Resilience and kids

I started writing this about four weeks ago on my way home from seeing my little cousin for the last time. She was 21 years old when she hung herself because she just couldn’t get things to feel right inside. I almost didn’t finish it since the writing had served it’s selfish self-therapy purpose. But watching my niece and nephew say goodbye to their uncle 2 weeks later after he lost a long struggle with mental illness changed my mind.

Every year since college I’ve seen that dark cloud called depression suck up somebody close to me or my loved ones and every year we talk about it, and every year we hope things will be different, but every year it happens again.

From the down and out days, near-miss visits in the emergency room to the final, no-going-back goodbyes at the marae or church – mental health is something we all see the effects of, and something we should all be aware of, especially as parents responsible for turning children into adults in this big, crazy world.


9 children between the ages of 10-14 take their own lives each year in New Zealand. 


Bit of a sombre start to the conversation, but I’d rather talk about child resilience and mental health now than try to figure out the answer to one of our biggest problems in 16 years time when you’re teenagers.

We all face set-backs at some point in life, most of us know there’s no such thing as fair in the real world – some of us are ‘lucky’ enough to figure that out early on, but a lot don’t. If there’s anything I can do to help prepare you for how real life can get and help you bounce back when things don’t go her way, without needing the extreme lessons I did, then point me in the direction and I’m there.

Better ask mum.
My mum, your nana, is one of the strongest and most resilient people I know. And I know everyone thinks that’s exactly who their mother is but this is a woman who has lived through more than I would wish on my worst enemy, and still manages to find and create good in the world. She’s no joke. Plus she happens to be an early childhood teacher and knows her shit.
Disclaimer: these are her thoughts as your nana, not as the local early childhood teacher.
Second disclaimer: this isn’t game of thrones and I don’t really have a worst enemy, that I can think of.

“No human ever became interesting by not failing. The more you fail and recover and improve, the better you are as a person. Ever meet someone who’s always had everything work out for them with zero struggle? They usually have the depth of a puddle. Or they don’t exist.” – Chris Hardwick

Mental health is a big issue in NZ, and especially for young Maori like Huhana and Kāhu ō te Rangi. But most of what we talk about is what we should be doing when it’s becomes an issue for somebody close to us. What about child mental health and resilience? Huhana is only 18 months old but what can I do now to help prepare her mind for the rollercoaster of life? I know there’s genetics that we might not always be able to fight, but aside from that how do we help the fragile little hearts and heads of our kids grow into a strong resilient adults?
Mum - Child mental health

I think mental health is tied up with lots and lots of things. 

We need to support the whanau so they can support the children and we need to value the parents as first teachers.   Sometimes the children who have had a rough road through their early years have already developed a resilience, perhaps their coping mechanisms are pretty well-tuned.  Sometimes the children who have been protected, nurtured and been focused on, find it more difficult to cope.  

Perhaps some of the sustenance that feeds us is lacking some of the essential nutrients that feed our minds.

Our conversation went on a lot longer than that – but it went off topic pretty quickly once my niece and Huhana started dressing up in beekeeping suits.


Junior Bee Keeper
Junior Bee Keeper

Every kid needs someone to smile at their achievements, but the smile shouldn’t be why they do it.

Thanks mum.

In this article a clinical psychologist studied resilience in kids who lived in circumstances that would normally spit out “troubled” children but were doing well, and compared them to the kids coming from the same environment who were having trouble coping with life. 66% of those kids from at-risk circumstances went on to develop serious learning or behaviour issues by the age of 10, or other issues including criminal records by the age of 18. The other 34% were “competent, confident, and caring young adults”.

The study showed a few different elements predicted a kid’s resilience. One was strong bonds with a parent, caregiver, mentor or teacher. The rest were to do with how the kid responds to the environment:

  • Resilient kids were able to problem solve well
  • Resilient kids used whatever skills they had effectively – these were not especially gifted kids, just kids that used whatever abilities they had
  • Most importantly according to the psychologist; resilient kids believed they had control over their achievements and that those achievements were not decided by their circumstances. The “at-risk” kids that coped well with life had significantly more ability to think like this than the non “at-risk” kids in the same study. “The resilient children saw themselves as orchestrators of their own fate”

The Psychologist talks about life being a constant balance of resilience and stress. Breaking point happens when the combined stress is heavier than a child (or adult’s) resilience. But that resilience can be learned – some of the children who were ‘low’ on the resilient scale as kids learned those skills as they grew and were able to overcome adversity later in life.

Martin Seligman (another psychologist) talks about “learned helplessness” and says a key difference between people that are likely to become depressed and those that aren’t is how they explain “bad things” to themselves. Those that think of (and explain) bad things as being their own fault, and think they will keep happening are more likely to become depressed. Those that think “bad things are happening now, but they’ll stop and they’re not my fault” were less likely to become depressed (very dumbed down version of the theory).

Resilience is learned and grown just like any other muscle or skill – you can learn/train to think about the bad things in life differently, and we can help our kids practice problem solving and give them the independence to look for new experiences in the world as they grow.

The earlier resilience is fostered in kids, the more chance they have to develop it in time for those teenage years when it becomes so much more important, sometimes to the point of life or death. Some kids get the chance to develop this through life’s peaks and troughs, and some don’t have that same balance of ups and downs so don’t self-develop resilience to the same extent. But there’s day to day opportunities to help, if we spend the time to look for them.

“Resilient people do not let adversity define them. They find resilience by moving towards a goal beyond themselves, transcending pain and grief by perceiving bad times as a temporary state of affairs… It’s possible to strengthen your inner self and your belief in yourself, to define yourself as capable and competent. It’s possible to fortify your psyche. It’s possible to develop a sense of mastery.” – Hara Estroff Marano

7 things to help build child mental health
(or buoyancy, resilience, grit… or whatever buzz-word currently means the same)
  • Let them solve (and not solve) their own problems. Let your child be frustrated with problems and work their way through to a solution. Grown-up life is full of problems that need to be solved, let them practice using their brain – it’s a muscle and will grow stronger the more they get to use it. Not finding the answer isn’t always a bad thing, this lets them experience set-backs and failure in ‘small stakes’ scenarios. If you’re always stepping in and letting them avoid failure, what happens in the in the adult or teen world when they come across failure? Remember you’re not always going to be there to give them the answer.
  • Feed them the food that helps grow their brain. That’s a whole post in itself but check out this site for more info on healthy food for kids.
  • Praise perseverance and action – that’s the behaviour you want to encourage. Celebrating an achievement doesn’t necessarily let a child know what they should be doing more of.
  • Teach your child the problem solving skills that make that perseverance worthwhile. Encourage puzzle activities and things that let them practice problem solving.
  • Breathe in.  Stay calm and work through problems yourself in the way you want that little mimic to do when faced with their own. Walk the talk, make sure your actions back up your words. Role model a positive attitude and a bounce back approach when things don’t go your way.
  • Don’t be scared to say No. It’s easy to think you’re being a loving, caring parent by picking your child up and carrying them every time they ask – but all you’re teaching them is that the world will always say Yes. You know know that’s not the case, but they don’t. Obviously this needs to be balanced with the below.
  • Give your child a secure relationship. Warm and loving relationships are the foundation your child needs in order to grow. The stability of your support gives a child the confidence to develop themselves and explore the world around them – if they can’t do that, then none of the lessons you’re working so hard to teach them will stick.

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