Of all the qualities parents desire for their kids, resilience is often one of the highest on the list. Resilience is our ability to cope with futility. It’s about all those moments in life—large and small, major and minor—they don’t go quite the way we’d like them to.
Being resilient means being able to handle things going wrong and having the ability to find creative solutions to problems. It means bouncing back from emotional hurts or coping with failure. In short, being resilient is about surviving life’s adversities.
How does this sense of recovery and emotional strength develop? What can parents do to help kids learn to handle failure and futility? Fortunately, childhood is filled with opportunities for children to develop resilience. Kids encounter challenges every day that bring up inevitable feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, or fear. Things such as:
- Trying to make something work that doesn’t
- Not feeling smart enough
- Not being perfect
- Wanting to hold on to a good experience
- Not being able to have mom or dad all to themselves
- Wishing to go back in time (wanting to change something they’ve done)
- Trying to defy the laws of nature (making magic work)
- Losing at games or contests
- Wanting to “send back” a sibling
- Not being able to know what will happen in the future
- Not being big enough/ tall enough/ strong enough for their own satisfaction
- Being excluded (among peers or siblings)
- Not being able to control outcomes or another’s decisions or choices
- Not being able to have their own way all the time
It is in these kinds of situations that we tend to want to protect our children. We are inclined to offer rationalization, justification, and protection from life’s futilities.
“What do you mean you don’t like your picture? It’s beautiful!”
“You’re really good at this game; we’ll play again and maybe this time you’ll win!”
“Oh, you don’t want to play with those kids anyway, not if they’re not going to invite you.”
Our instinct is to protect our kids, but in our eagerness to do so, it’s also easy to overprotect. We tend to want to shield our kids from all of life’s difficulties. After all, we just want them to be happy. The thing is, a little unhappiness is the very thing that’s needed when it comes to a child’s development of resilience. The more we try to protect children in difficult situations, the more we send the message we’re afraid they’re unable to handle them. But they can. And they will, if they’re given both opportunity and support.
Here are four steps it takes to help children develop resilience:
Allow kids to get the point of futility. They must experience adversity, frustration, and mistakes such as those in the examples listed above. There is no way for children to learn how to recover from life’s un-pleasantries if they are never in unpleasant situations. So when it happens, resist the inclination to remove hardship and soothe away your child’s unhappy feelings. Let the events unfold as they will, and allow your child to experience a difficult situation.
Let kids express their feelings through tears. Whether they’re due to frustration, anger or sadness, tears are a healthy and necessary step to move towards resiliency. Tears are the manifestation of feelings and allow the brain to process the emotional component of a problem. Once the emotions are expressed, children are then able to access the areas of the brain that process logic, reasoning and self-control—those necessary for recovery. They are able to develop a “work-around” and adapt to the futility of the situation.
Acknowledge and accept those feelings. Provide a safe environment for kids to express their feelings by allowing tears, empathizing, and supporting them through their difficult emotions. Come alongside children with a comforting hug or words of understanding to let them know that their feelings are normal and they’re not going to be shushed, punished, or shamed for them. Let the emotions flow and know that they are helping your child’s brain discover its adaptive process.
Offer encouragement. Help kids through their hardships with acknowledgement of their strengths and capabilities. Let them know you trust in their ability to survive. Help them find success after failure. After the tears have subsided, encouraging words validate kids’ experiences and help them find their own way to move forward. “I have faith that you’ll figure this out.” “What are your ideas?” “Is there a solution that will meet everyone’s needs?” “Trust yourself; I do.”
Here are a few other things you can do in a regular basis to create a safe, supportive environment and encourage a child’s development of resiliency:
Have one-on-one time each day (with a young child), or each week (with an older one). Allow the child to decide the activity, and to take the lead in the topics of conversation. Your focus is on listening and getting to know your child just a little bit better. This creates the connection you need for encouraging him to express his feelings.
Substitute punishment and consequences with problem solving. The unpleasantness of a punishment may work in the short-term, but it is much more effective to teach kids how to own their mistakes and fix them. Instead of approaching misbehavior with the thought of, “What can I do to you so that you’ll learn a lesson?” approach it with the perspective of, “How can we solve this problem?” This teaches kids that mistakes are fixable and aren’t anything to be feared.
Tell kids, “It’s OK to cry.” Don’t rescue them from their feelings, but acknowledge all feelings as real and acceptable. They more they are allowed to feel their feelings when they are young, the more capable they will be of understanding and managing them when they are grown.
Switch from time-outs to time-ins. A time-out is sending a child away to an isolated area to deal with his feelings alone. A time-in, or positive time-out, is a connective moment spent with a child to help him calm down and learn how to regulate his emotions. This helps a child feel better so he can do better.
Provide opportunities for autonomy and responsibility. Give kids control over as many areas of their lives as possible. From choosing their own clothes to fixing their own food to deciding how to spend their allowance; let them make their own choices—and the mistakes that come with them. Recovering from mistakes is where resilience comes from, but kids need to have those opportunities in the first place.
As developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld says, “We are changed by that which we cannot change.” When we encounter futility, we adapt. This begins in childhood as kids are exposed to life’s frustrations and are given an environment in which they are free to make mistakes, express their feelings and learn. Most of all, it is our connected, accepting relationship with our children that will help them grow strong.
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