9.14.2012

Kids' Identity, Resilience and Labels

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Children’s sense of identity is important. They can be helped to maintain and develop their sense of identity in adverse circumstances.

A sense of identity is important because it is strongly linked with mental health, wellbeing, self esteem and success in life. Children can be helped to maintain and develop their identity in adverse circumstances by effective support from the families and communities they belong to and by having positive relationships with skilled practitioners who understand the importance of fostering resilience.
I will expose the complexity of identity, its impact on wellbeing, self worth and mental health and discuss the effects of labels and the so called ‘self fulfilling prophecies’; I will continue with an attempt to define and exemplify ‘adverse situation’ and ‘resilience’; show the interdependence between resilience and identity and what can be done for helping children maintain and develop their identity in adverse circumstances.
To define identity is a difficult task. Identity is an elusive concept. ‘Who am I ?’  is difficult question for many people and it may take a lifetime to answer it straightforwardly. What is one’s identity? Is individual/ personal or collective/social?; Is it how one sees himself? Is it how one feels? Is it what one does? Is it how others sees one? Is it how one wishes to be? Is it one’s “performed self”/ “private self”?  My view is that identity is all of the above and much more: it is one’s life story or an  internalized integration of past, present and anticipated future.  It changes with time, and circumstances, it is about individuals and their social circumstances.  No wonder, given the complexity of identity, we tend to simplify matters and describe ourselves using labels (or accepting labels) such as name, gender, physical appearances, likes and dislikes; place/home; significant others/family relationships; social roles; medical conditions, However, research shows that a sense of identity and our individual perception of, and how we value ourselves is linked to our behaviour and social performance. A positive and optimistic perception of one’s self generates wellbeing, high self esteem, confidence, resilience and ultimately, leads one to become better person and achieve, otherwise unachievable things (such as children with disabilities leading able and independent lives).  
This is the reason why developing a strong sense of identity must be positively encouraged from early childhood.
As I mentioned above, given the complexity of identity, humans have a natural tendency to use labels: labelling represents a basic human trait that helps us to create order and common groups within our worlds. However, although useful for simplifying our existence, labels are sometimes dangerous. Some people will not look beyond the label to see the real person with its full life story. It is important that parents, carers and teachers  know the child as much as possible and have the ability to separate the label from the image of the child and, for example praise the energy of a child labeled ‘ADHD’ , or creativity of a child labeled ‘dyslexic’ instead of labelling them as ‘naughty’ or ‘thick’.
The most important strategy for dealing with unwanted or anti-social behaviour is to distinguish between the child and the behaviour. Showing respect for the child,  positive regard, modeling the behaviour and language that is expected from the child,  are only few of the strategies that practitioners should use in order to develop children’s self esteem.
Expecting good behaviour and high performance from children will result in enhanced performance. This phenomenon is known as The Pygmalion Effect or self- fulfilling prophecy  
Grownups can foster a strong sense of identity and increased self esteem in children simply by using positive feedback, focusing their praise on children’s efforts, hard work, patience, capability to learn from errors (rather than :‘Oh! You are so clever’ – phrase highly used by parents, grandparents and sometimes professionals). Children will learn that hard work pays and they will work hard to achieve their goals, thus fulfilling the high expectancies. The self fulfilling prophecy concept does work the other way around as well, which is why labeling children as naughty, slow, lazy, average is likely to result in poor performance. However, the child retains the individual capacity to accept, reject or challenge expectations. For example, a verbally abused child (‘stupid’, ‘lazy’, ‘useless’), might accept the labels and sink into a state of hopelessness or reject the offending labels, try and succeed to prove the offender wrong.  Verbal abuse is an adversity and the child’s course of action in the face of adversity, might be down to his level of resilience.
 Resilience and positive self regard are interdependent. A strong sense of identity is useful in adverse circumstances because it provides the child with resilience. Resilience in turn builds up one’s sense of identity. Those are key features a child ought to develop in order to overcome the inherent adversities of life. Click to read more on Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility, and Happiness

Apple_200x200  Physical and verbal abuse, traumatic events, living in poverty, bullying, and disability are just a few examples of adversities. But life is full of circumstances that only some perceive as adverse while others perceive as simple challenges of life: learning to walk or to ride a bike, going to school, learning to swim, examinations.  Some children become overcome by their emotions or burst into tears while waiting to participate in a competition, for example. They might be overcome by a fear of failure or the tension of the waiting to perfor. However, the grown-ups involved ought to have the sensibility and skills of listening to the child’s concerns, show respect and understanding, reassure them that their feelings are normal, and encourage them to overcome fear while allowing them the freedom to choose whether they want to carry on or give up. It is the support and competence of the adults that will determine whether a simple incident will be quickly forgotten or whether it will have long term consequences such as starting a habit of giving up whenever facing an intimidating task.
Human beings, from conception to death are constantly learning to overcome difficulties. For some the saying, ‘what does not kill you makes you stronger’ is a proven fact of life. Overcoming adverse situations builds up one’s self esteem, knowledge of capabilities and limitations, confidence, resilience and ultimately a positive sense of identity. This is not true for everyone. We often hear on the media cases of suicidal teenagers, underage drinkers and drug abusers and depressed children. Obesity, hopelessness, computer games and television addiction are just a few of the problems that most likely occur due to poor self esteem, lost identity and lack of resilience and adequate support from significant others. Moreover, it is hard to explain why some abused children grow up to become hateful abusers themselves, while others, exposed to the same adversities, grow up to become loving and caring adults with a strong desire to offer their children and the rest of the world all the kindness and love they longed for in their own childhood. Resilience may be the determinant factor.
I understand resilience as one’s ability to remain in control of himself, to achieve his goals (or to carry on trying for them) despite adverse circumstances. Resilience is also an ability to recover after a significant trauma.. Resilience is also related with a ‘can do’ and ‘never give up’ attitude. If the child’s nature is easy going, friendly, empathic, adventurous and good humored, he is likely to be naturally resilient as well. The good news is that resilience can also be nurtured or fostered. Family support, trusting communicative and positive relationships and emotional support from members of community outside family such as a mentor or a teacher, positive feedback, encouragement of autonomy, gradual exposure to manageable risk taking, hope and belief (in religion, morality, justice, love) and taught social and emotional intelligence are just few of the factors that promote resilience in children. 

Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings

Fostering resilience is a long term and developmental process which views children with strengths rather than with deficits and promotes protective processes. However, children need opportunities to practice their coping skills in challenging situations. Just as a child’s immune system will not strengthen if he is not regularly exposed to some germs, their resilience and coping capabilities will not develop if they are not exposed to risk factors, difficulties and challenging situations. Therefore, physical and psychological resilience, can be developed through  gradual exposure to difficulties at manageable levels.  Practitioners should provide appropriate support, be empathic and respectful of the child’s views, worries and fears. If the challenges and difficulties are too hard, the exposure could have the opposite effect: low self esteem and a sense of failure might be achieved instead of a sense of accomplishment and increased resilience. The line between ‘too difficult’ and ‘achievable’ is very fine and varies from child to child. Therefore, taking a class of children to swimming lessons for example, and bringing them all back with their resilience improved, their self esteem intact, and their sense of identity enriched ( ‘I am a swimmer!’) is an extremely difficult task, considering human (and children’s) tendency to compare themselves with others and make judgments accordingly. This and many other everyday activities requires highly skilled practitioners that can teach not only swimming techniques, but are also empathic, communicative and perceptive enough to see where help, emotional support and encouragement is needed.
In conclusion, a sense of identity is important because it is strongly linked with mental health, wellbeing, self esteem and success in life. How one defines himself, his identity is influenced by a natural human tendency to use labels. Labels have their advantages but they can also be damaging or verbally abusive. Verbal abuse is one of the many adversities of life that children with a strong and positive sense of identity, are able to overcome. Children can be helped to maintain and develop their identity in adverse circumstances by plenty of positive feedback and by fostering resilience, using the right strategies such as gradual exposure to manageable risk.  

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