Building resilience in the face of adversity

By Associate Professor Helen Bourke-Taylor, PhD, Monash University

Managing the many responsibilities that go along with parenting a child or children with additional needs takes more than grit and determination.

Anyone reading this will know that managing the many additional tasks such as organising medications, attending therapy or navigating the NDIS, is not easy to do. It’s not surprising that parents with a child or children with disabilities report higher stress than other parents. It’s also not surprising that parents report that they learn to manage, enjoy life and build resilience over time.

Why do some parents stay buoyant and cope with wave after wave of problems?

Why do other parents seem calm when surrounded by turmoil?

One factor that appears often in the research literature and a concept that we discuss in daily life, is the concept of resilience.

What is resilience?

Resilience is an elusive concept meaning that there is not a universal definition that people agree upon. Psychologists often view resilience in relation to combating stress and the Cambridge dictionary simply says that resilience is both: “the ability to be happy, successful, etc. again after something difficult or bad has happened”; and “the ability of a substance to return to its usual shape after being bent, stretched, or pressed”.

Being resilient isn’t about being Pollyanna and gliding through daily problems with a little skip and a smile. Being resilient is about taking care of yourself so that you can manage the small and large difficulties that present themselves today, tomorrow and the next day. Resilience is also about becoming stronger through good experiences that validate you and learning from mistakes or events that didn’t go so well. In these ways, becoming resilient is a process of growth, validation and successful discovery of yourself as a parent with more to manage than many other parents.

Adverse events that cause stress versus traumatic events causing distress

Resilience is a way of being that enables a person to cope and manage adverse events and the resulting stress. It is really important to make a distinction between stress, or an adverse event, and actual trauma. In research, most studies are looking into how parents experience stress and how parents cope with adversity, resulting from issues such as multiple night waking to care of a child, challenging behaviour in young children, or a lack of a supportive network around the family. While all of these and many more issues are serious if they are happening in your life, they are not the same as traumatic and life altering events.

If you are a person who has experienced trauma or is experiencing trauma, daily adverse events can be more difficult to manage. It can be more difficult to build resilience. Certainly, if you are in a situation that is traumatic your safety and your family’s safety is of the utmost importance. Seek help from friends and professionals. It is possible to learn to manage the impact of trauma and indeed to experience personal and psychological growth. If you are in this situation, professional counselling and psychological support might be useful. Whether you feel that you have a traumatic past or present events that need addressing, or if you are finding it difficult to manage challenges that your family experiences, your family general practitioner is a great place to start if you would like to seek help.

What does the research say about resilience and parents of children with disabilities?

The evidence suggests that resilient parents have better wellbeing and use cognitive coping strategies such as positive appraisal, reframing, acceptance and planning. Parents need to attend to their own wellbeing and health as the basic building block to preparing for the small and large challenges that present themselves in family life. Parent wellbeing and resilience is supported by:

  • spending time seeking perspective and reflecting on what was done well or what could be improved.
  • being able to see the positive side as well as the challenging side of an issue.
  • judging a situation or event from several perspectives including what can be learned or gained, what might be avoided in the future, or what others perceived and experienced.
  • learning from past events can neutralise or prevent the same scenario in the future, or at least change how we respond to the adverse (difficult or challenging) event.
  • participating in the daily hassles and uplifts that occur in family life! When we are kind and compassionate to ourselves, we manage family life with more patience.

Strategies to build resilience

You are an expert in your own situation and in the types of strategies that may support your wellbeing and build resilience. The suggestions below were retrieved from numerous sources, some research based, others from parents of children with a disability.

Practical strategies

Include healthy activity in your week— even if it is just 15 minutes a day doing something for yourself. Replenishing yourself will help you stay energised and avoid feeling depleted.

Take care of your physical and mental health because good health and self-care are the foundation to coping in everyday life.

Journaling is a great way to organise your thoughts and experiences. Reflection and writing is an evidence based strategy to improve coping skills and reduce stress for mothers of children with a disability.

Scheduling and planning. Remember that an experience provides forewarning about what may occur if a similar event arises. Planning and writing down what you can do to optimise outcomes is useful and research says that actively writing a goal is more likely to result in success and reduce stress for parents of children with a disability.

Talk to others who may have advice or strategies that may help you in your situation. Often others who have managed the same issue are the most informed advisors.

Look for the wisdom in a situation. What can be learned from both the good and not so good outcomes.

Mindfulness and meditation and other strategies have proven benefits. Learning mindfulness strategies to implement in daily life, and or learning to meditate are skills that will help you manage daily challenges.

Emotional strategies

Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself the same way that you would support a good friend who had the same experience.

Seek out supportive others (even if you can only do it virtually). Share your feelings. Empathetic people can make us feel so much better.

Debrief with a friend. Can they offer a different perspective?

Let yourself feel disappointed or sad or whatever you need to feel. It’s human. It’s okay. If you can, limit the feelings to times when you are likely to have control over the emotion then you will be developing good self-management. If you find it difficult to control or stop distress or intense emotions, find a friend, trusted person or investigate professional options through your GP.

Use humour. Laughing protects us when emotions can be intense. Laughing also reduces the build-up of stress hormones in a similar way to physical activity.

Physical strategies

Rest. Give yourself time to re-energise. With only 24 hours in a day, your body and mind need to rest and sleep for 6 or 7 hours (or more if you are lucky!).

Manage your fatigue. If you are not feeling high on energy, manage the events of your day so that you have the highest energy at the most important times. For example, if you know that school pick up might be challenging (when our kids are back in school!), spend the 30 minutes prior preparing your mind, resting your body, enjoying music or something similar.

Exercise. Be active. Find something fun that you enjoy, whether it is walking, gardening or yoga. If you can’t find time right now, make a plan to bring physical activity into your life in the near future.

Relaxation and or breathing techniques. Developing skills to calm oneself physically has the benefit of calming oneself in all ways— emotionally, cognitively and behaviourally.

Resilient familes?

As an occupational therapist who worked with children and young people with disabilities for many years, I noticed that children often have high resilience. So often in a clinic, while visiting a school or home, I noticed that children were able to find joy, try again, think of another way, learn from a bad experience, seek and find comfort in the support of others, and keep a positive outlook. It’s pretty amazing when I think about some of the challenges that the children faced.

Children often see the opportunities in front of them as fun, cool, awesome and interesting. Adults might see the same ‘opportunity’ as a challenge.

Think about your own child and their resilience. Can you draw inspiration when you think about how awesome your child is and how resilient they are? Tell your child. Resilience is contagious in families.

Associate Professor Helen Bourke-Taylor is an occupational therapist and academic at Monash University. Helen is the author of Healthy Mothers Healthy Families, a program for mothers, see www.healthymothers-healthyfamilies.com

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