Posted on September 5th, 2013
Words Mark Le Messurier and Mon Saunders
'Tough Kids' tend to find life harder than most. Mark Le Messurier gives some insights into nurturing the developing spirit of these special young people.
Not too long ago, there was a perception that 'tough kids' were the kids who were a bit like the character Fonzie on the TV series Happy Days. The series ran between 1974 and 1984 and celebrated the relationship between teenager Richie and his family: his father Howard, a hardware store owner; Richie's mother Marion, a homemaker; Joanie, his younger sister; and tough man Arthur Fonzarelli - The Fonz, the Cunningham's tenant, high school dropout, biker and suave ladies' man.
I prefer to see 'tough kids' slightly differently. I think 'tough kids' form part of a challenging and growing group of children who find life tougher than most. They may have been diagnosed as being gifted or battling with specific learning difficulties, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Language Disorder, Auditory Processing Disorder and/or Autism Spectrum Disorders. They are uniquely special and talented boys and girls who need assistance to learn to socialise, make sense of literacy, learn how to make and maintain friendships and often moderate their emotional responses in tricky situations. We need to focus on developing the spirit of these young people to help them re-engage with the world around them, avoid depression and enhance their future opportunities through early recognition and well-placed behavioural interventions.
How do I know if something isn't on track?
We're always told as parents never to compare our kids with others. But thankfully we do! It's only through comparing developmental milestones that we get a sense of whether our children are on track. It's really important though, that you resist the urge to be overtaken by guilt or perfectionism when comparing your son or daughter to their friends or classmates. Listen to your instincts. Your instincts will be the first indicator that some investigation is required.
How do I help them?
If you think that your child is struggling emotionally, socially or academically try not to be overwhelmed. The chances are there will be other kids with similar issues, so you're not alone.
Share what you see in your child with people who know you and know your child, and assess their feedback. The next step might be to discuss your thoughts and observations with your child's teacher, special ed coordinator or perhaps one of the leadership team at the kindergarten or school. Do their own observations and thoughts resonate with yours as a parent?
Sometimes further investigation is required. This may be through a referral from a doctor or a paediatrician and may include a comprehensive psychological or educational assessment through a skilled psychologist. I know this sounds daunting, but my experience is that kids always enjoy the assessment process and have a lot of fun!
News that your child may have a social/behavioural or learning difficulty can be overwhelming for parents. Our first thought is to 'fix' this by creating a convoluted master plan to address the complexities. Try to resist the urge to do this. Complex issues are often resolved by a series of clever, but practical changes. This may be combinations of organisational strategies, developing realistic goals and attitudes. By taking things slowly and by assessing the top priorities and working on them first, often you'll notice the changes - others take time. Success is often achieved when children are given time to process the information, step by step, with support and encouragement from the most important people around them.
Why are early interventions important?
We now understand that the earlier interventions are put in place with children who are struggling, the better the chances are for optimistic change. By cleverly intervening as early as possible we enable children to 'rewire' their world, reframe their thinking, and enable them to achieve little successful steps quickly. This builds confidence and resilience and empowers the child to own the change.
What if the kindergarten or school doesn't agree?
This is a tough problem for parents. As parents, who are often doing this for the first time, we want to put our trust in the hands of those who we hope know best. Sometimes educators don't see what you are seeing, and they may not see the impact that difficulty may be having on your child at home.
Courage and love are two of the strongest virtues parents can give their children. Keep talking with teachers, counsellors, doctors and any other stakeholder in your child's future. If you don't advocate for your son or daughter no one else will. Persist and trust your instincts.
Why is it important to build emotional resilience in children?
Last year, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that one in four Australian children and adolescents experienced mental health problems, particularly sadness and depression. When we talk about emotional resilience, we refer to an individual's capacity to bounce back from setbacks. This takes into account their level of optimism and how they can convert tricky situations into opportunities that they can grow through and flourish.
I like to look at resilience in the same way we might view building a complicated layered cake. Resilience is the icing on the cake and only exists because of the painstaking foundation work that has taken place. It takes thought, time and care. As parents, our role is to embed 'resilient thinking' in our children by coaching, modelling it and living healthy, robust lives. So much of raising resilient kids comes in the form of being a clever life coach who is prepared to gently and intelligently chip away. Hey, isn't it ironic that their eventual resilience hinges on ours for the first 20 years of their life?
In the long term, we aim to empower children to have an influence and a voice in the world, thereby reducing the statistics where they become victims of isolation, sadness and depression.
How do we know that we're getting it right as parents?
Do you see helpful virtues developing within your child - kindness, fairness, compassion, loyalty, empathy and so on? Does your child maintain valued friendships? Are they achieving academically and participating in the richness of life? Are others beginning to appreciate their style, strength and potential? Are they basically happy? Do they nurture others?
When we look at our children and are happy with these answers, then we know we're getting it right.
Mark Le Messurier is an Adelaide based teacher, author and counselor.
Mon Saunders is the manager of strategic communications at Prince Alfred College.