By Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.
Research has shown that resilience is the most important quality you can instill in your children. Here’s how to help them handle any challenge with confidence.
If you were asked what you wanted in life for your kids, you might say happiness, success in school, close friendship, a loving family, and a gratifying career. Although you can’t give your kids all these things, you can help them develop the trait that is the key to attaining them: resilience. Countless studies have shown that resilience – having the inner strength to cope with any challenge – is crucial for children who face severe adversity. But in our fast-paced, stressful world, all kids need the capacity to overcome obstacles and deal with disappointments – whether in school, on the soccer field, or at the playground.
In our combined 50 years of practice as clinical psychologists, we’ve seen how many parents actually undermine their kids’ ability to be resilient rather than reinforce it. Here are ten ways to help them feel confident and in control of their lives.
1. Be empathetic. The ability to see the world through your kids’ eyes is essential for fostering resilience. You don’t have to agree with everything they do, but try to appreciate and validate their point of view. When they know that you’re really listening, they’re more like to look to you for guidance.
Of course, it’s much more difficulty to be empathetic when you’re angry with your kids or disappointed in their behavior – but that’s when it’s most important. Sally, a shy 6-year-old, was often prompted by her parents to greet family friends they ran into. Sally had always been timid and overwhelmed in new situations, but her parents couldn’t understand why she couldn’t be more polite. They warned her that if she didn’t learn to say hello, other people wouldn’t want to be with her. Although Sally’s parents thought they were helping her, they failed to realize that her shyness was an inborn temperamental trait that couldn’t be overcome simply by their telling her to be more sociable.
In order to be empathetic, you need to continually stop and think about how you’d feel if someone said to you the same things you’re saying to your children. If Sally’s mom were equally shy, how would she feel if her husband or boss told her to look people in the eye? She would probably be more self-conscious and anxious, as well as angry at their lack of understanding. A more empathetic approach to a shy child might be to say, “Many kinds find it hard to say hello. I’ll do whatever I can to make it easier for you. Maybe you could start by just smiling at people, and eventually you’ll feel ready to say hi.” This would give the child hope that the situation could improve.
When you demonstrate empathy on a day-to-day basis, you’re also teaching your children the skill that’s crucial for maintaining satisfying relationships. And having close friends to lean on when times are tough will certainly help your kids be even more resilient.
2. Communicate with respect. Always consider whether you’re saying things in a way that will make your children more receptive. Don’t interrupt them, put them down, tell them how they should be feeling, or use absolutes such as always and never in a critical way (“You never help out”).
Take the time to answer your kids’ questions, even if they ask the same ones repeatedly. Questions are their attempts to understand the world, feel a sense of mastery, and solve problems, all of which are linked to a resilient mind-set. If your kids feel that their questions are silly or bothersome, they’ll stop asking them.
It’s also important to be honest with your kids. Children usually know when their parents are keeping secrets from them. For example, one couple we know hadn’t told their 8-year-old twins that their grandmother had ovarian cancer because they didn’t want to upset them. The girls sensed that something was wrong, however, and we advised their parents to be honest with the girls in a way they could understand. We’re not suggesting that you discuss issues that are very personal or beyond your children’s emotional or cognitive abilities, but hiding a difficult situation conveys to children that you don’t think they can handle it. As a result, they’ll be deprived of an opportunity to learn how to cope with stress or sadness.
3. Be flexible. Parents want their children to be adaptable, thoughtful, and receptive to new ideas, but they often fail to model these behaviors. The most well-meaning parents use the same approach with their kids time after time even though it hasn’t been successful – for example, we know parents who have nagged their kids for years to clean their room, without results.
If something you’ve said or done for a reasonable amount of time isn’t working, think about what you can do differently, instead of having useless power struggles. Relaxing rules about finishing all the food on a dinner plate or taking a bath every night, for example, doesn’t mean that you’re backing down or spoiling your children. It teaches them that there are alternative ways of solving problems and that you can learn from your mistakes. If you refuse to reconsider your way of doing things, your kids will be less likely to try different tactics when they face challenges throughout life.
4. Give undivided attention. Kids feel loved when they know their parents enjoy being with them. This feeling of specialness is integral to their self-esteem. In fact, studies of resilience have found that kids who overcame a very difficult childhood all had at least one adult in their life who truly believed in them.
Schedule a time – even if it’s only 15 minutes daily – to give each of your children undivided attention. Five-year-old Stephanie’s parents put time aside each evening to play with her, but whenever the phone rang, they would interrupt their activity and explain that phone calls were important. Eventually, Stephanie started to feel she wasn’t as important as the phone calls and watched videos instead to avoid being disappointed.
5. Accept your kids for who they are. Your children may not match your expectations, but it’s vital to recognize their innate temperaments. When kids feel appreciated for who they are, they’ll feel more secure reaching out to others and learning how to solve problems.
Nine-year-old Carl often dawdled in the morning and missed the school bus. His parents became increasingly angry about his irresponsibility and decided not to let him continue the after-school activities he enjoyed. They didn’t understand that Carl was slow not because he was irresponsible but because he was very distractible by nature. Instead of yelling or punishing him, it would have been more effective for his parents to talk to him about what he thought might help him get ready more quickly. We know another child whose parents arranged for him to be the school “tardy monitor,” which entailed arriving early and keeping track of which students were late. The child loved the responsibility and motivated to get to school on time.
Of course, accepting your kids for who they are doesn’t mean that you should excuse inappropriate behavior, but try to understand it and help change it in a way that doesn’t erode their self-esteem.
6. Give kids a chance to contribute. From an early age, kids love to be helpful. In one of our studies, when we asked adults about their most positive memories of school, the most common ones involved being asked to help in some way – tutoring a younger child, painting murals, or running the film projector in class.
When we enlist children in helping others, we communicate our faith in their ability to handle a variety of tasks and given them a sense of responsibility. We believe that by age 3, kids should have one responsibility at home – but instead of calling it a chores, say, “We need your help.”
7. Treat mistakes as learning experiences. Kids whose parents over-react to mistakes tend to avoid taking risks and end up blaming others for their problems. It’s easy to get frustrated if your child spills his milk for the third time in a row, but you need to convey that mistakes are a natural part of life – for kids and grown-ups. Tell your children, for example, that Walt Disney’s first cartoon company went bankrupt.
Set a good example: If you drip chocolate ice cream on your sweater, have a sense of humor about it. You can also help prepare your child for mistakes. If you’re teaching your child to ride a two-wheeler, for example, tell her that it takes time to learn how to balance and that most kids fall at first.
8. Stress your children’s strengths. Although resilient kids aren’t deterred by failure, they also relish successes. Their sense of accomplishment and pride gives them the confidence to persevere the next time they face a challenge. Not all children are naturally athletic, artistic, or popular, but every child has his strengths – and it’s your job as a parent to draw attention to them. In order for children to truly believe in themselves, they need to experience success.
Nine-year-old Amelia had developmental delays and few friends. However, because she was gentle and loved helping others, her parents contacted a local nursing home and arranged for her to spend time with a woman who rarely had visitors. Amelia felt so appreciated there that, before long, she started reaching out to her classmates.
9. Let your kids solve problems and make decisions. One trap that many parents fall into is the tendency to rescue their children too quickly. Of course, there are plenty of times when we should tell our children what to do, particularly when safety is involved. But if your child doesn’t understand his homework assignment or keeps losing things, encourage him to come up with different ways to fix the situation himself. When he decides on a plan, tell him, “That seems to make a lot of sense. If it doesn’t work out, then we can think of other possible things to do.”
10. Discipline to teach. The true meaning of the word discipline is “to teach.” The ultimate goal is to nurture self-discipline so that your children will act responsibly even when you aren’t around. As with any form of education, do not discipline in a way that intimidates or humiliates your children.
If you use time-outs, the message to your child should be, “You need to time to calm down.” It’s best to add, “You can let me know when you feel calm,” because this places the responsibility on him. For kids older than 7 or those who are particularly active or stubborn, it’s better to take away a privilege and emphasize that they have the ability to decide to act appropriately. (“If you continue to scream, it won’t get you what you want, and you also won’t be able to watch TV tonight. It’s your choice.”)
Ideally try to prevent problem behavior in the first place by figuring out what causes it and doing what you can to modify the situation. Also, if you catch your kids doing things right, let them know. Your encouragement and love are more valuable to your children than stars or stickers.
Possessing a resilient mindset is an essential quality for all children. Parents are important in fostering hope, strength and optimism in their children. These ten guideposts can and will help your children develop the skills to cope successfully with the challenges they face.
Adapted from Raising Resilient Children, by Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. (Contemporary Books, 2001). Reprinted with permission of the authors.