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By Sharon Witt
We all want to raise capable and resilient young people. The reality is, though, the more we invest in our children the more we as parents are stretched to capacity.
And this is happening in homes where parents are already stretched by their own careers and work obligations. We are seeing increased numbers of parents working outside the home. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, about 64 per cent of families have both parents in the workplace.
There’s nothing wrong with being a working parent, but when we’re in this situation, it requires a little more attention to ensure the whole family is not just surviving, but thriving. If we want to raise resilient and well-rounded young people, it stands to reason the primary carers need to be taken care of, too.
When parents and carers invest in taking care of themselves and their family environment, they put in place protective factors that reduce the risk of developing mental health concerns.
Think about it this way: when travelling by air with children, safety instructions are always given by airline staff for parents to first use the oxygen masks on themselves before they administer it to their child.
Parents and carers would benefit from remembering this basic instruction in all areas of life. To look after our kids and be optimal parents, we need to start by modelling these very traits from the outset.
So how do we start the process of building our own resilience as a parent?
Here are some strategies to help:
- Demonstrate self-care
Our children see us build our own resilience when they see us looking after ourselves. We can’t be the best, strongest, healthiest, most vital versions of ourselves if we’re not taking care of ourselves.
If your children see you focus on exercise, eating well and balancing friendships with work commitments, they see how you give yourself some time out. All of these little acts of self-care help to ensure you are ready to cope if and when challenging situations arise.
It may feel selfish, but it’s actually selfless – as it’s demonstrating what self-care and resilience looks like. It’s becoming even more important to model self-care in today’s fast-paced world: our kids are often over-scheduled, and we can easily fall into that trap ourselves, too. We need to model for our kids what it looks like to have down time.
This could include things like: booking a night away at a hotel by yourself or pitching a tent in a caravan park an hour away. Planning a night out with your friends. Arranging for your kids to have a sleepover so you can have a night of Netflix on the couch and a sleep-in the next day. It’s all about taking the time to retreat away from the pressures of everyday life, even if only for a few hours and replenishing yourself.
- Take care of You
This is quite similar to the previous point but a little more targeted. The first point was about prioritising our own self-care and ensuring we’re not the last person being looked after. It’s all about proactively monitoring and managing our own health when difficult situations arise.
In the midst of being a parent, you are of no value to your kids if you fall apart and can’t climb your way back on top of things. When you get hit with something difficult, you may fall apart and mope in bed for the day – but your kids then need to see you get back up again. If you find that you can’t resurface, that’s okay; but it means that you need to get help. It’s our job as parents to model for our kids that it’s okay to reach out for support when we need it.
- Be honest and upfront
As parents, we obviously want to shield our kids from trauma. However, it can be beneficial to their well-being if we are open, honest and transparent. When we experienced a traumatic event a few years ago, I called my dear friend Michael Carr-Gregg and said, “I don’t know what to do or how to help my kids to process this… help!”.
He suggested that I tell my 16-year-old son everything. “What he can imagine is going on, is far worse than the truth,” Michael advised. “Tell him everything about what has happened so far, and what the plan is going forward.”
It went against every fibre of my being to follow his advice; I wanted to protect my son from the situation, not expand his involvement in it. But do you know what? He handled it so well. Being upfront with him and giving him the space to ask questions, helped him to gain some control and perspective.
- Develop your tribe
They don’t say that parenting takes a village for no reason! Parenting is a team sport, and by expanding our own network of trusted friends and relatives, it makes the process of raising children much less isolating and lonely.
Having a tribe is about sharing experiences. When we share, it gives other people the permission to say me too!
There is so much relief and growth in these types of shared conversations and experiences. We’re often scared about sharing, but when we do lean on people and share our story, we’re opening the door for them to share their stories, too.
You’re not doing this parenting caper on your own, even though it may sometimes feel like it. And if it does feel that way, or if you feel like you don’t have a tribe, you might have to step out and look for it and develop your own support system.
For some people, that may be on social media, especially if you’re in a remote area or you can’t or don’t like getting out and about. You can join groups that gather to discuss specific concerns, like anxiety support, parenting forums, having children with special needs, or to do with sports or hobbies.
- Maintain perspective
This is all about modelling resilience, no matter what happens. Even in the darkest of hours when the most difficult things happen, we can model to our children the ability to not only survive, but to eventually thrive again.
One of the most effective ways of building our own resilience is to maintain a sense of perspective. We can often catastrophise things; if a glass breaks, we fly off the handle. To maintain perspective is to have the attitude of: well, at least it wasn’t your arm that broke, there are worse things that could happen.
- Set and maintain boundaries
Do you often say “yes” first, before even properly thinking about it? Can you help with this project? Appear on this panel? Give a talk at this event? Help my kids with this problem?
Whatever the question or request, often we say “yes”, and then work out how to make it happen. Whilst this kind of approach can serve us well when we’re building our careers, it can also eventually lead to burnout. When we push ourselves to the enth degree and give and give of ourselves, we can be left with nothing but a burnt-out shell.
This is why learning to set boundaries is absolutely crucial. The ability to say “no” is a learned skill and something we need to practice for our own self-preservation. It doesn’t even have to be a “no”; it could be a “not now”.
Building boundaries is important in our own lives, and they’re just as important in our children’s’ lives. Learning to be patient and to compromise are traits that contribute towards resilience; we can’t give our kids what they want all day, every day, or they’ll never be able to adapt and respond appropriately when things don’t go their way.
- Show our kids that it’s okay to fail
An essential skill that all parents should aim to teach their kids, is that it’s okay to fail. This is an opportunity to show them how we bounce back.
Throughout their life, our young people are not going to achieve every goal they set for themselves. They’re going to make mistakes or take a different path, and they’re going to feel disappointed when things don’t turn out how they expected them to. This is life!
We shouldn’t sweep these feelings under the carpet or encourage our kids to simply keep their chin up and look for the next goal to aim for. Instead, we should give them the tools they need to move through failure and disappointment, knowing that a) these feelings won’t last; and b) it’s okay to not be okay sometimes.
The truth is, nobody has got it all together, all the time (even though social media might skew this reality somewhat!).
Moreover, while it’s okay to not be okay, it’s not okay to stay in that trench. Wallow, sulk and have your moment of not coping … and then learn how to pick yourself up again.
- Keep your sense of humour
At the end of the day, you have to keep your sense of humour! Never take yourself too seriously. You have to laugh and seek out the funny side of life; after all, none of us are getting out of it alive.
Sharon Witt has been immersed in the adolescent world for more than 26 years as a secondary teacher in Melbourne. She is the author of 12 books written for young people around the topics of resilience, to help guide them through many of the issues they face in early years, including the best-selling Teen Talk, Girlwise and Wiseguys series, and the newly-released Raising Resilient Kids.
Sharon has also developed a series of ten-week programs for building resilience in our children for use in primary schools in both Middle Primary and Senior Primary. Details at: www.sharonwitt.com.au