Resilience, simply put is the ability to cope with and quickly overcome challenges and setbacks. It's incredibly valuable for children to develop their resilience since life is full of complexities and challenges and as much as we would love to protect them from everything negative in the world, we simply can't.
Resilience is a beneficial quality that lasts lifetime. For years, psychologists have been emphasizing the importance of resilience for preventing mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. The more you can develop your child's skills of resilience, the lower their chances are of developing mental illnesses later in life.
What the psychologists say:
“You want children to be able to handle setbacks, hardship, and failure so that someday, when they move out of the house, they can handle a problem at work, issues with a roommate or at college, failing a test, etc.” - Amy Morin, author of the book 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do.
“The ability to persist in the face of difficulty may be as essential to success as talent or intelligence.” - Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author of Untangled.
"There is emerging evidence to suggest that young people who are resilient are more likely to achieve school success, both academically and personally." - Debbie Carberry, Psychotherapist, Parent coach.
When it comes to teaching children resilience, there are four key areas that you should focus on:
In this post, we'll outline sixteen ways you can develop resilience in children across each of these four key areas.
There's often a misconception that building resilience means letting children experience a lot of failure to "toughen them up". However, it's extremely important to encourage their independence with empathy and support from you. If you leave children to do too much on their own too soon, that could actually be damaging to their self-esteem and could cause them to experience anxiety in the long run.
Connection is so important because it shows the child that while you believe they can do things themselves, they can trust that you will be right there beside them if they need help. It teaches them that you understand how they're feeling and you support them unconditionally. Let's look at a few ways you can build resilience while showing empathy and compassion.
Become their coach
Cheerlead them through it, encourage them, acknowledge how difficult it is and be there to help if they need you but to
Encourage them regularly
All anyone can do is their best and that's where you can focus your encouragement. It's important for children to hear you tell them you believe in them and to hear that often. The words you repeat to them now will become their inner voice later in life so make sure those words are encouraging them to simply do their best and that's enough.
Let them feel their feelings
Dr Laura Markham, clinical psychologist says that resilience depends on an understanding that emotions — even those considered “negative,” like sadness, grief or anger — aren’t a problem to be fixed, but a natural consequence of being human. By encouraging your child to feel all of their feelings, and normalising the expression of those feelings, you can help your child understand that it's OK not to be happy all the time.
Once the pressure to suppress negative emotions and to appear positive all the time is removed a child will naturally become more resilient because they understand that emotions come and go and they do not define who we are.
Dr. Markham noted that it is actually when we don’t express our emotions that we lose control of them — not the other way around.
People who feel competent, can make a plan and stick to it, can solve problems, and know their own strengths tend to be high in resilience. The more you can expose your children to their own competencies, the better, which will mean taking a step back and allowing them to become independent. Not easy, we know. Below are a few tips for you to try.
Sometimes all we need is for someone to recognize that what we're going through is difficult. Children are no different. When you see your child is struggling with something, instead of trying to do it for them or make it easier straight away, encourage them to persist through it and tell them the reality that sometimes things are just hard, but not to give up. This will stand to them later in life when things are inevitably going to get harder for them and giving up isn't an option.
Praise the Effort
According to research by psychologist Carol Dweck, when you teach children that intelligence is not fixed but can grow and develop throughout your entire lifetime, they show greater motivation in school and get better grades and higher test scores. We recommend praising the effort a child puts into something rather than leading them to believe that intelligence is a fixed state that you either have or don't.
For example, if a child gets a great test score and you tell them they're very smart, they might start to think that they got the good score because they're smart rather than because of the effort they put into their studies. However, if you instead said "congratulations, you worked so hard to get that test score" you teach the child that they did well because they earned it, not because they were born intelligent.
Encourage age-appropriate risk-taking
Part of being resilient is knowing that you can try new things and you'll be able to get through it. As a parent or guardian of a young child, you can help build their resilience by introducing them to age-appropriate risks. Risks will vary from child to child and just means they will be pushed outside of their comfort zone. For example, raising their hand in class to ask a question, making a new friend, or going down the "big" slide.
Elaborate on your praise
As busy people, we often think that any praise is good praise because I'm paying attention to my child even when it's hard and I just don't have the time. However, simply saying "good job" doesn't help the child understand what was good about what they did and makes it very difficult to replicate the process of receiving recognition from you. This can introduce self-doubt within the child which impacts their ability to take risks, bounce back from setbacks, and believe in their own abilities.
Try to elaborate on your praise and tell them exactly what it was that they did well and also what they could have done better so they can continue to learn and grow from your feedback.
I'm sure you're very familiar with the question "why" when it comes to young children. "Why did you put that in there?" "Why did you hit your sister?" "Why won't you eat your dinner?" "Why did you break your favourite toy?"
However, “why” questions are not helpful in promoting problem-solving for children and problem-solving is a great way to develop their resilience. Instead of asking "why", try asking "how". "How are you going to get that out of there?" "How are you going to make it up to your sister" "How will you make sure you're not hungry later on?" "How will you fix your favourite toy?" When children learn how to problem-solve, tasks they're unfamiliar with become less daunting in the future.
To empower children to learn their own competencies, it's important for their guardians to give them a safe space to do so. But it can be extremely difficult for parents to give up control and give it to a small child. Think of it this way though, all parents want to be their child's hero, but to raise resilient children who will grow up self-confident, you need to move into a more supportive role and let your child be the hero of their own story.
Build the scaffolding
When a child is attempting something new for the first time, the best thing you can do is give them clear directions and guardrails, and then stand back and let them attempt it themselves. Make sure they know that you're right there to support them whenever they need you but that you believe in their ability to do the task themselves.
Do not perfect their work
As tempting as it may be, resist the urge to improve upon their work at all costs. You may have good intentions to get them a better score in their test but by doing that what you're telling the child is that what they did wasn't good enough. Even if the project doesn't look perfect, they need to learn that the effort they put in directly impacts the results they'll get, and you won't be there all the time to make things better.
Introduce small changes
A large part of resilience is the ability to adapt to change. You can help children develop their adaptability skills by introducing small changes often. Change something they'll notice and talk to them about why it was changed.
Some examples of things you can change without much interruption include your furniture or accessory arrangement, like the position of a lamp, how you organise their wardrobe, or a certain brand of food they're used to. This will help them get used to the fact that things change and it's OK.
Don't give in too soon
We're inclined to say yes too often to children simply to avoid a meltdown, but Susan Newman, a social psychologist warns that saying yes too soon can hurt a child's ability to deal with setbacks. She says “If you can recognize what triggers you to an automatic ‘yes,’ it’s time to step back and say, ‘Hold it a minute, why am I doing this? How will a ‘no’ help?”
By saying no more often to a child, they come to understand that not everything is going to be easy or handed to them which will develop their grit and help them adapt more easily when things don't go their way in life.
Resilience is a trait that can be cultivated and nurtured and with the right knowledge and commitment to developing resilience in children, you can equip them with the skills required to better cope with all of life's challenges. Here are a few suggested tips you can try committing to with your own children:
Ask yourself what they need to learn before scolding
When a child behaves poorly, our natural instinct is often to scold them, however a child doesn't act out for no reason and its most likely that they're actually just expressing their frustration with something else in that moment.
Try to practice pausing before you scold and think about what your child might be struggling with first. Are they trying to do something they don't have the ability to do yet, and can you show them? Have they experienced a major life change or trauma such as the arrival of a new sibling or a death in the family?
Approaching "bad behaviour" in a compassionate and curious way will encourage your child to share their struggles with you and from there you can find a solution together or simply just talking might be enough to help.
Change your vocabulary
Some small changes you can make to help build your child's resilience is in the everyday language you use with them. Below are some phrases you can try introducing into your vocabulary that consider the points made in this post:
- "That was hard, but you did it!"
- "I want you to try, but I'm here if you get stuck"
- "I need your help"
- "What do you think we should do next?"
- "How will you do ....?"
- "I understand this is frustrating for you"
- "Which part would you like me to help with?
- "Do you remember when you thought X was hard but now you're great at it?"
- You practiced so much and you did great! You must feel so proud!"
- That was hard for me, but I did it and I feel proud of myself"
Increase their vocabulary
Increasing a child’s emotional vocabulary gives them more words to express themselves which in turn enables and empowers them to understand how they feel. As a parent or guardian, there are endless things you need to teach your children, emotional vocabulary should certainly make the list.
Lead by Example
Dr. Dan Siegel, author of “The Yes Brain,” says “A parent’s resilience serves as a template for a child to see how to deal with challenges, how to understand their own emotions,” which focuses on cultivating children’s resilience. You need to show your children how to come back strong when things don't go to plan, how to adapt to change, and how to rise from the ashes. Never forget that they're watching and absorbing everything you do.
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