Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. It’s not something that we are all necessarily born with – but fortunately it is a skill we can learn from birth.
Resilient children are more likely to take healthy risks because they don’t fear falling short of expectations. They are curious, brave, and trust their instincts. They know their limits and push themselves to step outside of their comfort zone and solve problems independently.
All children encounter stress of some type, and of varying degrees as they develop. Unfortunately, we can’t protect children from the every day challenges that life will present them. They may get sick, move to a new home or city, encounter school bullies, sit exams, cope with grief, lose friends, and deal with divorce and separation. Life will be hard at times.
Resilience helps children navigate these stressful situations. When children have the skills and the confidence to confront and work through their problems, they learn that they have what it takes to cope in difficult times. The more they bounce back on their own, the more they internalise the message that they are strong and capable.
Parents can help children build resilience and confront uncertainty
by teaching them to solve problems on their own. While the gut reaction of a parent might be to jump in and help so that the child avoids dealing with discomfort, this actually weakens resilience. Children need to experience discomfort so that they can learn to push through it and develop their own problem-solving skills. Without this skill-set in place, children will experience anxiety and shut down in the face of adversity.
Children develop coping skills within the context of caring relationships, so it’s important to spend one-on-one time with them. This means parents and carers need to put down the phone (or any other common distraction) and focus on their child. When children know they have the unconditional support of a parent, family member, carer or teacher, they feel empowered to seek guidance and make attempts to work through difficult situations.
In a world where playgrounds are made “safe” with soft floor materials and helicopter parenting, it’s important to encourage children to take healthy risks.
What’s a healthy risk? Something that pushes a child to go outside of their comfort zone, but results in very little harm if they are unsuccessful. Examples include trying a new sport, participating in the school play, or striking up a conversation with a shy peer. When children avoid risk, they internalise the message that they aren’t strong enough to handle challenges. When children embrace risks, they learn to push themselves.
When children come to parents or carers to solve their problems, the natural response is to lecture or explain. A better strategy is to ask questions. By bouncing the problem back to the child with questions, the parent helps the child think through the issue and come up with solutions.
The goal is not to promote rugged self-reliance. We all need help sometimes, and it’s important for children to know they have help. By brainstorming solutions with Children, parents engage in the process of solving problems. Encourage children to come up with a list of ideas and weigh the pros and cons of each one.
When stress kicks in, emotions run hot. Teach your child that all feelings are important and that labelling their feelings can help them make sense of what they’re experiencing. Tell them it’s okay to feel anxious, sad, jealous, etc. and reassure them that bad feelings usually pass.
Deep breathing exercises help children relax and calm themselves when they experience stress or frustration. This enables them to remain calm and process the situation clearly.
When people avoid failure – they aren’t resilient. In fact, failure avoiders tend to be highly anxious. When parents focus on end results, children get caught up in the pass/fail cycle. They either succeed or they don’t. This causes risk avoidance. Embracing mistakes (your own included) helps promote a growth mindset and gives children the message that mistakes help them learn. It can be helpful to talk about a mistake you made and how you recovered from it.
Optimism and resiliency go hand in hand. Some children may appear more naturally optimistic than others, but optimism can be nurtured. If you have a mini pessimist on your hands, acknowledge the feelings that lead to pessimistic thinking and teach your child to reframe his thoughts to find the positive.
The best way to teach resilience is to model it. We all encounter stressful situations. Use coping and calming strategies. Deep breathing can be an effective way to work through stress. Always label your emotions and talk through your problem-solving process.
Exercise helps strengthen the brain and make it more resilient to stress and adversity. While team sports are the most popular method of consistent exercise for children, all children really need is time spent outdoors engaging in a physical activity. If team sports don’t appeal to your child, encourage them or introduce them to cycling, playing tag, or even just swinging at the playground. These are all great ways for children to engage in free play that also builds resilience.