Raising Resilient Kids
How to Help Them Bounce Back
by Ronica O’Hara
In these turbulent times, children need to know how to confidently weather and deal with changes no matter what life hands them, say many psychologists. Studies show that when kids are resilient—having the ability to recover quickly from difficulties—they are less fearful and anxious, more confident and empathetic, and better able to handle cataclysmic events like 9/11.
Resilience can help them deal creatively with everything from cyberbullying to societal change. A Florida Atlantic University study of 1,204 children found that those that agreed with such statements as, “I can deal with whatever comes my way,” “I am not easily discouraged by failure,” and, “Having to cope with stress makes me stronger,” were less likely to be bullied in person or online and better able to cope when it occurred.
Resilience can be taught and learned at any stage in a child’s life, studies suggest. Some useful strategies include:
1 Let them know they’re loved and supported. One stable, committed relationship with a supportive adult such as a parent, grandparent, aunt, teacher or coach is what a child needs to be resilient, according to research from Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child. This can be particularly important for children raised in less-than-ideal circumstances. “It is absolutely critical for African-American children to learn resilience due to the current climate of hostility and racism, the inherent disadvantages in education and household income they are born into and hostile, crime-infested neighborhoods where they live,” says Damon Nailer, a Monroe, Louisiana, motivational speaker and author of Living, Loving, Leading. For children in all circumstances, he says, it’s important to “teach them that setbacks, failures, losses and adversity help you to learn, grow and become stronger.”
2 Make resilience a household word. When San Diego child psychologist Bruce Thiessen’s daughter Kassidy was 4, he’d pretend to be the wolf in The Three Little Pigs, howling, “I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”
She would reply, “Go ahead! I’ll rebuild it tougher and stronger!”
It was his way of embedding resilience in her, which he and his wife Roxie have reinforced with books, movies and songs. “Making the theme of resilience dominant in multiple activities will make an enduring, indelible impression on your child,” he says.
3 Be a good example. “The most important thing to cultivate resilience, mindfulness and any other emotions really, is for parents to practice and model these things themselves,” says Christopher Willard, Ph.D., a Harvard lecturer and author of Raising Resilience: The Wisdom and Science of Happy Families and Thriving Children. Adults need to bounce back from setbacks, whether it’s a social media mistake or a lost job, and find ways to reframe what happened in a positive light. To convey that attitude to a child, ask at dinner or bedtime, “What was the rose in your day? The thorn? What did you learn? What would you do differently next time?” The parent can model responses to these questions by sharing their own rose and thorn.
4 Let them figure things out. “As tempting as it may be to step in every time you see your children struggling, allowing them to figure things out on their own builds resilience,” says Katie Lear, a Davidson, North Carolina, therapist specializing in childhood anxiety. “On the flip side, when a parent hovers or immediately steps in to solve a child’s problem, the child may interpret that behavior as, ‘I don’t trust you to be able to do this without help.’” Asking a child how they plan to solve a problem rather than questioning why the problem happened in the first place is a way to teach them creative problem-solving, advises Lynn Lyons, a Concord, New Hampshire, psychotherapist and co-author of Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents.
5 Teach thankfulness. Feelings of gratitude bolster resilience, studies show. For example, college students that performed gratitude-inducing exercises reported feeling better able to handle academic challenges. “Teach your child to look for the gift within every problem,” advises C.J. Scarlet, author of Heroic Parenting: An Essential Guide to Raising Safe, Savvy, Confident Kids. “That’s often hard to do in the midst of challenges, but just knowing there will be a gift found at some point can help your child to ride out the storm with greater patience and confidence.”
Ronica O’Hara is a Denver-based health writer. Connect at OHaraRonica@gmail.com.