The recent upsurge in media reports of school bullying has prompted parents and professionals to explore the factors which protect children against the consequences of this scourge. There will always be bullies, so how do we ‘immunise’ our children against them? This article will focus on the concept of resilience.
Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ from difficult or stressful situations. Resilient children are better equipped to cope with the challenges of life, are less likely to develop psychiatric illness and have a greater chance of becoming happy, successful, well-adjusted adults.
All parents want their kids to be resilient, but what can they do to promote this trait in their children? The development of resilience begins really early in life; in fact, probably as early as the womb. Maternal stress in preganancy is known to affect the baby, priming the developing brain for several negative outcomes, including the later emergence of anxiety disorders. Several experts feel that a major reason for the recent upsurge in the incidence of childhood anxiety disorders (and even conditions such as ADHD) is the failure of modern society to protect its pregnant mothers.
But probably the single most important stage in the development of resilience is the attachment phase, which begins after birth and reaches its peak in the first 8-18 months of life. Attachment refers to the close emotional bonds of affection which develop between infants and their mothers. For healthy attachment to occur, the infant requires a mother who is available, both physically and emotionally, and attuned enough to her child’s need for focussed attention, eye contact, physical affection, comfort and appropriate stimulation. This is ‘hard-wired’ into most mothers and will happen naturally in the majority of families.
By about the age of 18 months, the securely attached child has internalised a ‘secure base’ from which he can explore his world more independently. He exhibits healthy curiosity, which facilitates learning and social development. It is crucially important that parents do not interfere with this process by intrusively ‘protecting’ their children from exploring the world and generating solutions to their own problems, as this will sabotage the development of resilience. Anxious, overprotective parents often fall into this trap.
Securely attached children develop a strong sense of self as distinct from their parents. They display the quality of agency, the notion that they are not merely victims of circumstance, but that they have the capacity to influence their own outcomes. This trait is crucial in navigating the challenges of life, including bullies and their antics.
Of course, there are two sides to this equation. Schools and teachers have a responsibility to protect their learners against malicious behaviour, and whatever the resilience of the victim, she needs to be protected by the system around her. There is no excuse for adult inaction when a child is being violated.