Resilience, the ability to reach and sustain high levels of performance irrespective of what is happening around you, has become increasingly relevant in today’s volatile, uncertain, and complex world. At a time when parents are living on the edge, with the uncertainty of whether schools will shut down again, and where coming in and out self-isolation and quarantine can happen faster than in the blink of an eye, there is a lot we can do to keep ourselves sane whilst developing this crucial life skill in ourselves and our children.
Children have a high number of mirror neurons – cells in the brain that activate when you observe someone doing an action. Therefore, children will learn resilience by watching, not by listening to what you and/or the primary taker say to them. This is particularly relevant given how much time our children have spent with us in the past 6 months, so you’ll notice that this article will focus on helping you develop some habits that you can transfer to your child to help boost their resilience.
Before we do that, let me tell you a little bit about how our brain works, to give you confidence that the tips that follow are grounded on evidence-based, scientifically-backed hacks. According to Rick Hanson, renowned neuroscientist, our brain has three basic needs as a result of its evolution.
The need to (1) feel safe is linked to an alert system that helped us stay alive, in today’s society a lot can set this off that isn’t life-threatening. The need to (2) feel satisfaction/mastery, helped us go long distances to find food and water, in today’s society it is usually success and pleasure which can be disguised as status symbols, food, technology or other things we crave. The third need to (3) feel like we belong, is due to the fact that from an evolutionary standpoint we had higher chances of survival if we belonged to a tribe. If any of these needs are unmet, it can cause stress, turning our mindset from responsive and agile – where our brain can respond appropriately- to a reactive mindset where the most primal parts of our brain can cloud our judgement.
Given the uncertain times we live in, it wouldn’t be ludicrous to say that most of us have felt that at least one of these needs has not been met; in fact, many of us have potentially been acting from a place of reaction rather than responsiveness. So what do we do? Here are a few tips to help your brain go from reactive to responsive mindset and by definition boost your resilience to tackle obstacles that come your way with higher levels of creativity.
Create a comfortable home environment
While we can not directly control whether the school’s classroom temperature is just right, the teacher allows our kids to fill up the water bottle often enough, or the classroom bubbles are appropriately designed, we can control what our home environment feels like. It is essential for you and your child to have a place that feels safe, comforting, and homely. This applies more so if you’re working from home, as you should also set yourself up as comfortably as possible to help your own mental state. This will inevitably meet the brain’s basic need for safety.
Redefine what belonging means
If you happen to be a rather social animal, going out and meeting up with your friends, or spending time with co-workers was a way to fulfill your need for belonging. It is no surprise that so many of us have felt a little “out of it” during lockdown and may even feel a little scarred from it.
I also hear many parents discuss how important it is for their child to be in school as socialising is a necessary part of growing up. While all this is true and the feelings are more than legitimate, if we redefine what belonging means to remind ourselves that our family is the true “tribe” we may find why some families have fared so well during lockdown.
With fathers leaning in and spending more time partaking in family life, and siblings spending more time with each other, the genuine reminder that the family unit is the tribe, can go a long way in appeasing our perceived unfulfilled need of affiliation. While you will undoubtedly enjoy the benefits of an eased lockdown where more socialising is available, embracing this technique will allow you to fare well through the times when you need to stay home.
Find a new hobby, activity you love and make more room for it
With some working mothers and fathers having had to dial down their businesses to attend to homeschooling, some losing their jobs, and others not being able to do what they used to do so well so often, it is no surprise that people’s need of mastery may also be unmet. If you’ve lost your job or had to put your business launch plans aside, or simply don’t have as many opportunities to utilise your primary source of mastery, make some room for hobbies or activities that you love and are great at to experience that mastery.
I’m not suggesting you do not look for that job, fight to do more of what you love at work, but by finding those little hobbies you can turn to in between to give you sanity and mastery, you’ll be better equipped and more energised to do the hard work.
Change your internal script
As Marcus Aurelius once said, “the happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts”. Never underestimate how much the stories you tell yourself can affect your mood and by definition your mental/brain state.
Going to the park and taking your kids there and see adolescents aggressively fist fighting? You can tell yourself this is bad and unsafe and that you must get out of there, or you can tell yourself it is not ideal, but it provides a great teaching moment for my child to see what they shouldn’t do, and to explain human behavior and the consequences of poor decision making.
This will shift the “I”m in danger” script to “this is an opportunity” script. Mind you, this applies to anything that feels new, scary, or entailing change, because even as adults we perceive change as dangerous as it represents the unknown. There is no need to feel scared of change if you change your internal script to seeing change as an opportunity.
This is one of those we hear a lot but seem easier said than done right? Well, there are reasons why breathing is a great way to reset from reactive to responsive mode.
When we are in reactive mode, the primal parts of our brain disconnect from the more advanced cognitive functions (the part of the brain that can process information to make decisions using logic and other input). When we breathe, we help the two parts of the brain reconnect. So next time something triggers the feeling that one of the three basic brain needs is unmet, just take a pause and breathe.
There are many resources you can utilise from Pranayama techniques (yogic breathing) to Wim Hof breathing, to just a simple breath from the belly up (any type of breathing below the diaphragm will do).
For younger children, I love to use the elephant breath (put both arms together and raise them above your head as you inhale, drop the arms and head rapidly between your open legs as you exhale pretending to be an elephant) or candle breath (put your fingers together as if you were holding a candle and ask your child to blow out their imaginary birthday candles – I promise it works!
Identify and Highlight Someone’s Strengths
Use descriptive praise to call out someone’s strengths. You could tell yourself what you did well, self congratulate as positive psychologists like to call it (yes it may feel awkward but try it for me just once please and see what happens). Or you could, and this may feel easier for you, tell your child what they did well, why, and what impact that had on you and others. This will codify positive behaviour in your child (or the person receiving the praise) and inspire those around to do the same. It will also satisfy the mastery/satisfaction need.
Magnify the Good
Neuroscientists (and positive psychologists) have proven that enhancing positive feelings can dramatically boost brain cognition and quality of life.
While most people think positive emotions primarily refer to happiness, these also include serenity, contentment, tranquility, joy, peace, gratitude, awe, love, appreciation, and many more. Savouring, the act of prolonging positive emotion by anticipating an event, being mindfully present during an event, and reminiscing about the event, is a key skill you can apply to yourself and those around you.
Next time you plan something exciting don’t miss the opportunity to get excited about it beforehand (think about what it will be like and visualise how fun it will be), enjoy the event (take a mental or real picture of what is happening), and reminisce after the event is over (discuss what you loved most with loved ones, look at pictures if you took some, or just visualise and relive the good times).
While there are many more techniques where this came from, I hope these seven tips will help you and therefore your family, navigate these uncertain times with a little more confidence that you have the power inside you to control your inner world.
We may have no idea what the world has in store for us, and we can not control what that will be, but we have control over our own thoughts and our own actions. With knowledge of your brains’ basic needs, I hope you will feel inspired to take care of yourself so those around you can benefit from your agile and responsive brain, and all the charms and gifts you have to offer the world.
- Del Amo Perez de Lara, Belen (2019). How to Thrive by Building Resilience.
- Fredrickson, Barbara L. (2009). Positivity.
- Hanson, Rick (2013). Hardwiring Happiness.
- Graziano Breuning, Loreta (2017). Habits of a Happy Brain.
- Seligman, Martin (2007). The Optimistic Child.
- Siegel & Bryson (2012). The Whole Brain Child.
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