Resilient children bounce back in the face of setbacks and difficulties. While adults often assume that childhood is a carefree and happy period of life, the reality is that children experience stress too. Though they don’t have the responsibilities that lead to stress for adults, they have to cope with friendship fall-outs, changing schools, taking tests, bullying, and more.
Resilience used to be thought of as a trait – a fixed personality quality that you either have or you don’t. We now know that resilience is an adaptive process, so you can be resilient in some situations and not others, and the more resilient you are to some circumstances the more resilient you will be to other circumstances. The good news here is that resilience can be learned and that children need to experience some setbacks, challenges, and failures in their lives so they can learn to cope with adversity. Just like children need some level of exposure to germs to build their immune systems, they need some level of stress to learn how to deal with it. Shielding children from the stress that comes with normal developmental changes doesn’t allow them to grow or manage stress in the future.
Here are some tips for raising resilient kids:
- Help your child develop strong and supportive relationships
Research on resilience has found that relationships are key to dealing with stress. Among children who have experienced the most extreme and damaging kinds of stress – trauma, abuse, or neglect – many of the factors that differentiate the children who go on to thrive and lead productive lives despite tragic circumstances involve relationships, either in terms of the broader community (e.g., school or religion) or even one caring and consistent adult relationship.
- Allow for discussion of feelings
Families that discuss emotions openly – e.g., ask questions such as “how did that make you feel?” and acknowledge and empathise with their children’s feelings teach children to recognise bad feelings, soothe themselves, which creates space for children to engage in problem-solving in the face of obstacles.
For example, think about how you feel when you have a problem that you need to get off your chest by venting to a friend, only for them to launch straight into what you should do to deal with the problem. While their intentions are good usually this isn’t what you want to hear. Instead you want empathy and support, to know that your emotions are justified, and that someone understands why you feel the way you do. In the same way your child doesn’t want a lecture or advice when they are feeling emotional or facing a difficult challenge. Before they can solve a problem they need to feel understood and emotionally validated. Once you’ve helped your child to label their emotions and you have validated their feelings, help them to use problem solving to work out what to do next about the problem.
- Don’t over-protect
Parents often feel as though their job is to eliminate all risk and anxiety for their kids and these good intentions can often backfire in the long term. For example, a child might be nervous about catching the bus to school so their mum accommodates this by always driving out of their way to drive them to and from school. This teaches the child that they really had something to be anxious about and that they couldn’t cope with taking the bus – why else would mum shield them from this situation? Or maybe your child is anxious about being away from you to attend a play date, so you let them avoid this situation. By letting them avoid all unnecessary separations, your child doesn’t get to develop confidence in their own abilities and becomes dependent on parents as safety figures. Allowing children to have age-appropriate freedom is important in developing their independence and confidence. If you’re unsure about whether allowing your child to face a situation is appropriate ask yourself “what is the worst that could happen if I allow my child to do this?”
- Teach problem-solving skills
Empower your child to problem-solve solutions. For example, ask them what might make catching the bus easier? What can they do if they feel home-sick when on a play date? Teach them the process of generating solutions and weighing up the pros and cons of each solution. Then encourage them to put a plan into place so you can both evaluate its success and learn what to do next time they are facing a problem.
- Be a resilience role-model
Children are perceptive little beings and the way parents talk about their own mistakes or imperfections can affect how children come to see themselves and how comfortable they are dealing with problems. Admit mistakes and model strong self-esteem despite imperfections and avoid critical self-talk e.g., “I’m such an idiot/failure”, “I can’t do anything right”. Use small mistakes as opportunities to model resilience, e.g., have a laugh with your child next time you burn dinner or put your shirt on inside out and show them that even you are not perfect and that’s ok, life goes on.
- Focus on their strengths
Every person has strengths and weaknesses. Help your child recognise their strengths and build on them. For example, if they are talented at music encourage them to pursue this skill further, don’t expect them to excel at maths or be the school athletics champion. As Einstein famously said: “everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.
Similarly, notice when your child is displaying courageous, solution-focused behavior and give them lots of praise and encouragement for this.
Every one experiences stress in some or many forms throughout their life and loss, rejection, and failure are an inventible part of the human experience. Resilience helps kids to navigate setbacks and become confident in their ability to manage obstacles in their life. Therefore teaching children how to cope with ups and downs can set them up for good mental health both now and into the future.