Following a parent workshop on the topic of “Live, Love, & Laugh: Raising Resilient Children” that I recently presented at a school, I was approached by a parent who wanted some advice for her youngest son. She explained she was the proud parent of two sons; both are as different from each other as children can be. Her oldest has always been very responsible about his chores, schoolwork and even about setting a good example.

Her younger son is full of life and always ready to have some fun. Recently, both boys had disappointing test results, and neither was happy to show her. The difference was that the eldest son already had a plan to fix the situation: he had already asked his teacher to meet with him the next day to see what he did wrong or what he could do to get his marks back up. The younger son was full of excuses; he blamed the teacher, the test, and even his mother for giving him chores the weekend before. This parent said that she knows it’s not right to compare her boys, but that she needs to figure out how to help her younger son to seek solutions like his older brother does when things go wrong.

Parents who have more than one child know that no two children are alike in their temperament, even with the same biological parents and being brought up in the same environment with the same parenting. The difference in the reactions of these two brothers indicates that the older brother is more resilient than the younger brother. Resilience explains why some children overcome overwhelming obstacles with seemingly more ease ―from homework to more extreme or traumatic situations in their lives― while others have more difficulty.

Resilience is the capacity to rise above difficult circumstances, the ability to move forward with optimism and confidence even in the midst of adversity. Children (and adults) who are resilient can recognize and manage their own feelings, understand the feelings of others, have a sense of independence and self-worth, form and maintain positive, mutually respectful relationships, be able to problem solve, have a sense of purpose and goals for the future, be better equipped to resist stress and adversity, and cope with change and uncertainty.

Research over the last twenty five years has shown that today's young people are much less resilient than previous generations. Research also shows there is a significant difference in the way mistakes are viewed by children who are resilient compared with children who are not. People who are resilient actually view mistakes as an opportunity for learning. In contrast, people who are not resilient view mistakes as a personal failure.

As a result, they retreat from challenges, feel inadequate, and blame others for their problems. Consider Lucas, a boy I met when he was in grade 3. When I first met him, Lucas was not very resilient, and had low self-esteem. He was less sports oriented than his younger brother, and had few friends. Despite trying very hard, he struggled to excel at school. To make things worse, he did not see mistakes as opportunities to learn, but rather as failures. So it was no surprise that he found a way to place the blame for disappointments on others – otherwise he would have to see himself as a failure, and then feel even worse about himself. Of course, this is self-defeating behavior, as he was not able to learn from his mistakes-- or even seek out the help he really needed.

In our fast-paced, stressful world, all of our young people need the capacity to overcome obstacles and deal with disappointments whether in school, at home, or with friends. There is good news: While in the past it was believed that resilience is a “character trait” – either you were born with it or you were not – the newer research indicates that becoming resilient is a skill we can all learn (even children who are born with more difficult temperaments!).

Resilience is about bouncing back from difficult events. The challenge is to prepare our children to have the capacity to recover before anything actually goes wrong. There are many things we can do to help our children learn how to do this. Here are some examples:

Using a Strength-Based Approach:

We need to build up our children’s’ “islands of competence”. Nobody is good at everything, but everyone is good at something. Whatever your child is good at ―Lego building, taking care of pets, cooking, drawing cartoons― as long as it’s safe and acceptable to you, find out what it is and help them grow it, on a regular(weekly) basis. When people feel good at something, it builds their self-esteem and can reduce their anxiety. Research shows that when children discover their strengths and start to feel good about themselves, they are more willing to take challenges and confront even those areas that are problematic for them.

Role Modeling Emotional Health:

Taking care of you is an important part of modeling this behavior! When we take care of ourselves, we show our children how to be emotionally healthier. We are the model they will follow as they learn to manage stress. Role modeling may be most effective when you talk aloud about what you’re doing. For example: “My boss gave me a gigantic work assignment. I’m going to break it down into smaller parts so that I can handle it.” “I need to figure out how to handle this situation with the neighbors. I’m going to call Aunt Sophie. Just talking makes me calmer, and sometimes she helps me find a totally different way of looking at things.” “I’m so stressed out that I can’t even think. I’m going for a run. That always makes me feel better.” “I really need to clear my head. I’m going to take some slow, deep breaths and imagine I’m on that beautiful beach we visited last summer. Remember that sunset?”

Positive vs. Negative Thinking:

Does your child look at the glass as half empty or half full? Cognitive behavior therapy is a type of therapy that identifies and then works on challenging thinking errors (called distortions), leading to more accurate and flexible thinking. For example: “Am I really not good at everything, or are there some things that I’m good at?” “Did the teacher not choose me to answer the question when I had my hand up because she doesn't like me, or because she needs to give everyone a turn?” “Was my friend really ignoring me when I called out to him/her or did s/he just not hear me because s/he was distracted doing something else at that exact same moment?” “Am I really stupid because I did not do well on that test, or do I need more help to understand the material?”

Changing errors in thinking does not happen in one “aha” moment. Rather, it requires multiple conversations whereby our children open to us about their most painful experiences, so that we can have the opportunity to help them challenge the thinking errors and provide alternative corrective thinking messages. For some children, sharing those thoughts with a parent is too difficult, for fear of disappointing the people they love the most, and working with a therapist can be helpful.

Dealing with Mistakes and Problem Solving:

People who are resilient are more successful because they push their limits and learn from their mistakes. We can help our children become more resilient by helping them understand that mistakes are fixable and not terrible. We can also do this by helping them develop “realistic optimism”. In other words, helping them to recognize what they can control (or do something about), and what they cannot. For example: “Is this a situation that you can control? If yes, what can you do about it? If not, what can you do to take care of yourself?” Letting our young people struggle a little with these questions and jumping in to help them only when they get stuck, provides the opportunity to strengthen problem-solving skills, as well as discussing other solutions. Over time, children learn to transfer these conversations and experiences to other aspects of their lives.

If we want our children to experience the world as fully as possible —unfortunately with some of its pain, and thankfully with all its joy— our goal will have to be teaching our children resilience. We wish you love, laughter and happiness in raising resilient children!


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