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Nurturing resilience in children during hardship

By Pheona Nakishero

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Hellen Keller

This model of upbringing is used by many middle-class parents in Uganda to justify keeping their children in boarding schools for nine months of the academic year. In boarding schools, the diet is mostly limited to posho (made from maize flour) and beans, the likelihood of bullying is high, and children may often have to walk for long distances to fetch water—relatively difficult circumstances that many children with middle-class parents would not encounter at home.

Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, schools have been closed for over four months—children in both rural and urban areas are facing a different kind of hardship. Lockdowns and restrictions have increased unemployment rates, which in turn has increased the likelihood of families on either side of the class divide slipping into the poverty bracket. Also, there are increased cases of domestic violence and teenage pregnancies.

A review of children and youth services published in Texas, United States shows that at least half of children who go through hardships like; poverty, violence, substance abuse, family conflict, personal or family illnesses are still able to defeat the odds and become successful. However, the other half suffers from long-term negative mental, physical and economic effects. In Uganda, the relationship between violence and children’s ability to adapt has been studied to support positive youth development.

We expect that COVID-19 and its subsequent restrictions on education and the economy will not last forever, but we wonder if families and school-going children will come out of it stronger or if they will drown in the pandemic and its effects? We would like to explore the idea of stifling what makes some children cave and lose their path to success while nurturing what it takes to grow and thrive after experiencing adversity.

The distinction of the children who grow up to thrive despite hardships has been linked to resilience; a character trait that can be nurtured. Here are five strategies that parents or guardians can apply at home to help their children build resilience to overcome their current and future challenges.

  1. Help the child understand their unique God given identity. Help them shift attention to their talents and capabilities. In a safe environment, allow them to form and openly communicate their likes, dislikes, and opinions about the hardship they are currently facing. Tell them they can still create their path with the choices they make. 
  2. Surround them with positive role models and stories of others who have been through similar deterrence and have overcome. Be a role model yourself. Storybooks and movies are also good for this. There is something about hearing other people’s success stories that move people to work towards their success. 
  3. Together with the children, create and write down a vision of a better life, or life after the obstacle. Define goals and a purpose with the child. Help them discover something to work towards. It could be a small milestone, winning a recognized award, achieving a dream career as a footballer or doctor, or helping others overcome a similar challenge. Resilience is a game of hope. We can get through difficulties today because of what tomorrow could be.
  4. When you are in a position of trust with the child, positively communicate your high expectations of the child frequently and without any hint of disdain. If you consistently show them that you believe they can overcome and excel, they will work hard not to disappoint you.  
  5. In an unstable home environment, create one simple routine activity. For example, a reliable parent or guardian coming home before bedtime every day to have dinner and read them a story before bed can give children a sense of stability. One fun-filled activity a week or month, when done consistently can form a culture and give them something to look forward to. 

There isn’t any one size fits all glass slipper for overcoming adversity. Research has shown that some people show resilience in some situations and not in others. Either way, it is worth the effort to encourage children and train them to survive and thrive despite hardship.