Why a sense of identity is important

Posted by on September 28, 2017

There are many definitions of resilience but most have similar components. Gilligan’s (2000) definition states ‘a set of qualities that helps a person to withstand many of the negative effects of adversity. Bearing in mind what has happened to them, a resilient child does better than he or she ought to do’ is one of

There are many definitions of resilience but most have similar components. Gilligan’s (2000) definition states ‘a set of qualities that helps a person to withstand many of the negative effects of adversity. Bearing in mind what has happened to them, a resilient child does better than he or she ought to do’ is one of the more straightforward. Critically, most authors consider that resilience is a mixture of nature and nurture. Attributes that some children are born with, such as good intellectual ability and a placid, cheerful temperament, are associated with resilience. Children who are born prematurely and/or with disabilities, who cry and cannot be comforted, who cannot sleep or who will not accept being held are more vulnerable to adversity and may be less likely to be resilient.

The term resilience is used to describe why some people struggle hard to cope with life experiences while others survive with self-esteem, identity and their level of wellbeing intact. The concept of resilience has been used to refer to:

a positive outcome despite the experience of adversity;

continued positive or effective functioning in adverse circumstances; or

recovery after a significant trauma. (Masten quoted in Schoon, 2006, p. 7)

Johnston-Wilder and Collins quote: ‘What constitutes adversity, adverse conditions and trauma varies among individuals and between cultures. Like adults, children vary considerably as to what they find easy, hard or impossible to deal with. When children are exposed to a stimulus that might offer a threat to self-image or self-esteem, they respond differently’. (Johnston-Wilder and Collins, 2008 pg 54)

Very little distresses parent/carers more than witnessing their children struggle to cope with life’s difficulties. Trouble, whatever its form or source, holds the potential of engendering negative emotions in children and exhausting their coping resources. If the trouble is serious or long lasting, it may reduce a child’s chances of attaining life enhancing goals and experiencing sustained episodes of emotionally invigorating pleasure. It may also move a child on a course of maladaptive functioning. Parent/carers typically devote considerable energy trying to eliminate the source of difficulty or control.

However, the government initiatives such as Every Child Matters: Change for Children (DfES, 2004) attempt to address the issue of identity and self-esteem, stressing the importance of supporting all children’s social and emotional development. Such support needs to be based on an understanding of identity formation, which involves a consideration of definitions of ‘identity’ and of the complexity of the term.

John Bowlby’s theory of attachment argued that a child’s emotional bond to their familial caregiver was a biological response that ensured survival. The quality of attachment, he quotes, has implications for the child’s capacity to form trusting relationships. To put Bowlby’s theory into practice, Pound states ‘the main positive outcomes of good attachment experiences in the early years seem to be social ones:

• Self confidence

• Efficacy

• Self-esteem

• The capacity to care for others and to be cared for’. (Pound, 2008, pg 44 and 45)

Consequently, the attachment theory suggests that children’s self-esteem is profoundly affected by the quality of early relationships between children and their parents, carers or significant others. Knowledge of attachment and separation behaviours can be useful in supporting children who show unusual signs of stress in unfamiliar social situations, such as the transition to school (Barrett and Trevitt, 1991). Critcially both, Johnston-Wilder and Collins quote: ‘But even exponents of attachment theory recognise that attachment history is only partially useful in predicting some outcomes for children, and even these would not be uniquely predicted by attachment history. Practitioners need to use a range of theories and knowledge to understand the behaviour of children with whom they work and be tolerant of individual differences and needs. There can, however, be pressures on such tolerance: schools, for example, often justify their exclusion policies with reference to the need to educate all children and keep them safe from harm’. (Johnston-Wilder and Collins, 2008 pg 44)

Valerie Daniels quotes ‘Being able to communicate is a real asset when working with children. Body language says a lot. What you say, what, the way you behave, even to the other adults in the room makes a very real impact on children. But if at all possible try and be as natural as possible with children’. (Open University, 2008)

The UNICEF document, ‘An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries’ provided an overview of the state of childhood in the majority of economically advanced nations of the world. The document states ‘The UK ranked in the bottom third of the country rankings for five of the six dimensions reviewed. While the country ranked higher in the educational well-being dimension, the UK lags behind in terms of relative poverty and deprivation, quality of children’s relationships with their parents and peers, child health and safety, behaviour and risk-taking and subjective well-being’. (UNICEF: 2007, pg Report Card 7). Critically, there is still considerable work to be done, to enhance all dimensions of child welfare, despite increased government investments in improving children’s services over the past 10 years.

Daniel Coleman quotes ‘critically, parents/carers are asked to attend emotional needs of their children and are prompted to train themselves to handle their interpersonal relations wisely. It is critical, that as a parent/carer, they should know about origin of their emotions, functioning of their brain and positive usage of their feelings. Critically, they need to control their emotions while making decisions; otherwise they have the capability to hijack their rationality. Many may face different situations and make spur of the moment decisions, followed by their emotions. Decisions may not be logical even though they may have sharp logics’ (Coleman, 1996). Consequently, responsibility for school readiness lies not with the child, but with the parent/carers who care for them and the educational systems. Parent/Carers therefore, need to attend to the emotional needs of their children and prompted to train themselves to handle their own interpersonal relations wisely. Foley and Leverett, quote ‘There are a number of aspects of emotional literacy that may usefully be grouped, such as recognising your own emotional state, managing your own emotions, recognising others’ emotions, being able to be explicit about feelings, and being able to talk about talking. These skills and understandings are important components with which to build and sustain relationships with others. Here a child describes how, in her school, a simple bully box can encourage children to communicate worries and feelings’ (Foley and Leverett, 2008 pg 17)

This work complements existing national initiatives to promote social and emotional well-being. It should be considered in the context of the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme and related community-based initiatives. SEAL supports children’s social, emotional and behavioural skills. It focuses on five social and emotional aspects of learning: self-awareness, managing feelings, motivation, empathy and social skills. It looks at helping children develop skills such as understanding another’s point of view, working in a group, sticking at things when they get difficult, resolving conflict and managing worries. These initiatives stress the importance of such programmes to enable children to participate fully in the development to ensure their views are heard.

However, a growing body of research indicates how identity formation is an important indicator of feelings of wellbeing and self-worth (Canino et al., 2004; Rapee et al., 2006). Our individual perception of, and how we value, ourselves is linked to our behaviour and social performance. This process becomes important to all who work with children because identity formation and feelings of wellbeing are strongly linked to life experiences and success (Kernis, 1995). Poor self-esteem is associated with anxiety development among young children (Canino et al., 2004; Rapee et al., 2006), identity conflict (Kendall and Kessler, 2002) and, in extreme cases, psychiatric distress and disorder (Burns and Rapee, 2006).

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989), including the participation rights of the child, and so incorporates a dimension solely based on children’s own sense of wellbeing. International measurements and comparisons such as these should give an indication of a country’s strengths and weaknesses and of what is achievable; children’s wellbeing in rich countries is, in reality, policy-susceptible. It would appear that the UK has rather more weaknesses than strengths; the UK, at the time of writing, was in the bottom third of the rankings for five of the six dimensions of children’s wellbeing in the UNICEF report.

Critically, practitioners face a dilemma around needing to both accept and change children’s perceptions of themselves in order to promote their wellbeing. Developing resilience is also of vital importance if children are to face up to and cope successfully with the challenges that come their way. Consequently, Susan Rodger states ‘Youth Inclusion Project was developed to encourage young people with disabilities to access mainstream clubs and groups. I think it’s important they attend clubs like everybody else. They should be allowed to have that sense of belonging in these organisations without having to have their mum perhaps going along with them’. (Open University, 2008). Lorraine states: ‘If you see her body language, when she walks in, and she’s walking up high and her shoulders are back and she’s walking in and she thinks she’s the bee’s knees. And she’s saying bye to her brothers and you know, they’re quite high because they think it’s great that their sister’s doing the same things as any other girls and that’s really important for their self-esteem too. It speaks volumes. I think it’s a struggle to get a child like Vanessa involved in just normal activities, usually because of people’s attitudes, because that attitude can be based on fear, it can be based on ignorance, it can be based on a whole variety of reasons, but it was a struggle. I mean like most things with a child with disability, to actually get to the point baseline almost, where other parents are, you know, starting off from, is a struggle. So it wasn’t easy because not all the Guide groups in Stirling wanted to take her’. (Open University, 2008). Other important issues are: what working effectively with others means; how the relevant skills develop; how children can be enabled to make choices about fitting in; where things may go wrong; and how positive intervention strategies can be applied. Nicola Fry quotes ‘Children need to development their sense of responsibility not just to others but themselves. If I am talking to a group of children we all have to respect that a particular child has the right to be listened too and views taken seriously, then that child must realise that applies to the other children too and it then becomes his responsibility to listen.. and so on. (Open University, 2010).

Critically, Identity is a complex term and process and consequently influenced by a myriad of social factors, an identity develops and evolves as a life story. Identity formation begins prior to birth and is influenced by social context, interpersonal relationships and the social construction of meaning. An understanding of the complexity and fluidity of identity development can help us to question ascribed labels, which may create barriers for children and between children. This provides practitioners working with children with a methodological instrument that urges them to examine the importance of the whole child and the whole child in context.

Children’s wellbeing is connected to finding out about themselves and who they want to be. In the light of a child’s right ‘to preserve his or her identity’ (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations, 1989), practitioners have a responsibility to ensure that the children with whom they work can develop an identity in an atmosphere that challenges discrimination and prejudice. Consequently, adults need to know the children with whom they work, to work to build positive relationships with them and between children themselves, understanding and respecting their individual and emerging frames of reference.

As professionals who work with families, our willingness to talk openly about identity and to help foster a positive sense of self in children can make an enormous difference in affirming the rich diversity of our human community and helping children make bridges across cultures and traditions.

Children need to be treated as individuals; ‘one size fits all’ responses are not helpful. Remember that communication of your interest and concern in the child is essential; it is often the little things where, for instance, you have gone the extra mile beyond the call of duty, where you have bought something the child particularly treasures or you have just been there to listen and comfort, that matter and are remembered. Residential workers who have a determined resilience perspective will often make a positive and long lasting difference to looked after children’s lives.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *