We all go through tough times. And no matter how much we try to protect children and young people from times of pain and distress, sometimes it is not within our power to stop disaster befalling those with whom we work. Yet, if we help develop emotional resilience in children and young people, then we can give them the tools to cope better with the tough times when they come.
Sadly, too many children and young people are struggling to deal with the troubles that come their way. Like last issue’s subject, spirituality, emotional resilience is something that schools seek to build as part of their commitment to social, moral, cultural and spiritual development (SMCS) and personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE). However, the time spent on these subjects is under constant pressure from the main curriculum.
As schools’ workers and volunteers, we are well-placed to make a huge difference in this area. What would it be like if, in our local schools, children and young people had the emotional tools to cope with difficulties in their life, had a support network to fall back on and were able to support their friends through their own tough times?
What would a school look like where pupils had the support and personal development needed to boost their emotional resilience and survive the difficult times that life throws are them? What help would staff need to support children and young people (and get support for themselves)? What help would children and young people need to live a more emotionally resilient life?
The mental health of children and young people is regularly in the headlines. Recent reports suggest that almost a quarter of a million under-18s are receiving some kind of help from NHS mental health services for problems such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders (according to the Mental Health Services data set from NHS Digital). That same data set revealed that more boys than girls are accessing NHS services. Childline has also seen a substantial rise in the number of calls about mental health, conducting an average of 53 suicide counselling sessions per day. The government is in the process of putting an extra £1.4 billion into services to support troubled children, but schools and local NHS services are still strained.
So what can we do? First of all, if we don’t know much about the subject, we can learn more about it. An awareness of the national picture will help us to think through what might be happening at a local level. A bit of online research will help you to uncover the local picture. Below are some websites both for your own use, but also to know about to refer children and young people to. They all offer credible help and support.
Do talk to the schools you work and minister in, and listen to what the needs are there from those at a senior level as well as the staff dealing with these issues day-to-day. If you’re a regular visitor to a school, you’re likely to have a good picture already, but a conversation with your contacts about the emotional well-being of students and the needs of the school will mean that you can work together to develop the appropriate support.
An information hub offering young people advice and help on mental health problems including depression, anxiety and stress.
Support and information about mental health problems, including online support.
Emotional support for anyone feeling isolated, distressed or struggling to cope.
Advice and support across a range of difficulties in childhood.
A helpline for children suffering abuse, neglect or other difficulties.
For those struggling with self-harm.
For those struggling with eating disorders.
It would be amazing if we could just give you one or two things that would make a massive difference in the mental health of our children and young people. As you know, mental health is complex and extremely nuanced. That said, personal beliefs inform thoughts, thoughts inform behaviour and behaviour reaffirms the personal beliefs. This all affects our mental and emotional health. While our current thoughts and behaviours may cause us problems and pain, we would rather continue thinking and acting this way and avoid changing any of our personal beliefs. This is called cognitive dissonance. Unconsciously we are always looking for reasons to validate our personal beliefs, no matter how problematic they are for us. We’re not talking about theological beliefs, but rather beliefs about ourselves as individuals.
Secondary school ideas
This dissonance is even more complex for teenagers as the brain doesn’t finish developing until roughly 23 years of age for females and 25 for males. At that point we begin to work out who we are but our personal beliefs are already likely cemented in place. Of course, before we can help our young people change their problematic personal beliefs, we need to identify what they are. It is not enough to assume our young people have low self-esteem or anxiety issues.
Here is one simple activity you could try, but first a couple of important things to note. In choosing any activity, you are the one who is best placed to decide what is most appropriate for your group. Secondly, this following activity is meant for groups where the dynamics of working together / group rules / mutual respect / confidentiality etc has already been established.
- Firstly, ask the young people to draw an outline of themselves in the middle of a page (nothing too specific - the outline of a gingerbread man should be fine, as long as it’s large enough to write inside but with room to write on the outside of the figure).
- On the outside of the figure, they should write words or phrases that represent what others see when they look at them.
- On the inside, encourage them to write words or phrases of what they see or think when they look at themselves.
- Afterwards, it’s a good idea to have a time of sharing the drawings and thoughts with the group (but no one has to share anything if they don’t want to).
This short exercise helps you identify in the young person what beliefs and thoughts are present and gives you a starting point for any work. You can do this exercise again after a few months and see if there have been any changes or progress. It begins a dialogue with the young person and enables them to feel safe in sharing. A simpler version of this exercise is to simply draw shapes or blobs on a page that represent different parts of them, each blob being a different colour and representing a different thought or feeling. After the exercise, you can begin to discuss problematic thoughts and feelings with the young person.
Primary school ideas
For primary school children, they may be experiencing events and emotions they have never come across before. This can be bewildering and scary, and children may not have the language to articulate their feelings or know who they can talk to about their situation.
Using the blob tree exercises would be particularly effective here. These are pictures set in different locations (although the original image you may be familiar with is a tree), populated by figures in various poses. Children can look at the picture and choose a figure that they think represents them at this time. These figures are ‘blobs’, rather than real people, so children can ascribe their own emotions to the figure. A discussion about why a child chose that figure will help start a discussion about how a child is feeling and help them to develop a vocabulary to vocalise their emotions. To access the blob diagrams, visit Pip Wilson’s site: blobtree.com. This would also work with people of God from Godly Play or different emoticons.
Another option would be to introduce a puppet to a group of children. Children will often tell puppets things that they wouldn’t tell an adult (such as you, their parent or their teacher). Just like any relationship, the children will need to get to know the puppet before they trust them. It’s also important for you to make sure that the puppet has a consistent character. The puppet could come with you to assemblies and lessons so that children can become familiar with it, but it will be most effective in circle time or PSHE. For puppets, go to One Way UK’s website: onewayuk.com. There is a lot of information online about therapeutic puppetry.
Follow up thoughts for both primary and secondary ideas
Naturally, you may need to share information with the welfare or safeguarding person of any organisation; you may also need to signpost charities for any issues that have been raised that are outside your sphere of competence. Do consider working with parents / carers and the school to make sure that children and young people have enough ongoing support.
To continue these start-up activities, you might find it useful to create a mentoring programme. In addition, it might be that by simply ‘hanging around’ at school (with the school’s permission of course!) means that you’re available for children and young people to chat to. Descriptions of both these styles of youth work are available in Reaching young people (BRF).
Lee Martin is a psychotherapist and the mental health lead for Youthscape.
Alex Taylor is resources editor for Premier Youth and Children’s Work.