caregivers. A child who was adopted or fostered is likely to have have had an adverse childhood experience, whether in their conscious memory or not.

In my view, the more open we can be about discussing psychology (etc) with young people, the better – within reason. And in this instance you would need to be very careful to make sure that whatever the young person learns about attachment theory was in the context of the newest understanding, and not the original, which reads rather scarily and negatively.

Also, it is essential to emphasise with the young person that even if they have experienced extremely negative events and damaged bonds with early care-givers these problems can be overcome and the better and earlier the intervention the better. It is not the case that adverse childhood experience necessarily means extra challenges later. Our brains are plastic and respond to all the things that happen to us and around us, negative and positive.

Again, with a child/teen who is finding resilience difficult or who catastrophises, gentle, cal openness and discussion is always a good idea. Don’t try to shield them from everything: show them that they can do it and that their response to difficult things will improve.

So, yes, openness but with caution.

“I love the idea of cabin crew. Would this work with teachers and other staff in school?”

This was referring to my observation that when we are on a plane and there’s some turbulence, we look (or is this just me?!) at the cabin crew. If their faces look calm and they are going about their normal business, I’m calm, too. And I think we are the cabin crew in the home – our children and teenagers see our responses and mirror them.

And, absolutely this will also work in school. Here are some thoughts:

  • What is the atmosphere in the corridors? Are people calm and not over-reactive?
  • What is the emergency messaging like? Do you have big shouty posters about exams or emergencies?
  • Do the adults treat other adults well? Do students hear concerned language “I do hope X is OK”, “Can I help you, Mr B?”, “You must be really busy at the moment – let me know if I can do anything”, “I’m a bit worried about a friend right now so I’m planning something nice at the weekend”.
  • How do you talk about whatever new crisis is happening in the country/world? How do you frame it?
  • Do you talk positively about times you’ve coped with something difficult, to remind people that “this too shall pass”.
  • Do you avoid catastrophising and keep your extreme worries to yourself?
  • Is there laughter in the school? If not, why not?
  • Do you smile at people?

“Are there any specific triggers/reasons why a teenager may be a perfectionist, have a fear of failure or put too much pressure on themselves, even if a parent has no expectations of them to not fail? eg just want them to be the best they can be and reward effort”

It’s almost never possible to find a particular reason why someone has this personality or mindset. And certainly there’s almost never any reason to blame someone. But what is even more certain is that, once someone has this way of thinking and feeling it’s incredibly hard to undo and pretty impossible for a parent to undo. When a parent praises a perfectionist, the perfectionist thinks they’re only saying that because they’re the parent and they have to.

All I think you can do is (all of) the following:

  1. Continue to praise BUT make sure the praise is a) justified and not exaggerated and b) for effort, attitude and determination, not talent.
  2. Wait for praise to come from other people – sometimes it won’t, for all sorts of reasons, but it’s that external praise which will eventually show the perfectionist that they did do a good job
  3. Support your teenager as they grow up, showing them that they can deal with whatever happens, that sometimes they will succeed brilliantly and other times things won’t go so well but that it’s those less good times that make the successes feel SO sweet
  4. Be open and help them talk about how they feel – listen and respect what they say they feel – and if you share their personality trait, talk about how it affects you, too
  5. Work on relevant character strengths – see www.VIA.org
  6. Help them focus on good friendships with people who make them feel good when they do well and when they don’t – and teach them to praise others, too. Praising others shows the others the importance of praise.

Can lack of resilience lead to depression?

The two things can be entangled but it’s not a simple one-way thing. Depression can sometimes come from or be made worse by a lack of resilience and it can also itself weaken resilience – so it can be two-way or one-way, depending on the person and the situation. But depression may also be a chemical imbalance that is not directly related to resilience.

When someone suffers a bout of depression, they will need to boost their resilience in the sense of developing skills to deal with it if it happens again. Spotting the signs of depression and putting in place some strategies is an example of great resilience in play despite the depression. But depression commonly wears away resilience and an important part of dealing with depression is building that resilience up again.

If you know someone whose resilience seems low, do not assume that this will lead to depression but do take what steps you can to build those self-care skills that can often help ward off a bout of depression. Similarly, if you know someone who suffers from depression, first, do not assume it’s because they have low resilience – it could be a purely chemical imbalance which has nothing to do with the character strength of resilience.

Whatever the connection in any individual, building resilience is never a bad idea!

Do you have any tips for how parents and carers can move towards a safety net approach if their tendency is to adopt more of a helicopter approach?

It’s very hard and I feel your pain! It’s so tempting to swoop in and prevent problems. My best advice is to focus on small things, the little things you do that you think are helping but in fact are over-helping and not empowering. So, when you spot that your child has not taken their PE kit or whatever into school, don’t take it in. Yes, they’ll have a painful experience that day but that evening you can talk about it, using ‘metacognition” (which I talked about during the webinar). For example:

“I’m sorry I decided not to bring it in but I felt that it would be such a good opportunity for you to learn new skills and start to be independent. Let’s think about why it happened? How about you get everything ready the night before? Can you think of when would be a good time in the evening to get things ready? What about making a list? Where would you put the list so you won’t forget it?”


Thanks for coming to the webinar, those who did. And if you didn’t, keep an eye out for the recording very soon. According to someone who was there and who has seen lots of my talks, it was my best yet. Lucky I was resilient to laryngitis!

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