Merit of school of hard knocks

1st August 2008 at 01:00
Wrapping youngsters in cotton wool is doing them a disservice. What they need is an early taste of hardship

Young people are being wrapped in a "cotton wool" blanket of positivity that stops them bouncing back from setbacks and contributes to rising rates of mental illness.

A major event on instilling confidence in learners heard that parents did not want their children to have negative experiences - but that this damaged their ability to overcome life's knocks. Sandy MacLean, an adviser at the Scottish Further Education Unit, told a summer school for college staff that a bit of adversity can play a big part in helping young people become more resilient.

"Young people are not fragile - they can be likened to springs or balls," she said. "People can bounce back psychologically after being knocked out of shape, just like in nature."

Miss MacLean said it was becoming harder for young people to recover from setbacks because mental illness was increasing, with 11 per cent of 16- to 24-year-olds in the UK having a major depressive disorder.

She blamed a tendency to treat young people like infants who cannot handle responsibility - but said research showed this only encouraged them to behave like infants.

Miss MacLean believes society focuses too much on the feelings of the individual, meaning young people "think that they are the centre of the world and blow out of proportion any setbacks or challenges in life".

She points to a pervasive feeling of entitlement and a celebrity culture that vaunts instant success, which makes people think effort and hard work are not important, increases self-obsession, and undermines resilience.

"Mass media encourages people to believe they need to be perfect," she added. "This encourages us to feel inadequate and, again, exaggerates our inevitable problems and difficulties. It undermines resilience when the person sees that perfection is not attainable."

Miss MacLean believes there must be a fundamental change in attitudes towards feelings of negativity. "People are frightened of negative emotions," she said. "This encourages them to try to suppress their emotions. Paradoxically, research shows this causes more of the negative sensations they didn't want.

"People think that bad feelings don't have a purpose, that feelings such as guilt, shame and frustration are only negative - but research shows that such sensations can galvanise us to do things differently. We need them to succeed."

Miss MacLean is supporting an Australian scheme called Bounce Back Resilience Training, which is being introduced to Scotland by the Glasgow- based Centre for Confidence and Well-being. The scheme is based on the principle that it is important to start teaching children and young people to cope with life as early as possible.

She said there was a number of ideas that could be used in colleges - and elsewhere - to foster resilience. These included showing that bad feelings do not last and actually have a purpose, galvanising young people to do things differently. They can also get them to keep things in perspective by realising a problem is usually confined to one part of their lives.

Other ideas could help children take responsibility for their actions and make them concede that learning is often frustrating, while encouraging them to persist.

Students could also be reminded that there are people who care about them and can give help and advice; and they can benefit from a positive environment that emphasises the importance of relationships and a sense of purpose, thus showing there is more to life than the way you feel.

- For more on building emotional resilience in further education colleges, E sandy.maclean@sfeu.ac.uk

Bounce Back Resilience Training will be the subject of a workshop in Stirling on August 16. For details:

www.centreforconfidence.co.uk

www.bounceback.com.aunode3.

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