Vital but invisible early lessons that last a lifetime | Holan Liang

At the core of a happy, healthy adult is the resilience they learn as a child. Can this be taught, asks psychiatrist Holan Liang

Knowing the extent of our influence as parents can make our task all the more daunting. The endless rise of new parenting methods we hear about in the media can add to our sense of confusion and lack of confidence. From tiger to helicopter parenting, micro-managers and maxi-organisers, parents whose children don’t throw food to ones obsessed with tutoring, could it be that they’ve all got it wrong? Are parents sweating the small stuff and worrying over the less important aspects of what makes a successful child?

Does it really matter if a toddler throws food, eats quinoa or can recite poetry? I don’t believe it does. I call these things the “outside stuff”, whether it concerns appearances, manners, or anything that children can get a certificate for (and parents can brag to their friends about), it’s all relatively superficial.

For me the part you can’t afford to get wrong, that will make it all worthwhile, is the “inside stuff”. This is what you can’t see, but you can feel in your child: self-esteem, empathy, curiosity and affection.

All the things parents tie themselves into knots about – that our children get into “that selective school”, that they get A* exam grades, give perfect piano recitals, speak three languages fluently and become captain of the tennis team – aren’t as important as we think.

Instead, the focus of parenting should start with the vital, invisible and enigmatic traits at the heart of our children, the inner hard-wiring that will give them resilience. This is forged in the early years of life, when brain development is still ongoing.

As a child psychiatrist, I’m only too aware of the facts and figures on child mental health. These are stark: 75% of adult mental health problems begin before the age of 18, and 50% begin before the age of 14.

The evidence is clear: if we want to promote psychological wellbeing, we need to look at what is happening much earlier than adolescence. If we want happy, healthy adults, we need first to raise happy, healthy children.

An interesting new development in psychology research at the moment is the study of resilience in children. Researchers in child development are now looking at why some children exposed to the same level of bullying/stress/trauma emerge untarnished, while others are emotionally damaged for life. The umbrella term “resilience” covers a mix of factors: self-esteem, adaptability, grit, self-worth, strength of character and other similar qualities which I don’t think the English language has just the right word for at the moment.

So where do these “inside” qualities come from? Is it something innate within the child? Is it genetic? Is it nurture? From a neurological perspective, how a child’s brain develops connects all these elements.

Rapid brain development continues in the first five to seven years of a child’s life, slowing down in middle childhood before a second wave of development at puberty. A child’s brain also has amazing capabilities to adapt, picking up foreign languages and musical instruments with much greater ease than adults.

They are emotional sponges, too, able to absorb the adult feelings and behaviour around them, so if music and language can be hard-wired into the brain in these early years of a child’s life, shouldn’t this also be the case for the “inside stuff”? And if so, then the critical part of parenting happens very early on. The saying: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man” couldn’t be truer. It is in these first seven years that parental involvement can have the most significant impact.

Inside Out Parenting by Dr Holan Liang, is published by Bluebird Books (£12.99). Order a copy for £11.04 from

Holan Liang

The GuardianTramp

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