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Building tween resilience

‘Children do what you do, not what you say’

I heard this a long time ago, and strongly believe it is true. With this in mind, how do we build securely attached resilient children, and model resilience for the children in our care? As an adoptive parent of teen boy and girl, understanding attachment and resilience has been vital for me. Here are some suggestions for birth and adopted families.

Firstly, let’s define resilience. The word ‘resilience’ comes from the Latin word ‘resilio’ which means to bounce back. Emotional resilience is the art of living that has self-belief, and self-compassion. Resilience empowers us to believe that adversities are temporary and we adapt as a result of them. Rather than being overwhelmed by difficulties, resilience allows us to come back from them stronger than we were before.

There are two aspects to emotional resilience:

  1. How well people bounce back from adversity, and

  2. Do people continue forward in the face of adversity? (Reich et al, 2010)

As adults, we can build and maintain our emotional resilience by understanding the three key elements that help build it. These are:

Physical: energy, physical strength, good health, and vitality.

Mental: flexible mind-set rather than fixed viewpoint, self-esteem and confidence, emotional awareness and regulation, self-expression, positive thought processes.

Social: interpersonal relationships, including family, friends, work colleagues, being part of a social group, being likeable and co-operating and communicating.

For most tweens, the route to increased resilience lies in the quality of relationships. Resilience is built by relationships, so children need a secure attachment to their primary carer first, before work on building resilience can start.

For birth children, secure attachment to the primary caregiver is usually well-established, but for adopted or care-experienced children, this will need to be established as part of the parenting role.

Two of the most significant things I have learned as a parent of adopted children are:

  1. Eye-contact is key for building attachment

  2. Love is a ‘doing’ word

Our children need to ‘see’ us loving them; they cannot access the emotion until they feel safe (securely attached), and we can build that safety for them by ‘doing’ love.

For example, children in care may have been irregularly or inconsistently fed, before they came to us as a foster family, so this is one way we can ‘do’ love. By routinely meeting their needs before they are articulated, we are showing that we can reliably nurture them.

As our children become securely attached, we can begin to seek to build their resilience. Spend time with them, exploring their interests and identifying their strengths – in my case, for our children, this is martial arts and horse-riding. Through things like this, they can build capability and competence, which will increase resilience, and also be part of a group with shared interests and values. There are several books aimed at children that are worth a look. The ‘bucket-filling’ series is great. Here is one example: Have You Filled a Bucket Today? (Bucketfilling Books).

For children who worry, ‘worry monsters’ are a great way to articulate this. The child (or their caregiver) writes the worry down, and pops it in the monster’s mouth. Overnight (aided by the caregiver!) the monster ‘eats’ the worry, and the child is released from it. This is a good example of them: Worry Monster.

Be specific when talking to children. A broad question like ‘can you help me?’ opens up a yawning cavern of endless and scary possibilities, so replace it with a clear and specific one, like ‘can you help me put the plates away?’.

Use inclusive and accessible language and age-appropriate phrases for care-experienced children. Our friends and family are part of the village that we know it takes to raise a child. Be the village. Relationships are key to repairing trauma, building attachment and resilience.

A final thought: children grow up. There may also be adults in your network with experience of trauma. There may be adults in your circle carrying hurt and sadness from their early experiences. Are there stories your village can tell? We know that resilience is not a fixed-point, and it can increase over time. We can build our own resilience, and model that for our children.

Jane has a background in working with children and adults with social disadvantages such as mental health problems, homelessness and learning disabilities. She also has over 5 years of experience working as a coach, as well as promoting positive education across the UK. To find out more about Jane Jenison and for one-to-one support, visit here.

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