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Kids & Stress

7 Dec 2009 10:01 PM - Dr Roger Morris

In past decades, psychologists believed that psychological resilience in children to various forms of stress was somehow inborn. But more recent evidence shows that psychological and emotional resilience can be taught, enabling even the most vulnerable children to learn how to deal with life’s stresses. Research indicates that good early relationships with caregivers can help make children more stress-resistant, and the earlier that resilience-building is started the better.

Children who are able to regulate and understand their own emotions are better able to understand emotional states in others, which is the basis for the development of empathy, and being able to have healthy relationships throughout life. Helping children with their social interactions, their relationships and their emotional competence can be successful, even in children who have had early difficulties. Building up children’s tolerance for dealing with life’s ups and downs and changes in mood helps them develop a stronger sense of identity and self-esteem.

Parents can help their children build resilience and develop healthy self-esteem by giving them a sense of being valued and respected. Children need to be listened to and encouraged to express difficulties they might be having. Children also need to have parents that are able to spend quality time with them to help their child maintain a sense of self-esteem even in the face of stressful experiences. Talking to children about stress is very important and it is also important to help children to understand that all people have strengths and weaknesses. Some psychologists suggest bedtime is a good opportunity to bring up positive events in a child’s day. Focusing on positive events during the child’s day is correlated with an increase in happiness.

Recent research conducted in Australia through the federal Department of Housing, Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs showed that highly stressed working mothers are risking their own health and also the emotional development of their children. The study suggested that children of highly stressed working mothers have poorer emotional and social outcomes. This is also affected by parenting style, which can deteriorate when parents are themselves under stress. Mother’s experiencing high ongoing levels of tension report lower mental health, less warmth and more hostility in parenting style, and perceive life as more difficult. Hostile parenting was influenced by work-life tension, but also the mother’s personality, circumstances and parenting style.

Stability within family units is vital and the mental health of parents also has an impact on children’s ability to cope, as does the quality of the parents’ relationship. If parents are supportive of each other, share similar values and expectations about their children, and communicate well with each other, these are protective factors for the children. When there is parental conflict, aggression and domestic violence, followed by separation and divorce, children are put at risk psychologically. Families should try to do things together that are interesting and fun, so that good experiences together are built up.

What Makes Kids More Resilient?

  • Emotional competence: the ability to name and manage their own emotions, and develop empathy for others.
  • Sustaining attachment relationships, including family and peers.
  • Healthy self esteem: a sense of personal competence, and realistic knowledge of their own strengths and limitations.
  • The opportunity to feel valued, respected and listened to.
  • The ability to organise themselves and set goals.
  • A feeling of belongingness at school.
  • Family and school being engaged and working together.
  • A relationship with a caring adult who is not a parent or sibling.
  • Opportunities for positive community involvement, e.g. sport, art, drama, youth groups.
  • The ability to put negative experiences in perspective and try again.
  • The ability to find the positive in negative situations.
  • The ability to perceive that bad situations are temporary and don't have to take over.
  • The ability to accept that life has ups and downs, and that not everything is their fault.
  • The ability to distance from distressing or unalterable situations.