A new report from NHS Digitial looks at the mental health of children and young people in England in July 2020, and how this has changed since 2017. The report indicates an increasing proportion of children experiencing mental health difficulties over the past three years, from one in nine in 2017 to one in six as of July 2020. Being a father to three children under the age of 5, I read through the report with a feeling deep in the pit of my stomach of the challenges ahead for them. It is difficult to not feel a heavyweight of responsibility for ensuring that we ready our children for their future. Preparing our children for the potential triggers, influences and events that can lead to mental health difficulties seems an urgent priority.

I often worry about the term resilience in the context in which has been used in the UK. It seems to sit with the use of terms used for illness such as ‘fighting a good battle’ which denote that some have a sort of inner skills or resolve which allows them to succeed. Resilience seems to used by some as a cure-all term for developing a mental armour to deflect the various challenges to children’s mental health. Others seem to think that resilience is a character trait that some have, and others lack a genetically determined nugget of gold that sees some children through tough times. The truth is that resilience is a multifaceted concept that requires some unpicking.

Resilience is not a buffer which we gain to push away negative emotions; it is a type of mental elasticity we gain to help us bounce back from adverse events and trauma. Resilience embraces a person’s ability to adapt and be flexible when faced with external or internal stressors[1]. Contemporary writing on resilience views it not as a personality trait but an adaptional, dynamic process of development[2]. Emotional pain, sadness, and anxiety are common when we have suffered a significant trauma or personal loss, or even when we hear of someone else’s loss or trauma. It is part of the human experience with being able to come through these times and return with positive outcomes the critical point for our long term wellbeing. Resilience can help us to not only come through significant adverse personal events but also deal positively with the day to day stress and challenges that we face.

So, how can we support our children to develop greater resilience which will benefit them now and as they move into adulthood? Research published in an article in the child development journal Children has identified a standard set of factors that predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of significant adversity[3].

  • Caring family, sensitive caregiving (nurturing family members)
  • Close relationships, emotional security, belonging (family cohesion, belonging)
  • Agency, motivation to adapt (active coping, mastery)
  • Problem-solving skills, planning, executive function skills (collaborative problem-solving, family flexibility)
  • Self-regulation skills, emotion regulation (co-regulation, balancing family needs)
  • Self-efficacy, positive view of the self or identity (positive views of family and family identity)
  • Hope, faith, optimism (hope, faith, optimism, positive family outlook)
  • Meaning-making, belief life has meaning (coherence, family purpose, collective meaning-making)
  • Routines and rituals (family routines and rituals, family role organisation)
  • Engagement in a well-functioning school
  • Connections with well-functioning communities

With compassion education, we recognise that resilience can be fostered at an individual, social and cultural level. On an individual level, we can support children to learn and practice self-compassion, develop greater emotional literacy and a greater understanding of the importance of knowing yourself[4]. With a deeper level of self-respect and kindness, we cannot create the agency and motivation to move forward positively. Awareness of our internal emotional vista allows us to understand the comings and goings in our mood and mind in an analytical way. This empowers an individual to notice and understand their emotions without being overwhelmed by them when they occur. We work with children to explore ethical ideas such as understanding true happiness when courage becomes a risk and the why failure one of the most essential parts of learning and wisdom. In the social dimension, we encourage children to look at the importance of engaging with other compassionately as a basis for their own wellbeing and to enrich their community. Alongside this work, we offer some useful emotional regulation and stress management skills and critical thinking so that children learn that with the support they can reach for the solutions themselves.

Many useful tools can support the development of resilience, including mindfulness (for emotional awareness and regulation) and growth mindset (for cognitive adaptability and developing a positive approach to life). Compassion Matters can be part of a range of strategies and tools for helping children develop the habits, attitudes and behaviours that lead to greater resilience.

[1] Walton, J. C. (1999). Psychological resilience: A model for development in older adults (9930593 PhD). Loyola University of Chicago, Ann Arbor. ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global database.

[2] Cicchetti, D. (2010). Resilience under conditions of extreme stress: A multilevel perspective. World Psychiatry: Official Journal of the World Psychiatric Association, 9(3), 145–154. Hunter, C. (2012). Is resilience still a useful concept when working with children and young people? Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.

[3] Masten, A. S., & Barnes, A. J. (2018). Resilience in Children: Developmental Perspectives. Children (Basel, Switzerland)5(7), 98.

[4] Miller-Karas, Elaine. Building resilience to trauma: The trauma and community resiliency models. Routledge, 2015.

Compassion Matters is an education project from the Dalai Lama Centre for Compassion, registered charity no.1164491.