Why Resilience Matters
Mental health expert Cat Williams visits schools to teach youngsters resilience skills. The author of Stay Calm and Content No Matter What Life Throws at You talks to Kate Hilpern about how prevention is better than cure.
Depression, stress, anxiety, OCD, self-harm, eating disorders ... The growing list of young people's mental health issues is a widely reported concern. According to NHS figures, around one in 10 girls aged 16 or 17 is referred to specialist mental health services in England – and boys are not immune either, including from problems historically associated with girls such as anorexia.
On a positive note, the government has pledged that more children and young people in England will be able to access mental health support at school or college in the future. But with only one in four schools likely to have the necessary provision in place even by 2022, campaigners warn it’s long overdue and only a start.
‘So why wait until problems set in?’ asks Cat Williams, relationship counsellor, speaker and author on resilience, relationships and emotional well-being. One of a growing army of mental health experts who work with schools on the premise that ‘prevention is better than cure’, she believes passionately that all young people can and should be given an emotional tool-kit to get them through the hard times.
‘While much of my work involves helping young people who are already struggling, I have seen for myself that it is possible to teach resilience so that when youngsters have an issue – which we all will at some point – they can deal with that dip in confidence. Can I cope with these exams? What will I do now that my best friend is moving to Australia? How do I deal with my relationship breakdown at 16? Part of educating young people needs to involve empowering them to manage emotional issues without feeing they’re going to fall apart.’
In her workshops, Williams is big on analogies – things that youngsters can relate to and remember when the going gets tough. Among her favourites is a hot air balloon. ‘Imagine that everyone has one, I say, and weighing your basket down are all the things that make you feel bad about yourself – not feeling good enough or confident in some way. We all, I explain, have something in our basket, even the most successful people. To further normalise it and make it relatable, I use Harry Potter characters. I get youngsters to think about what would be in Harry’s basket – his parents are both dead, people are horrid to him and so on. It’s about trying to raise awareness that dips in confidence are normal - that while everyone’s basket will be different, we all have our insecurities.’
The next step is to get youngsters thinking about what unhelpful strategies it’s easy to turn to – taking it out on others, for instance. ‘It helps get young people to realise that a bully’s behaviour, for example, tells you more about that person and their basket than it does about you and yours. That’s not to excuse the bully’s behaviour, but to reclaim your own confidence because other people can’t define how we feel about ourselves.’
Using drama – which is interrupted at certain points to discuss the scene – Williams gets youngsters to translate these concepts into their own everyday worlds and, perhaps most crucially, to explore ways in which they can feel more empowered. ‘Continuing with the Harry Potter theme, for example, we talk about when Ron wants to drop out of a Quidditch match, so Harry pretends to give him a potion of liquid luck. Ron plays the match of his life, which gets the message out there that we can all step into our imaginations and have self-belief. “When did you last feel your best?” I get young people to consider. “What can you do to channel that into when you need it again?”’
Parents can get in on the act too, says Williams – either literally, with schools increasingly organising resilience sessions for parents and their offspring – or at home. ‘One of my top tips for parents is to use the world “confidence” as much as possible in conversations. So rather than saying, “what are you struggling with?” or “what are you finding difficult?” the questions need to be “how confident are you feeling about x, y or z at the moment?”’
Get kids to scale their answers from one to 10, she advises. ‘How good are you feeling about your friendships at the moment? How confident are you feeling about your maths? When did you last feel a nine or 10 and what do you think gave you that feeling? It helps get away from the “dunno, really” answer and deal with tangible, energising solutions.’
Tempting though it can be, don’t overprotect your children, adds Williams. ‘The world can feel scary and stressful to young people and as parents we tend to want to shield them from it. But letting your children know you are standing with them side-by-side, rather than in front of them, gives them the message that you believe they can tackle difficulties, but you’re still there to support them. Ask the question “how can I be most helpful?” which empowers them by putting the ball in their court to think about what they most need from us as parents - and from other people as well.’
The growth mindset – the current buzzword in all schools – can help too, says Williams. ‘For too long, we’ve been holding children back by praising them so indiscriminately that they are constantly looking over their shoulder to see if they’re getting approval for what they’re doing – and with some youngsters, they become afraid to fail. Parents who praise effort, not results, and encourage their children that failure is how we learn tend to have far more resilient children who feel good about themselves without depending on others and who take greater risks and are less likely to give up when faced with a challenge.’
The power of vulnerability is equally important, believes Williams. ‘I think both teachers and parents have a huge role to play here by being honest with youngsters about when they don’t get things right – and to show them that all of us can only do our best. If young people see that adults have vulnerabilities too, it ultimately makes them feel less alone when they face hurdles.’
Help build your child’s resilience:
- Teach them that change is part of life – and that accepting the things that can’t be changed can help you focus on the things that can.
- Help them take decisive actions – rather than wishing problems would just go away.
- Set occasional tasks that might seem impossible to them – but which you know they can overcome.
- Look for opportunities for self-discovery – anything in which they can learn something positive about themselves that they might not have known about.
- Keep a positive outlook – being optimistic will help them see the glass as being half full rather than half empty.
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