It’s all about emotional resilience

How do you teach kids that failing and making mistakes are a key part of learning? Here’s an attempt to start this debate from Homemade Kids: how to raise children in a thrifty, creative and eco-friendly way author Nicola Baird. Feedback welcome!

Being able to control a horse and enjoy riding tends to push away all other problems.

Happy: So many people in the UK used to be in contact with horses even one century ago. Being able to control a horse and enjoy riding tends to push away all other problems. And riding, however much you love it, doesn’t always give you a 10 out of 10 experience. This teaches you that some days are better than others (and that’s normal), especially as a good rider should never blame the horse.

Over the past two days when I haven’t been talking about politics, conversations have centred around how to build emotional resilience in our kids. There’s a lot of blame:

  • The teachers spoon feed the students…
  • Kids don’t have enough freedom…
  • Everyone uses their phones too much…
  • Parents do too much for their children (especially helicopter parenting advocates)…
  • Older teenagers aren’t tough enough…

May and June are exam seasons, so this can be a tense time. Anyone who is used to getting top marks, and doesn’t; or anyone who can no longer face the stress of trying to do their best but then getting a result that disappoints (maybe not them, but families or teachers) is under considerable strain.

A look-and-see trip to GQ magazine with my class of university students in January 2011.

A look-and-see trip to GQ magazine with my class of first year university students in January 2011 (so all graduated by now).This is a real treat part of the course and of course the attendance is invariably high. Recently I’ve noticed how some students only turn up to the treat events and simply don’t do the graft in class – is this because they are lazy or frightened of doing it wrong?

As for universities, they struggle with why their new intakes of students seem so unable to cope with independent learning. And many students struggle back: finding that “messy” learning where there are no set answers, creativity rules and research has to be found by you (not following a set list) is not for them. Many don’t like unlearning how to do “school” when they turn up at university. So for teenagers this is another high risk period of discontent culminating in a feeling of being let down, which may lead to the student dropping out.

Of course students now have to pay £9,000 for their tuition. And few get paid internships when they then try and get experience of the real world and work. It’s so hard, and the results are predictably unsettling – misery, drop outs, disengagement, even death. Even so the figures are shocking:

One in ten children between the ages of one and 15 has a mental health disorder. (The Office for National Statistics Mental health in children and young people in Great Britain, 2005) http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/

In inner city areas, over 43% of children have considered suicide and one in six children under the age of 11 have attempted suicide. Common causes cited include bullying, abuse, poverty, homelessness, and alcohol abuse. http://www.bullyonline.org/ (figures not from 2015, they are older)

Kids used to enjoy so much more freedom - out all day learning how to occupy themselves, forage and cope with boredom/weather etc. Even this delightful picnic had three adults at it. Who covets a supervised life? Not me, but that's what I gave my own kids.

Kids used to enjoy so much more freedom – out all day learning how to occupy themselves, forage and cope with boredom/weather etc. Even this delightful picnic had three adults at it. Who covets a supervised life? Not me, but that’s what I gave my own kids.

I’ve always thought teens onwards need to have an extra interest – away from school – ideally something that can totally absorb you, such as supporting a football team, bird watching (how old fashioned that sounds) or some kind of “healthy” obsession (eg, music, art) which helps teenagers survive all the emotional and neurological changes they are having to deal with.

Some teens find their interests as they find themselves, the luckiest build on the passions they  began as primary school aged children. I’m not sure that taking selfies really counts as an obsession.

For me it’s always been horses.

I grew up in the countryside and was lucky to have my own pony from the age of eight years old. I don’t have one now – they are hideously expensive and I live in London – but I do still teach riding one day a week. Even if I didn’t occasionally ride during the hacks I take out to the woods, I would be content on the ground. I love the way horses are beautiful, and happy to sniff you. I like caring for them and I adore riding them. Even when I’m not riding a horse I enjoy watching other people doing it really well (it’s Badminton Horse Trials week at the moment) and I’m even extra content if I stop to watch a police horse clopping down the street.

Modern times means there are no milkmen’s horses to run out and treat with sugar lumps (or carrots sliced length wise). You can’t feed strangers’ dogs snacks either or buy sweets for little ones, or even yourself if you have braces on your teeth. All these nice things to do help your brain forget about the serial injustices of being you with the wrong parents/teachers/fill in the gap – but you can’t do them.

For those of us bringing up teenagers (especially the challenging, difficult and miserable ones) days can be incredibly hard. A lot of it seems to be about being more adult than we adults ever want to be. Sometimes this means turning blind eyes (to rudeness say – after all teens have had to be polite all day at school/college – and ideally producing enough food.  Rudeness is never nice, but when it comes to a hungry, over-tired, exam-stressed teen it’s fine to ignore. Pick your fights and give as much space as you can.

If you have friends or a partner find out what they think works and if it’s good advice try it out. An angry teen is at least communicating. It’s far more frightening when they are so shellshocked by choices, revision and the way things are that they retreat into silence and suffering.

What do you do that helps make the teenage years (for your child, for you, for your family) peaceful rather than a battleground?

Bur more importantly how do you build in emotional resilience so that teens can cope with mistakes, an unexpected mark and are able to adapt to the different ways colleges and universities teach? Life isn’t fair – that may be why you dropped out. Unfortunately bad things arrive without even scheduling so you need to be robust enough to cope. Having the emotional strength to cope is essential. The debate is out on how to teach this. I’m pretty certain that you need to let kids learn from their mistakes so they have the courage to try again, know that hard work pays off and are willing to put a lot of effort into Plan B, even Plan C and D if that’s necessary. As Russell Brand puts it no one grows up wanting be a barrista, though they may fancy their chances as a barrister. His latest film, The Emperor’s New Clothes, might be interesting to watch, here’s the trailer.

https://youtu.be/U4Geq8dM13k

At least there are a growing number of emotional resilience type courses. I won’t be going to the event below – but it’s an example of what’s on offer. Maybe it’s something you’d be interested in going to?

Practitioners Seminar: Relational Ways of Working with Teenagers – 18th May 13.30-16.30

Adolescence is a time of significant neurological, emotional, social and intellectual change. Join The Centre on 18th May to understand how professionals can help adolescents through this volatile and complex key developmental period.

Bert Powell will look at how the Circle of Security© Parenting approach works with teenagers. He will focus on how we can enable parents to support and nurture their teenagers in ways that strengthen both their relationship and the child’s emotional well-being 

Dr Gates and Dr Hohnen will draw from their clinical experience of teenagers and families and up to date research on brain development. They will consider how we can foster emotional resilience in adolescents. It is designed to help and inform the practice of anyone working closely with this exciting and challenging age group.

To book click here or to reserve a place email info@thecentrelondon.com 

There's such a small difference between being on a roll or rolling out of control.

There’s such a small difference between being on a roll or rolling out of control.

Over to you
How we all wish we could pin down what’s wrong, or what’s got to change. But until then (!) please do share this post or comment. I know loads of you have experience of both being a teen and raising a teen. And it would be good to hear from anyone who teaches  or employs teens too. Wherever you are in this story, good luck.

Useful contacts

British Horse Society – to find affiliated riding schools which treat horses and riders well.

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2 Comments on “It’s all about emotional resilience”


  1. So much to think about. Thanks for this post. I love your parenting pieces.


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