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Building Resilience in Children

By Cristina Young, parent educator and licensed therapist.

November's theme of the month is resilience. It seems like an especially appropo time to examine resilience. The research on resilience is crystal clear and encouraging. The presence of at least one steady, reliable, organized adult caregiver is the single most important criteria necessary to ensure resilience in a child. 

The stable availability of this relationship provides a buffer from developmental disruption. It seems that knowing one adult (whether it’s a parent, grandparent, coach, or advisor) is showing up for the child on a regular, predictable basis is enough. I find that reassuring. 

Kids need to know that they matter. They need to feel that they are seen and heard, that they belong to someone. When an adult demonstrates this genuine care and concern for a child on a regular, predictable basis, a secure attachment begins to form. This is what helps to build important capacities, such as the ability to plan, monitor, and regulate behavior on the child’s part. Strength in this area enables children to respond adaptively to adversity. 

Learning to cope with manageable threats is also critical for the development of resilience. Kids need to experience good days and bad days in order to live a rich, full life. We can bolster their mental health when we allow them opportunities to experience manageable stress. 

When we coach our kids on how to develop strong coping thoughts, we teach them that they can endure hard things. Over time, they internalize our soothing voice so that it becomes their own, allowing them a sturdy rudder they can utilize during challenging times. 

Here’s a great question we can ask our kids when they seem overwhelmed: “Is this something you want me to help you with or do you just want me to listen?” This puts them in the driver’s seat while also letting them know that we care.

Again, showing up in this way sends the message to our child that we believe in them and their ability to problem-solve, but that we are also by their side, if they want advice or support. This is a wonderful way to straddle the line between comforting and pushing our child. Your mere presence in this situation helps to build resilience. 

How we, as the parents, manage our own distress when our kids feel genuine discomfort contributes to the building of resilience. Here’s the important question: can we tolerate our kids’ upset and discomfort when things don’t go their way? Or do we rush in to reduce their pain because it’s too uncomfortable for us to witness? 

When kids are forced to manage that discomfort, to stand deep in its muck, and actually survive, resilience increases. Too often, the parents hover in anticipation of these difficult moments, ready to solve, comfort, rescue and fix. 

How else can we model resilience? We can converse openly about our own failures. What happened, why, what did we learn about it, what did it teach us about our own character? Tell stories at the dinner table about mistakes made at work, in relationships, with loved ones. Kids LOVE hearing about when their adults mess up. 

Take yourself off the parenting pedestal and allow your kids to know you as a flawed person. This only invites them to explore themselves as flawed humans, as well. Define failure for your kids as “A Way To Find Their Way.” 

When we normalize mistakes and failure in our homes, we quietly encourage kids to experiment more, to take risks, and to fail. The longer we portray ourselves as the idealized parent, the tougher it is for our kids to reveal their own vulnerabilities and worries. 

Teach your kids that in your family, you welcome mistakes and failure. Sort through the mess with them, looking for the threads of resilience, strength, and optimism. Set aside anger or disappointment at their failures in favor of praising them for taking a risk. This is how we build resilience. 

Remind your kids that their brains are “plastic,” meaning they are constantly growing and changing. The work of Carol Dweck and her research on “The Growth Mindset” suggests that we always have more room for growth. 

Use the word “yet” with your kids when they come to you feeling defeated. Remind them that they haven’t mastered making a goal under pressure “yet” or they can’t figure out their pre-calculus homework “yet” or they don’t know how to navigate crotchety, old Mrs. Smith, the biology teacher, “yet.” 

Finally, research tells us that one of the best ways to build resilience is to experience deprivation. This usually sounds a bit extreme to parents, so I like to suggest the idea of earning privileges, instead. By this I mean that rather than just giving our kids a new outfit, a skateboard, a phone, or a piece of jewelry, consider setting up hoops through which they must jump to earn the coveted item. 

Allow them to experience wanting or longing for something. Teach them how to strategize, plan ahead, and organize their thoughts and actions in order to earn something. This delayed gratification, combined with the implementation of a thoughtful strategy, both contribute to the building of resilience.

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