Talking Heads: How I help my child become resilient

Mrs Nicola Huggett, Head of Cheltenham College since 2017, shares her personal approach to developing resilience in children.

The front of the glass cabinet in our kitchen is still reverberating from the slamming of the kitchen door, shortly to be followed, I know, by the slamming of the bedroom door. Again.  “Where have you been? What are you wearing? Do you ever answer your phone? Do you ever get off that phone?”  It is the end of the summer holidays. The immediate but seemingly short post-summer term glow of having my four teenagers at home again has most certainly worn off and I am counting down the days until school and university restarts – I can’t wait to go back to work!

It is amazingly difficult to get it right with a teenager. If you encourage them to come and sit down for a chat, you are being suffocatingly intrusive. If you let them get on with it, you clearly don’t care. Despite having lived with 55 teenage girls for eight years as a Housemistress, I continue to find my own teenagers a challenge!  I often wonder why it is so hard – but of course it’s obvious. Love keeps getting in the way of all the important things that are much easier to manage with pupils in a school. I want my children to develop their own resilience, but I also want to make it happen the way I plan, and that is not so easy. Boundaries, deadlines, rules, and expectations backed up by the subtle type of authority that children expect in a school context makes it much easier to be consistent in school. How I would love to be as consistent as a mum!

It is far more complicated to manage the times teenagers test you to the limit when you love them and would (secretly) do anything to make them happy. The best way to survive is to remember not to let love get in the way. When they test you out, they are testing your boundaries, and I truly believe that they want to find those boundaries when they get to that point. That is where resilience is conceived and then grown – in the normal everyday things of life.  Where is the fun in behaving despicably and then it not being noticed? Or reaching the boundary of what is acceptable and finding that the boundary is now a bit further out? Where is the security in that? Each time you give in to a demand whether it is to stay out later or to have alcohol at that birthday party because ‘everyone’ does, or to go up to London again, you are creating uncertainty.

Resilience is a much-talked about quality and it is something that we as parents and teachers want to try to instil in our children. We often think that the best way to instil resilience is to give our teenagers something really challenging to do – climbing a mountain, trekking somewhere far afield, having an adventure where their grit and determination is really tested. Those opportunities are indeed amazing but often they come with quite a cost. I am not always sure as much thought and reflection comes out of them as goes into the planning of these large-scale family holidays far afield.

In the end, resilience is something that grows from inside and cannot just be bolted on. I genuinely believe that you can build your child’s own sense of strength and character by maintaining some of the basic everyday boundaries that they can test. Stick to your guns, set out the expectations of what you want to do and what you want them to do clearly and without drama. Don’t expect them to be happy about having to come in at a set time, or to hand their phone in when you want it, but equally, for their sake, don’t take it so personally and feel they don’t love you, when they can be grumpy and cross. Resilience must work both ways and we as parents have to be as resilient as we want our children to be.

Winner of the “Independent Boarding School of the Year 2022” award by Independent Parent Magazine, Cheltenham College was commended for its welcoming atmosphere, clear pupil focus, and tight-knit boarding community.