Resilience refers to the ability to recover from adversity and to function successfully despite difficult situations, stress, or trauma. As parents, we sometimes wish that our children will never have to deal with anything bad or hard, but we also hope that our children will be resilient if they need to be.
So how do we foster resilience in children? Building resilience is not unlike building muscles. Though some people are naturally more muscular than others, we all start out with level of strength. And everyone can bolster their resilience muscles through practice and training. Here are a few things parents can do to foster resilience in their children:
Teach problem-solving. Rather than throwing hands up in the face of adversity, a resilient person will look to see what problems can be addressed and then proceed to tackle them. Parents can offer very young children limited choices and teach older ones to problem-solve. The elements of effective problem-solving are: 1) Identify the problem in objective terms. 2) Brainstorm a number of possible solutions. 3) Select a reasonable one and try it. 4) Come back and evaluate its effectiveness, and if necessary problem-solve again for another solution.
Teach life skills. When a child acquires competency in a life skill, he doesn’t depend on others to rescue or take care of him. A boy who can cook a meal knows that he will be able to feed himself. Being proficient in some areas leads to general feelings of competence, a characteristic of resilience.
Listen to your child. Listening to your child will help him process his experience and generate solutions as well as feeling heard and understood. Sometimes listening is all that is needed. After that you can ask your child if she wants advice or help, but don’t rush in to rescue. With older children and teens it is particularly important that parents get permission before helping.
Don’t over-parent. Body-builders don’t get stronger if mom or dad insists, “Let me lift that weight for you, honey. It’s too heavy and you might strain yourself.” Not over-parenting means not doing for our children on a regular basis what they can do for themselves. For example, parents should not regularly put the clothes on a preschooler who has been taught to dress herself and demonstrates that she can do it. Not over-parenting also means letting a child experience the negative consequences of his actions. When a child leaves lego pieces all over the house and loses the special ones for the lego space station, he will have to make do with what pieces are left, rather than having dad rush out to buy a replacement set.
Practice limit setting. When parents set consistent and reasonable limits, children learn to handle the discomfort of not getting immediate and complete gratification. Being resilient includes handling such uncomfortable moments. A teen who comes home after curfew may have to deal with the disappointment and frustration of being grounded the next weekend.
Use realistic thinking. We call upon resilience when undesirable things happen. Don’t minimize reality; white-washing something doesn’t make it go away. Also don’t “awfulize” it or make it out to be worse than it is. Keep things in perspective. Help you child have an accurate, age-appropriate understanding of the situation.
Believe in your child. Be supportive and understanding. Have faith that even when tough things happen your child will be able to come through the other side okay. How you think and feel about your child’s ability to cope is clearly communicated to him and influences how he sees himself and thus how well he handles things. Look for competence, not perfection. Point out your daughter’s strengths. Compliment your son on his efforts rather than focusing on success or failure.
Build family and community connections. Research has shown that children who have a strong adult or mentor exhibit greater resilience than children without someone who believes in them. Family and friends are crucial resources for us to be able to call on when things get rocky.
Practice and teach self care. Everything is a lot easier to handle when we are well rested, well fed, feel healthy, have strong connections with others, have fun in our lives, and generally tend to our own well-being.
Model resilience. Children learn a lot more by watching what parents do than by listening to what they say.
Enjoy your child. Armed with the resilience skills you’ve taught and his own resilience muscles, your resilient child is more likely to soar with his dreams than be laid low by life’s challenges.
Some book suggestions:
Ginsburg, Kenneth. A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens.
Brooks, Robert and Goldstein, Sam. Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child.
Reivich, Karen and Shatte, Andrew. The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles.