Resilience is the ability to bounce back from hard times. We describe someone as resilient if they are doing better than we would expect given the challenges that they are facing. Since we will all face periods of adversity in our lives, having that ability to weather those periods is key to a happy, successful life.
So, how do we help our children learn to be resilient?
Your relationship with them is the foundation of resilience. Children learn to be resilient in the context of supportive relationships with caring adults, who treat them respectfully, and compassionately, offering emotional support when they’re struggling while at the same time treating them as competent, capable people.
The first step in building resilience to challenges, ironically, is to let them experience challenges. If we always protect them from all hardship, they never learn the skills for how to cope with it.
Harvard researchers say “Let your children experience challenges. With the help of supportive adults, this ‘positive stress’ can be beneficial. Over time, both our bodies and our brains begin to perceive these stressors as increasingly manageable and we become better able to cope with life’s obstacles and hardships.”
Let them Experience Disappointment
In Amy Miller’s article on Motherly, she articulates this beautifully:
“I looked at my 3 year old’s big, sad eyes… I wanted to take away the sadness. [But] as difficult as it is to see my children hurting, I don’t do them any favors trying to take away their pain… We learn as we grow that disappointments happen. We need to learn how to face disappointment head on. Learning to be resilient… is a challenge. But it’s a skill that can be learned. And it’s a skill that requires courage. This is the kind of courage I want my children to have.”
Note, this doesn’t mean that we ignore their disappointment. Validating it and helping them learn to cope with it is part of building emotional literacy. It just means not rescuing them from their sadness. When we let them experience it with our support, eventually the disappointment passes, and they learn that sadness doesn’t last forever.
(Tip: The Pixar movie Inside Out is a great movie to watch with kids, because it speaks of the importance of acknowledging sadness, not trying to run away from it all the time.)
Help them Learn to Manage Anxiety
Researchers at Yale have found that when children are experiencing anxiety, our natural impulse is to want to protect them. It’s tempting to say ‘I hear that it’s really scary… you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.’ These sorts of accommodations actually make anxiety worse – they reinforce that this thing must be really scary if caring adults think they can’t handle it.
Instead, the recommendation is to first validate the fear, and then help them build a baby-step plan for tackling their monsters. Say: ‘It’s OK to feel scared. Let’s make a plan for how do it anyway.’
Let them Take Risks and Experience Consequences
It’s important to let kids engage in some minor risk-taking behaviors (climbing up high, handling dangerous tools after being taught how, rough and tumble play), even if there’s a chance of some bumps and bruises.
“Risk teaches children how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills… Accidents happen – kids fall and skin their knees… And as tragic as it is in that moment, it’s through that experience that they learn perseverance, they learn determination. They dust themselves off and go try something again and they can overcome it.” Darel Hammond, CEO of KaBOOM!
Be a hummingbird parent (not a helicopter parent): “I hover nearby, but not over my kids. I remain distant enough to let them explore and learn how to solve problems. I teach them skills, mainly by example. I zoom in only when their survival is threatened. My goal is… a resilient life.” (source)
I also believe that we let our kids experience physical discomfort sometimes – playing outside on a cold day, going on long hikes that tire us out, getting caught in rainstorms, walking to the store on a super hot day. They’ll learn that if they whine about it and let themselves suffer, it just makes it worse. If they accept the discomfort and choose not to stress about it, they don’t have to be miserable.
Teach Grit and a Growth Based Mindset
Encourage them to try new things. Use The Power of Yet: When your child says “I can’t do this”, then you need to add “Yet. I can’t do this yet.”
Create a culture where struggle and risk-taking and doing things outside your comfort envelope is valued more than getting the right answer. Talk about mistakes and failures as normal parts of learning. Let them know that everyone, no matter how talented, runs up against things they can’t do. The ones who succeed are the ones who fail, pick themselves up, fail again and persevere till they succeed.
Let them Make Decisions, Practice Problem Solving
Give your children some freedom to explore, making their own decisions, problem solving the unexpected challenges. Ellen Sandseter says “When they are left alone and can take full responsibility for their actions, and the consequences of their decisions, it’s a thrilling experience.” And one that they learn a great deal from.
In order to offer this freedom, we have to have taught a wide variety of skills, and we especially have to have taught decision making and problem-solving. Look for opportunities to problem solve collaboratively. Building things together often offers those opportunities – read about our experience at an adventure playground as an illustration of this.
Tell Stories of People Who Persisted
Researcher Marshall Duke found that children who knew their family histories were more resilient. If the narratives were just about the family’s successes, they were not as powerful as if the narratives told about both the ups and the downs… “we had plenty of hard times, but we made it through together.” It creates a story for the child that “our people” are resilient.
I also think it’s helpful if your reading and movie watching includes lots of instances of diverse people facing hardship and working their way through to the other side.
Re-frame challenges as learning opportunities
Psychologist George Bonanno talks about the importance of how we perceive a challenge in our lives. Re-framing it as a short-term, specific issue to be addressed one step at a time can seem more manageable than if we try to solve it all at once. Also, remembering every challenge offers a chance to learn and grow.
Help them build an internal locus of control
Developmental psychologist Emmy Werner found that “resilient children… were autonomous and independent, and would seek out new experiences… they believed that they, and not their circumstances, affected their achievements. The resilient children saw themselves as the orchestrators of their own fates.” The way I speak about this with children is “you can’t always control what happens to you, but you can always control how you choose to respond to it.”
You can use a framework of “I have… I am… I can…” Have them think about what resources they have, to tell themselves a positive story of who they are, and to think about concrete steps that they can take to help improve their situation.
I also think it’s important for children to be invited to make contributions and be appreciated for their work. You can do volunteer work together, do random acts of kindness for people, and definitely assign chores. Even if children whine a lot about chores, doing chores helps them see that they have valuable skills that can make a positive impact on those around them.
Read more about resilience at all the links I’ve included here, and on my article about factors that influence resilience.
Here is a handout on building resilience in children that you can share.