How to build resilience in children
Previously we have talked about coping techniques and teaching your kids to successfully deal with stress and strong emotions. But there are some circumstances when just controlling your emotions is not enough. You need the capability to bounce back from whatever hardships you are facing, stay strong, and work through challenges. In other words, you need to be resilient.
What is resilience?
Some people, faced with adversity, fall to pieces, and it takes them a while to recover. In contrast, others manage to quickly return to their normal state even after severe trauma. These people can be called more resilient.
Resilience is a set of attributes that allow a person to cope with difficult psychological situations without losing confidence and, in the end, achieve one’s goals. It is a sort of mental toughness that you see in athletes and high-rank managers who constantly face stressful situations requiring them to stay calm and productive at the same time.
But how is it different from being able to cope with strong emotions?
Coping skills and resilience: what is the difference?
Depending on the circumstances, we need to use different strategies to cope with a situation. Some contexts involve dealing with strong emotions, and then there are moments when we need to focus on problem-solving. It is essential to realize the difference between them and to explain it to the child.
Emotion-focused coping techniques deal with situations that are beyond our control; they teach us to accept the way things are or how they went. We learn to recognize, acknowledge and control our emotional states, deal with stressful and unpleasant situations. In a way, we forgive ourselves and learn to understand our personality. It is a passive way of coping.
Problem-solving skills, on the other hand, teach us to be proactive in situations that depend on us. We cannot allow ourselves to give up if we can contribute to something or change things around. Sometimes we need to take on a responsibility and do something about an unpleasant situation. It is an active way of dealing with problems.
Resilience is built on both of these skill sets. A resilient person not only deals with his emotions and recovers from a painful life experience but can keep functioning without giving up and prosper afterward. In its most potent form, it means being able to benefit even from difficult circumstances and severe hardships. Basically, it is the “what does not kill me makes me stronger” type of mindset.
Felix Guillen and Sylvain Laborde identified four levels of resilience in their study:
- Hope: unwavering confidence in oneself and in one’s ability to find multiple solutions in difficult situations and achieve goals.
- Optimism: knowing that it always works out for the best.
- Perseverance: consistency of purpose, not giving up when faced with adversity.
- Adaptability: the ability to adapt to problems in the surrounding reality and not getting hung up on things one can not change.
Why is it important to strengthen our kids?
Resilience is like a snowball; it is self-nurturing. Once a kid realizes that he can easily navigate through obstacles, he attains more confidence which, in turn, gives him even more strength and trust that he has what it takes to face challenges, and he is capable of gaining control over the situation. He grows into a responsible and unshakable individual who is curious and not afraid to take healthy risks. He develops a positive attitude which helps him cope with any problems that come his way. It maximizes his potential in the future and helps him feel happier and more content with his life.
Moreover, as we have mentioned before, resilience is an essential soft skill that anybody who aspires to build a successful career needs to have. For example, Google recruiters always run mental toughness tests during job interviews. And there is no surprise there: it is difficult to do a job if you do not know how to handle pressure and stress. You can have outstanding tech skills and competence, but if you lose your temper and make a lot of mistakes at the first sign of difficulty, it is all for nothing.
Is resilience something that you can teach your child?
As with many other capabilities, resilience partly depends on our traits. But if you start working on it at a young age when personality is still forming, you can be sure that you will achieve significant results.
Children’s reactions to difficulties depend mainly on how much attention parents have brought to teaching them resilience and helped them develop the ability to regain their mental peace. Researchers have proved that psychological strength increases with age through practice and specific life experiences.
These experiences can contribute to negative outcomes like withdrawing yourself and becoming even more stressed and to positive ones like becoming stronger. The latter ones are called “resilience factors” because when present in a child’s life, they help him build resilience.
If the factors leading to adverse outcomes in children are too many, it can provoke serious psychological disorders and negative behavior such as drugs or even crime. So the idea is to lessen negative factors and to create more resilience-building ones. Let’s find out what they are.
Factors leading to kids becoming stronger
Resilience is built upon family support, connection to people in our community, and individual coping skills.
Creating a safe, supportive, and nurturing home environment provides your child with a solid pillar for when stressful or difficult situations arise. Make sure your child always feels safe and loved at home. It will make him want to come to you for help and feel at ease discussing his mistakes and problems with you.
At the same time, the community in which the child grows influences him quite as much. The overall safety of the neighborhood, having a friendly relationship with neighbors, and good ties with extended family — all this makes the child feel that he is surrounded by a friendly world, people who are “on his team”.
For kids to have a healthy and successful life, parents need to help their children develop self-confidence and coping skills. They will need them to respond to the stresses and transitions in his daily life effectively. For more information, see the article “Coping skills for kids“, where we discuss how to deal with stress, manage anger outbursts, recover from traumatic situations.
Factors preventing kids from becoming resilient
Children absorb everything that is going on around them and may suddenly get very clingy or start an old habit. It is a sign that the child is under stress, and he needs attention. You do not have to be with your child a lot. You can give him time when he asks for it; you can play with him, draw together, or read a story. The child will be satiated with attention and will have a way to express his fears and other emotions that he can not put into words. Simple hugging, kissing, and sitting nearby can do miracles.
Sometimes the child can stress about a particular task that he is not ready for:
- sleeping in a separate room,
- staying with relatives without parents,
- adapting to kindergarten,
- new intellectual challenges.
At first, he seems to be coping with it; then, suddenly, he has an emotional breakdown. Ask your kid what is bothering him, what is hard for him. Offer support and fix the workload. Be sure to praise him when he copes with the task. The important thing is not just dealing with it, but how he feels when he accomplishes it.
Elementary school children
When too many new things a child needs to adapt to are happening simultaneously (relocation, parents’ divorce, starting a school), it leads to a feeling of unpredictability and chaos for him. He loses the sense of stability and safety. Talk to him about changes of plans so that he can prepare emotionally. Create a place where he will feel safe, make sure he has comfortable conditions to work and rest. Check his daily routine: does he have enough sleep, correct diet, enough physical and intellectual activity, is his room is well-ventilated, etc.
A child can feel anxious when close people impose different requirements and expectations: grandmother allows something that mother does not. All family members should agree on specific routines, rules, basic definitions of good and evil.
Middle school children
When the demands placed on the child (behavior, household tasks, discipline, grades, etc.) are too high, he may feel he is not good enough and does not deserve love unless he fulfills these expectations. Check whether your demands are not too exaggerated, and the child still has an opportunity to play, feel joy, experiment, and be spontaneous.
Criticism and the absence of praise are what intimidates a kid and spoil your relationships. He will not know that he did something good and will think that whatever he does is devalued. Praise and express gratitude for his efforts, support, and show respect for what he does well. It will boost the child’s self-esteem and promote proactivity.
Middle school is the best time to reinforce empathy. Helping others is not only good but also therapeutically beneficial. Researchers have noted an improved sense of self in people who regularly help others without expecting reward or praise. Teach your child to do good and participate in community service or neighborhood volunteer opportunities.
8 strategies to build resilience in your child
Praising the effort and not just the achievement
Try not to create tremendous pressure on children with your high expectations. For instance, instead of focusing on getting high grades in school, teach your child to work hard and never give up. Praise the effort that has led to progress or the result in learning. Tell them that failure is only a temporary learning opportunity and success is the fruit of hard work and sacrifice.
Such attitudes keep him from getting afraid of mistakes, discouraged, or frustrated with every bad grade. Instead, it stimulates him to develop perseverance to reach goals and solve problems.
Instilling healthy habits
Help your child get healthy habits for life. Teach him the importance of adequate sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise. Remind him to take frequent breaks from studying. Let him see for himself that a thoughtful and balanced daily routine will help him be more productive and realize his goals. It is much easier for a healthy person to cope with any potential stress or problem.
Teaching to think realistically
Negative thoughts affect children just as often as adults: worries, doubts about themselves, bad feelings, etc. Usually, parents limit themselves to saying: “Don’t worry” or “Everything will be fine”. Using positive self-talk guided by realistic reasoning is more productive. So revert thinking like: “I’ll never pass a math exam” to “I can get better at math if I study more, ask for help, and do my homework regularly.” Children who think realistically are more confident and resilient.
Here is how you can practice realistic reasoning. The next time your kid expresses a negative thought, invite him to become a detective for a while and look for facts to prove his assumptions. Ask him: “Why do you think it’s true?”, “Are there any facts to support that it’s not true?”.
Teaching proactivity in problem-solving
Usually, there are two extremes: parents who tend to shield children from real-life difficulties and authoritative parents who control the child’s every move. In both cases, the kid does not get the opportunity to learn how to make good choices.
Develop your child’s problem-solving skills from an early age. Show him that he can influence his life and the lives of those around him. Teach him to analyze the situation in case of mistakes:
- Help identify what happened but do not insist, as asking why a child did something often leads to excuses or lies.
- Analyze together what led to the outcome.
- Determine what he can do to prevent similar problems in the future. It is more productive to ask questions with “how” because they stimulate a proactive attitude and a desire to change. For instance: how do you solve this, what you can do to change it, how to start over. Then you can show the specific steps the child can take to correct the situation.
- Promote the bright side of the situation. After you analyzed what has happened, help your kid see that every negative event has a silver lining. Like in the case, it has taught him how to avoid similar mistakes.
With such an approach, children learn how to take action, solve their problems, and realize that they can manage their lives and overcome challenges. Gradually he will stop being afraid to take risks and become more confident. You will be able to assign him more responsibilities.
Teaching discipline and proactivity in getting what you want
Help the kid understand that he can reach his potential by taking even small steps toward the goal each day. For that, you can show him how to use time management skills and set clear goals that will inspire and motivate him to move forward. It will help him develop consistency and resist the temptation to put off school assignments and projects until the last minute.
Modeling healthy attitude
Children learn by imitating adults, and parents are their best role models.
- Talk to your child about how you manage your stress effectively.
- Embrace your own mistakes. You can tell your kid about mistakes you made and how you dealt with them. He will see that there is no need to avoid failures as everybody, including grownups, fails sometimes.
- Try to be calm and consistent in different situations and avoid panicking. We constantly hear words like “disaster” or “a terrible thing has happened” and involuntarily include them in our speech. All this distorts our perception of reality, painting the world in gray colors. Try to call things and situations by their proper names, without exaggeration. And the child will learn to do the same.
Paying attention to your child’s inborn strengths
Identify and develop your child’s abilities, talents, positive states, and processes and encourage him to use them when challenges arise. According to the research conducted by psychologist Leah Waters, when parents know their kids’ strengths and encourage them to use them, kids experience less stress.
When the child knows his strong sides, he can appeal to them when he finds himself in difficult circumstances. It is like in video games when you have special power-ups to boost the avatar’s innate attributes and use them to defeat enemies.
Taking out of their comfort zone step by step
In his book “Resilience”, American psychiatrist Dennis Charney recommends setting tasks that children can handle, and once they complete them, raising the bar a little. He argues that exposing children to controlled stressful experiences allows them to develop a “psychological toolkit” for coping with stress that they can use in adulthood.
Think about something that your kid finds challenging and divide it into small, easily doable tasks or steps, slightly escalating the amount of stress. The kid will not even notice what is happening, and in the end, you can show him that he has managed to overcome what was bothering him.
By developing resilience, children gain confidence that they can influence their life achievements through hard work, imagination, knowledge, and skills. They focus on what they can do rather than what is beyond their control. They will face their fears and always act per their values. Isn’t it what parents want for their children?
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