building childrens resilience

The new school year has begun. With it comes both the excitement and challenges the school environment can bring for children.

‘Resilience’ is a term used to describe the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure and challenges. It is something we as parents want to foster in our children. It isn’t a skill children either have or don’t have, but rather something they learn. Good nutrition, adequate sleep, plenty of outdoor uninterrupted play and the ability to cope with normal amounts of stress all play a role in helping our children learn to be resilient. It’s hard too, to not associate the word ‘resilience’ with physical stamina. The ability to recover swiftly from illness- something often on parent’s minds when it comes to school or preschool environments!  Gut and immune health should be considered when a child lacks physical resilience or stamina and seems to get sick too often and for too long.

Nutrition

Ensuring your child is properly fuelled for their days is key to helping them tackle the school week. This will help with providing good focus, ample energy, positive mood and behaviour! It is so apparent with little people that we humans truly are what we eat. The nutrients that we feed them for breakfast and put into their lunch box play a significant role on how they manage their day.

Making sure they have all three of the macronutrients – protein, fat and carbohydrates – at each meal is important. Aim to keep each food in its ‘whole’ state. This means choosing complex carbohydrates rather than refined carbs (such as brown bread, wholegrain pasta or soba noodles instead of white bread or white pasta), healthy, good fats (not refined or hydrogenated oils, which are common ingredients in kids packaged foods) and good quality, preservative-free protein sources. Adequate protein at each meal and snack is key to maintaining good blood glucose levels. This will ensure a child’s focus and energy doesn’t dip too low between meals.

Keeping added sugar to a minimum is also important in helping a child focus in the classroom. Some react more than others, so it’s something to think about on an individual basis. The natural sugar in fresh fruit, which is accompanied by adequate fibre, is healthy for children to consume at 2-3 pieces per day.

Additives and preservatives are another big player with some children more than others when it comes to behaviour, mood and ability to focus. They don’t need to be in a child’s diet whatsoever. If you notice your child’s behaviour change when they eat a processed food with additives, then it’s a sign they are more reactive to these chemicals. Feel free to reach out if you would like more information here, or would like a copy of my handout on identifying additives.

Brain food

Resilience is a skill children must learn. Like all skills and aspects of emotional, behavioural and mental development, kids need lots of brain-fuelling nutrients. This will help them learn, focus, and bounce back when things don’t go the way they anticipated. Iron, omega 3 essential fatty acids, B vitamins, choline, iodine and zinc are some of the key nutrients I’m thinking about when I see children who are struggling to focus, are unable to control their emotions (at a primary-school age), have little motivation, low mental and physical stamina and seem unable to cope with small, healthy amounts of ‘stress’.

Sleep

The first couple of months of a new school year can be particularly tough on the infant classes, with some children there who may have still been having an afternoon snooze at home or preschool before starting at big school. We all know those after school meltdowns when the day has been too long and too big for some! Ensuring your child is getting enough hours of sleep at night is key to them being physically and emotionally resilient. Helping your child to wind down before bedtime should follow the same sleep hygiene principles we are often banging on about to our adult clients!

No screens in the 1-2 hours before bed, low lighting and a small warm drink before bed (try a herbal tea). Try quiet activities such as reading, drawing or doing a puzzle (not on a screen!!) and a little self-care like helping them brush their hair, massaging some natural moisturiser with a drop or two of organic lavender essential oils on their arms and legs and using a diffuser in their bedroom with some relaxing oils overnight can all help with a good nights sleep.

If your child has trouble settling for bedtime or is overly restless at night then chat with your health care provider – iron deficiency can be a contributing factor here and should be investigated. If your child struggles to fall asleep despite a good sleep-hygiene routine, wakes through the night or is not well rested after a full night sleep then again check in with your healthcare provider.

Gut – Immune connection

Physical resilience, or the ability to recover and bounce back quickly from illness is important to a child’s overall wellbeing. It is also going to minimise sick days both child and parent have to take! Nutrition again plays a significant part here. Low to minimal added sugar on a daily basis is an important rule to stick to! Treats are exactly that – a one-off, not a daily food.  Sugar depresses the immune system and interferes with the gut microbiome, which is where 80% of our immune system lies.

Adequate daily protein is another big factor. It is something I feel children may miss out on due to the increase of refined carbohydrate snack foods kids are munching on all day long. Filling up on processed snack foods also means they have low intake of fibre-rich foods . These include complex carbs, vegetables, legumes and fruit that feed our beneficial gut bacteria and boost our immune function.

If your child gets sick often or takes a long time to recover, it is worthwhile having their immunity evaluated. They may be low in Vitamin D (particularly in the winter months or if your child always wears sunscreen/covered clothing when outside), iron or zinc. They may also be receiving inadequate vitamin C intake or they may need some gut support through probiotic and most importantly prebiotic intake.

Identifying stress or anxiety

Feelings of stress, anxiety, overwhelm and low mood can affect children in a similar way to adults. Recognising if your child is feeling stressed or anxious rather than simply overtired or “off” is important. Young children and even teens often cannot (or don’t want to) express or verbalise these emotions to their parents/carers.

Changed behaviour, including moodiness, irritability, crying, complaining more than usual, becoming extra clingy, avoiding friends or activities they usually enjoy or reverting to old ‘baby’ behaviours can all be signs of a child feeling stressed or emotionally charged. Complaining of physical symptoms such as a tummy ache or a headache more often than is usual can also be a sign of stress or anxiety in a child or teen.

Seeking out extra support from a health professional such as a child psychologist or a school counsellor can be beneficial when stress or anxiety is ongoing and not resolved with the help of parents. Additionally, the use of gentle herbal medicine can assist with calming the nervous system. Herbs can reduce feelings of anxiety and overwhelm and provide physical and mental stamina. Nutrient supplementation is warranted. Such as magnesium, B vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids or iron, among others. Please reach out to a qualified health professional if you feel your child may benefit from this type of support.

Warmest, Claire

Claire Luckman is a mum of two little people and has supported many children in clinical practice. Extensive experience includes various aspects of their health, including immune support, gut health, mood and behavioural disorders, skin conditions, diet support and more.

Claire offers ‘Kid’s Health Consults’ at the clinic: a 30 minute consultation designed for children aged 0-12 years to address specific health concerns. Claire will also ensure to provide realistic and achievable dietary advice to ensure they are getting the nutrients and building blocks they need to grow, develop and thrive.