Keystone Roundtable: Insights Into Reinforcing Children’s Psychological Resilience
It is encouraging that more and more people worldwide are actively talking about mental health and emphasizing its important role in forming and developing sustainable societies. In 2019, the World Health Organization launched a special initiative outlining the strategies for achieving “the highest standard of mental health and well-being.”
One crucial aspect of mental health is psychological resilience. Counselors from the Keystone Academy Center for Student Development (CSD) define it as “being able to recognize hardship and grow stronger for it” and say it is closely related to the “connection, confidence, character, and competence” of a person.
“Let’s look at those four C’s as parts of a tree,” CSD counselor Nicole Torres says. “The first C (connection) is where a person makes meaningful relationships and purpose of self in the world. The trunk (confidence) shores up a person to face challenges, while branches (character) act as a set of values that hold together the leaves (competence), or basically the skills of that person.”
Ms. Torres was among the counselors that led a workshop on unlocking resilience in children in mid-October 2021. In this article, we expand that conversation and invite teachers, parents, and students to a roundtable discussion to share their insights into developing and harnessing this vital ability.
Student group: Richard Gao (Grade 9), William Li (Grade 10)
Teacher group: Toby Huang (Chinese Civilization teacher), Grace Wang (Assistant Head of Primary School)
Center for Student Development (CSD) team: Jean Fu (counselor), Bella Li (counselor), Candace Gadomski (Assistant CSD Director), Nicole Torres (counselor)
Parent group: Dai Yixin, Gao Dongdong, Wang Tong
Common misconceptions about psychological resilience
Myth 1: It’s either you have it or don’t.
What CSD says: Resilience is a skill that can be learned or improved.
Myth 2: Resilient people are tough and self-reliant
What CSD says: Resilient people know how and when to seek help. They have strong social networks and close connections with family and friends.
Myth 3: Resilient people can easily tackle a problem
What CSD says: Resilient people allow themselves to be present, admit failure, and fall flat. At this moment, they give themselves space to reflect, stop, and recharge to overcome problems.
Myth 4: Resilience is similar to grit.
What CSD says: Resilience is more about accepting things that are out of your control. Grit is more geared towards the resolve to achieve something.
In what ways is psychological resilience present in daily life?
How did you build it up?
Gao Dongdong (GDD): I believe psychological resilience is closely related to self-awareness, inner maturity, and the attention that a person receives. Cultivating psychological resilience is a complicated process. In my experience in business management, psychological resilience relates to several aspects of one’s personality: it greatly influences integrity and character, establishes a sense of responsibility, and correlates highly with decision-making and behavioral patterns. Also, psychological resilience is a cornerstone of value judgment and rational decision-making. In the family, psychological resilience needs to be continuously incorporated in conversations so a growing child can face new challenges confidently.
Dai Yixin (DYX): Psychological resilience is manifested by a person whose mental fortitude remains strong amid daily life problems. My background is in social science research, and psychological resilience is necessary for this career. My co-researchers and I often deal with various setbacks like difficulties breaking through theories, problems in analyzing data, or loopholes in reasoning, among many others. Psychological resilience is honed through facing difficulties instead of avoiding them, and finding out and repeatedly trying different solutions without being disheartened. These methods can encourage one to persevere, carry their research on, and then keep pushing forward.
Grace Wang (GW): Psychological resilience is the ability of a person to coexist with unexpected situations in the external environment. When I was young, my parents were busy with their careers and thus had no time to look after my brother and me. I gradually learned to reconcile that reality with the challenges I faced as I grew up. In Chinese, “to reconcile” is formed by two characters: 和 (hé or “harmony”), which means to face problems calmly, and 解 (jiě or “solution”) or to find a solution. When children face challenges or pressures, psychological resilience helps them strengthen their inner strength, enables them to cope with difficulties, and invigorates them to carry on.
Toby Huang (TH): Psychological resilience allows a person to remain calm when encountering complicated situations and solving problems in and out of their comfort zones. It is related to their personality and experience and their family and social environment. Psychological resilience is very important for children, even if they are still in a developing stage. It allows them to deal with their immediate problems, like completing an assignment, managing relationships with friends, classmates, and family members, and even planning for their future.
As a student, how do you deal with emotional issues and psychological stress?
William Li (WL): I avoid comparing myself with others. The IB system was entirely new to me when I entered Keystone. The only thing I can compare is myself. For example, when my grades are not ideal, I make more efforts to improve myself rather than feeling helpless, because I know what I am here for. I turn to my hobbies to relieve pressure or if I encounter problems. I’m into music and practicing an instrument for an hour a day helps me forget my worries. Exercise and meditation also work wonder for me. I also seek help from others. The CSD has a consultation room, which allows us to vent our concerns — as long as we dare to speak up. Although I don't expose my emotions to others directly, I admit that seeking help from others is the help that our age group must experience.
Richard Gao (RG): I believe a person needs to face, acknowledge, and reflect on their weaknesses and vulnerable points. In sixth grade, I participated in the Student Council election, but I lost the vote. I remember caring too much about others’ opinions, which made me feel depressed and lose confidence. When I reflected on that, I realized the students didn’t actually care too much about my speech; it was just that I was too nervous. I analyzed my shortcomings: I didn’t prepare a speech or practice, which led to failure. It became a learning experience. Since then, I have done well in public speaking.
From this experience, I understood why it is important to think rationally, try to treat situations objectively, look at them from the observer’s perspective, and reflect while moving forward. But if it is still too much to handle, seek help from trusted friends so you can calm down.
How should parents and teachers respond when adolescents encounter emotional problems and psychological challenges?
CSD team: There are some warning signs like increased impulsivity, or when they’re very impulsive in their decisions. Also, they see everything as unfavorable. Sometimes, when children magnify small discomforts, they have trouble understanding what someone is saying to them because they’re not processing their language. As a result, they become more sensitive to stimuli like noise or light, which somehow shows that they’re not being in touch with what’s happening inside them. There are times that children experience symptoms such as stomach pains because those are a physical manifestation of what’s going on in their brains. Their flight-or-fight mode is also active.
Parents know when their children might have difficulty dealing with a challenge. But that’s also something where it becomes hard for a parent: you cannot save your child every time something happens. Of course, parents want to ensure that their children are all safe and cared for. But parents also need to let their children fail and tell them, ‘It’s okay, and now we can move past that.’
This means that the emotional state of parents is also a factor. Children acquire skills through observation and imitation, so parents and children must explore future possibilities together. Parents should acknowledge and affirm the value of children in activities and social roles instead of just emphasizing academic performance, test results, and so on.
Psychological resilience builds up when parents trust their children unconditionally. But this is not just blindly accepting everything that children do. The presence of parents provides children with a sense of security and comfort. When parents cannot do it, teachers, guardians, and trusted adults become indispensable in teenagers’ lives.
When we talk about “having high expectations”, we do not mean excellent academic or athletic performance, although it is reasonable for parents to expect their children to work hard. Rather, “high expectations” is about expecting children or young people to live by values and virtues.
How can parents help adolescent children build psychological resilience?
Wang Tong (WT): Adolescents are more sensitive and are often unwilling to communicate with their parents. As a parent, I underscore the importance of building trust with adolescents. When a child’s mood fluctuates, parents need to stay calm. It’s essential to give the child an outlet to vent their emotions. When they do so, we should listen, empathize, and try not to reason out as it might aggravate the situation. Parents can communicate through the following aspects when the child calms down: First, analyze their problems and then discuss them. For example, if something happens between the child and their classmates, find out the cause, look at it from their perspective, and figure out a more effective solution. Also ask yourself if you need to reach out to teachers and the school for help. Second, let the child acknowledge that frustration is part of their emotion and can be a way to find a solution. They improve their abilities to deal with such kinds of situations by doing so. In addition, you can discuss how to control emotions the next time they encounter setbacks by analyzing and solving them as rationally as possible.
DYX: My child spent a year in the United States for his ninth grade. I remember he felt quite dispirited after knowing he would read Shakespeare’s works in their literature class. We discussed with his teacher and decided to go for a communication and speech class instead of an English literature class in the first semester to learn communication skills first. It was the right thing to do, especially he excelled in this subject, which greatly increased his confidence. We returned to the literature class in the second semester, and he truly enjoyed it.
Letting stressed children hold back their emotions is not necessarily the best solution. Similarly, the child shouldn't give up completely when they feel stressed. If the child can learn to take a step back and try things within their tolerance, that can help them rebuild confidence and carry on. And this does not only happen to adolescents but also to parents. We face emotional challenges, and some who don’t know how to deal with this situation can channel that emotion violently. Families inevitably face some kind of quarrels or emotional issues. This may stem from parents’ need to maintain order in the family, which goes against adolescent children’s desire for freedom. Family members, of course, have different opinions, which can translate into their emotions and actions. So knowing and defining boundaries is an essential topic that families need to talk about.
TH: Sometimes, adults impose their beliefs and perspectives on children, much to a fault. Schools and families should give children more space and opportunities for enlightening mistakes. We inevitably face adversity in our lives, and these very setbacks can be the same springboards to help children go farther in the future. But if the child experiences frustration repeatedly and loses confidence in the process, timely intervention is necessary. Parents and teachers can talk to children and encourage and help them understand the situation—and this action can help children recover and rebuild their confidence. Of course, parents can also seek professional help.
What strategies do you use to develop children’s psychological resilience?
DYX: I have cultivated my child’s psychological resilience ever since he was young. He participated in a math competition for the first time during his fourth grade, but he failed. That frustrated him because he did very well in school. I told him that performance does not mean ability, and that it was normal to fail on the first try. That incident showed he was concerned about his ability and had high expectations. But I reminded him to pay attention to what he could improve to solve future challenges and make continuous progress. After that experience, he looked at poor contest results more positively and expressed his intention to learn more, go for tutoring, and practice problems by himself. That launched his self-exploration into the world of mathematics! Of course, different children have different paths to build psychological resilience. But what parents can do is continue encouraging their children and guiding them, especially during setbacks.
GW: I have been following one student who has encountered relatively difficult academic setbacks that affected his state. I found an opportunity to talk closely with him. I advised him to look after himself and not just his academics. I asked him if he would want to open up or keep things to himself. “If you open up, everyone will support you and help you; if you remain silent, you have to think carefully about things on your own.” I did not expect to get an answer, because I felt that regardless of his choice, his action would be a big step, stimulate his psychological resilience, and turn that frustration into motivation. In fact, this slightly difficult conversation did change him. He moved to a higher level the year after, and every time I saw him, he would always talk to me about his studies and how he coped with setbacks. He recently messaged me on Teams, saying: “Teacher Wang, I got 7 points on the Chinese test!” This is only an individual case. Every child is different and needs to be guided to support their coping strategies.
CSD: Parents can start with primary-aged or young children is to teach them the power of delayed gratification—that they have to wait to get what they want.
Playing board games is one way to teach delayed gratification because it requires control of impulses, rotation, and adaptability. Such games can exercise the prefrontal cortex, or the part of the brain in charge of decision-making, emotional regulation, and psychological resilience. Other ways include learning a musical instrument and even limiting online and screen time. Just because they’re looking at a computer screen and not acting out doesn’t mean their brain is calm.
What can you say about the effect of failures on you/children’s growth?
How can they use that to develop their psychological resilience?
WL: I still remember that the first time I entered Keystone three years ago. I thought my interview would go smoothly because I was pretty relaxed in my previous school experience. However, the reality was different; I did not pass the interview. That became a good reminder that life does not always go smoothly. Fortunately, my hard work paid off, and succeeded on my second try. From this experience, I believe that psychological resilience is the process of constantly breaking through the weaknesses of oneself and emerging from that just like a spring.
WT: Difficulties and failures propel people to make progress. If we put too much of a premium on success or failure, that may lead to self-denial or loss of confidence. Before parents can guide children to view failure, they need to ask themselves first: what do they think about failure? And how do they react to it?
GDD: Understanding failure is as important as understanding success. If we look at it, failure can mean success in another sense: it is success in progress. If there is no action or movement, there will be no failure. In other words, failure means that you are trying your best, and that same action is more meaningful and valuable than the end goal. Encourage children to take action and analyze their experiences while acting on something—or failing on the go. This process itself is a good practice to strengthen psychological resilience.