Take a minute to think about the one burning parenting question that you have. For many parents, the question will be a variation of: “How do I help my child to be brave, to be strong, to be kind, and approach life’s challenges with courage?”
Most adults understand the relevance of resilience. As parents, we want to instill this trait in our children so they can overcome adversity and achieve their goals despite the obstacles in their path. But what does it really mean to be resilient? The America Psychological Association defines resiliency as the ability to recover from adversity and adapt positively in the face of stressors, or significant sources of strain is defined as resilience.
Being resilient can help children deal with loss or trauma, such as a parent losing a job when the family moves or overcoming the psychological impacts of a car accident. It means that our children develop the emotional capacities to be successful in their work and relationships down the road regardless of setbacks that life presents.
As parents, we must help our children cope with challenges and teach them ways to bounce back when things are tough. It will enable them to deal with life’s challenges in the future. It will allow them to manage present situations that they experience as stressful or demanding, such as changing schools, welcoming a new sibling into the family, or experiencing rejection from their peers.
Additionally, there could be more severe stressors like family breakdown, illness, or death in a family. Therefore, building resilience in children is essential in terms of managing stress and fostering positive coping skills. Moreover, resilience enables children to develop disciplined, proactive ways of handling the world around them.
Here are 5 ways to build resilience in young children. These suggestions are inspired by the work of Carol Dweck, a psychologist whose groundbreaking work on the “growth mindset” has changed the cognitive landscape of resiliency:
1) Focus on Process Praise:
We always want to focus on effort versus the final outcome. So, as an example, we may say, ” It was incredible to watch how much energy you put into that assignment,” or “Wow! You’ve really been figuring out how to balance those blocks to make a taller and taller tower.” We want to avoid praise like “you are so good at math!” or “you are so smart.”
2) Make Praise Specific and Sincere:
We know that children under the age of 7 years old tend to take praise at face value. However, after the age of 12 years old, many youths start to question when praise is liberally sprinkled. Interestingly, a meta-analysis of 150 studies on praise found: “consistent correlations between a liberal use of praise and students’ “praise has been positively correlated with shorter task persistence, more eye-checking with the teacher, and inflected speech such that answers have the intonation of a question.”
3) Teach Children About the Brain
Understanding how the brain works empower children to see the brain as a muscle that can grow and develop over time. Teaching children about the brain needs to be an ongoing conversation within the home.
4) Accept Mistakes as Learning Opportunities:
Many of us may respond to this with an eye-roll. It seems obvious; however, research indicates that many people cannot tolerate making mistakes (Swinson, 2009). There are physiological and psychological reasons for this: our body’s response to failure is often experienced as physical pain. The same areas of the brain that are activated when we experience emotional injury are activated when we experience physical injury. So, not only do we physically “feel” mistakes, but we have also created a world within which children have very little exposure to small inoculations of stress through making mistakes.
Many of our youth are now entering college or university without ever having truly experienced what it means to fail and are now coined “the failure-deprived generation.” We need to be very aware of how we correct mistakes, how we talk about our own mistakes, and how much space we give for learning and developing. Very often, we don’t communicate enough with our children. You might want to intentionally focus on modelling the importance of making mistakes to our kids and saying out loud, “this is hard. I will need to do it many more times before I get it right.” Or when your child makes a mistake, say: “You know what, making mistakes is actually really good! It’s how your brain learns and grows.”
5) Understand the Role of Emotion:
Many people think anxiety or stress is bad when healthy stress in mild to moderate amounts is imperative to healthy amounts of motivation and creativity—this is known as eustress. Eustress is indispensable when we are operating at the edge of our abilities.
As parents, our perception of stress will come to determine how our children understand stress. When we construe stress as being “bad,” the negative connection creates a snowball impact – our body experiences a stress signal and interprets the signal as negative, leading to more stress. However, when we perceive stress as a signal that we are being challenged, that we are growing and learning, and that others are there to support this growth, then we open ourselves up to deeper levels of motivation and creativity. This all being said, eustress must be accompanied by healthy lifestyle strategies like sleep, nutrition, limited screen time, leisure time, healthy boundaries, and secure connections to prevent tipping into exhaustion and burnout.
It’s natural not to want your child to struggle, but resiliency develops when we change our relationship with adversity—not by avoiding it. You don’t have to wait for a significant crisis to help them learn and practice these skills because your children will likely have minor problems. Building resilience in children at an early age, with support from their caregivers, can help them develop skills and strategies to cope with whatever comes their way.
The bottom line is that resilience works. Children who develop the skills to bounce back from adversity are often happier and healthier, have better relationships with their peers, and tend to make better decisions – not only because they have the skills to make good choices but also because they understand how their actions impact others.
If you want to learn more, the Institute of Child Psychology is here to help you with concrete, research-backed strategies that can be implemented immediately at home or in the classroom.