By Dr Helen Stallman
In our well-intentioned quest to empower children, we are inadvertently undermining their innate resilience. The concept of empowerment asserts that we grant authority or power to someone it has been taken it from. This perspective not only oversimplifies the remarkable capabilities of children but may also perpetuate the idea that their inherent power needs to be restored. In reality, children are naturally resilient from birth, and our focus should shift towards creating environments that nurture and support this innate resilience, rather than trying to empower them artificially.
- Resilience: A Natural Human Trait
From the moment of birth, humans—including children—exhibit an astonishing capacity for resilience. Babies learn to adapt to their environment, seeking nourishment, forming attachments with caregivers and bouncing back when inevitable disappointments happen. As they grow, children encounter various challenges, both big and small, and overcome them. This intrinsic resilience is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Anyone alive is already resilient.
Children, by their very nature, possess the ability to adapt and learn from their experiences. They bounce back from adversity, use coping strategies, and acquire the skills needed to navigate life’s complexities. Instead of attempting to empower them, we should recognize and nurture this inherent resilience.
- The Pitfalls of Empowerment
The concept of empowerment suggests that children need to be bestowed with the power that they lack. This view assumes that we have taken away their innate power, creating a power vacuum that we must fill. In reality, children are not powerless; they possess their unique agency. When we try to empower them artificially, we risk overlooking the strength and capabilities they already possess. We assume power over them.
Furthermore, the act of trying to empower children can unintentionally disempower them. It can send the message that they are incapable or inadequate without external intervention. This mindset can hinder the development of their self-efficacy, as they may come to rely on others to grant them authority or agency.
- Creating the Right Environment
Instead of focusing on empowerment, we should prioritize creating environments that recognises children’s natural resilience and overall well-being. Three essential components contribute to a healthy environment for children:
a. Healthy Environments: Adequate housing, safe social and learning environments, and families, schools, and neighbourhoods with sufficient financial resources to meet basic needs are crucial. Children thrive when they are not burdened by environmental stressors that can hinder their development.
b. Developmental Competencies: Parents, teachers, and communities play a vital role in supporting children’s development. They must provide guidance and nurture the development of a healthy holistic identity, emotional and behavioural regulation, interpersonal skills, and problem-solving abilities. When adults encourage these competencies, children become better equipped to face life’s challenges.
c. Caring and Connection: Children need caregivers— at home, in educational settings— who know how to Care, Collaborate, Connect when children share unpleasant emotions and seek support. By fostering emotional connections and providing a safe space for expression, children cope in a healthy way.
When we focus on these three elements, we create an environment where children are less likely to become overwhelmed and resort to unhealthy coping strategies, such as emotional eating, avoidance, alcohol and drugs, self-harm or suicide. Indeed, research by Stallman (2020) highlights the importance of addressing systemic issues to prevent mental illness and suicide, emphasizing the need to address systemic failures rather than focusing on risk factors or perceived deficits.
The current emphasis on trying to empower children may be misguided. Children are inherently resilient, and our role as adults should be to create environments that support and nurture this natural resilience rather than teach them to be more resilient. Rather than artificially granting power, we should focus on providing healthy environments, fostering developmental competencies, and offering genuine care and connection. By doing so, we children develop in a way that is authentic and sustainable, setting them on a path for lifelong health and wellbeing.
Stallman HM. Suicide following hospitalisation: systemic treatment failure needs to be the focus rather than risk factors. Lancet Psychiatry. 2020 Apr;7(4):303. doi: 10.1016/S2215-0366(19)30528-0
Stallman HM. Coping planning: a patient-centred and strengths-focused approach to suicide prevention training. Australasian Psychiatry. 2018;26(2):141-144. doi:10.1177/1039856217732471
Dr Helen Stallman is a leading expert in wellbeing, coping and suicide prevention. Her research has explored the intersection of health and wellbeing, challenging outdated constructs and advocating for an integrated perspective on wellbeing to prevent mental illness and suicide.