How distraction can build children’s resilience

Developing resilience is one of the key elements in mental health and wellbeing. So it’s good to know that research now shows that resilience is a skill which can be developed, rather than a specific inbuilt disposition. This is a really empowering insight, particularly for parents and educators.

It means that we can start developing these skills in our children from an early age. Of course, the question is how to do this in a practical and child-centred way.

One of the ways is to look at the current research and use it to inform our practices. Studies show that one tool that can be beneficial at times is distraction. Of course, the word distraction usually has negative connotations. Being distracted from a task which we are trying to focus on can cause us to lose concentration.

Healthy distraction is different however.

Distraction - Worried child
Ruminating leads to low moods

This is when we deliberately change our focus of attention away from anxieties or worries which we can’t do anything about. Sometimes we feel that pondering and mentally going over problems and anxieties can help us to solve them; of course this is only true if there is something concrete we can do. Otherwise we may find ourselves ruminating- going round and round in mental circles with no solution in sight, leading to low mood.

Prolonged and excessive rumination has been linked to a variety of negative outcomes including increased likelihood of depression. So it’s really important to give children strategies to prevent negative patterns of thought, such as rumination, from developing. Even from an early age we can spot the children who are more prone to this type of thinking.

Using Healthy Distraction has been shown to be a great strategy to prevent rumination and break patterns of negative thinking or anxiety. To teach children about using Healthy Distraction, I first have a discussion about the types of problems or worries which are outside of their control and which they can’t do anything about.

For example, it may be that a grandparent is in hospital, or maybe they are disappointed about some event that hasn’t turned out as they would have liked. Then the children learn that they can take a break from these worries by using some healthy distractions for a while. They can design their own ‘Lucky Dip Of Distraction’ which is a list of their own selection of enjoyable activities which can absorb their attention. The Lucky Dip of Distraction is one of the tools in our Weaving Well-Being: Tools of Resilience Programme. Examples include playing a favourite game, being creative, reading, listening to music, helping someone else etc. As physical exercise is one of the most powerful distractors, it may be good to encourage children to have this on their list in some form.

It is also helpful to put together a collection of interesting objects. We have our own Lucky Dip of Distraction basket in the classroom, and it gets lots of use! The children brought in the items themselves, including fidget toys, bricks, notebooks, joke books, 3-D puzzles and play dough. The children use it in lots of ways – sometimes to distract themselves from a bump or bruise, sometimes to take their mind off a worry or upset, sometimes to help themselves to recover from a row or argument.

It’s such a simple yet powerful strategy, and the children have really taken to it. They use it for as long as it takes for them to feel their mood improving, or anxiety start to lift. I find it’s really useful for developing self-regulation and self- efficacy, as the children learn that there are things that they can do to help themselves feel better and deal with difficulties. Building self-efficacy is another key element of developing wellbeing – research has shown that people with high self-efficacy show greater resilience and reduced vulnerability to depression.

When teaching children about Healthy Distraction as a strategy, it is vital that they understand that it is for use with problems they can’t do anything about. If they can do something about a problem or worry, then it is important for them to learn how to make a plan, act on it and be prepared to keep trying if their first plan doesn’t work. It is really important to teach them this strategy also; we call this problem focused planning. This is covered in another lesson in the Weaving Well-Being programme.

When teaching the skills, or encouraging children to select a strategy for themselves, it’s vital not to rush them through this process, or to minimise their worries or anxieties. Listening to them and helping them to name, express and accept their feelings is a vital first step. Children need to learn that all feelings are normal and important; and that there are practical steps we can take so as not to get overwhelmed by, or stuck in, strong emotions. Building resilience in this way from an early age can give our children the mental strength they will need to overcome life’s challenges and flourish.

 

References

Reivich, K., & Shatté, A. (2002). The resilience factor: 7 essential skills for overcoming life’s inevitable obstacles. Broadway Books.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2008). The how of happiness: A scientific approach to getting the life you want. Penguin.

Maddux, J. E. (2002). The power of believing you can. Handbook of positive psychology. 277-287.

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