We live in what can be a cruel, over complicated, confusing and fast paced world today. When I look back to the simplicity of my childhood, I feel eternally lucky that life was just a lot easier, a lot less overwhelming as a child. When I look at children growing up these days, I worry so much about whether we are raising resilient children and how that all fits into their future.
With mental health amongst children now reaching extremely worrying levels, and the unhappiness amongst young people that seems to be caused by the big bad wolf that is social media, raising resilient children has never been more important.
But when it comes to raising resilient children, what should we do? And what should we not do? To help us navigate these questions, I have parenting expert, Dr Justin Coulson – author of 9 Ways to a Resilient Child – here today to help us understand why raising resilient children is so important, and what we can do as parents to facilitate it:
Why is raising resilient children important?
Resilience means that we are able to adapt positively to challenges and adversity, and that we can avoid maladaptive outcomes when things get tough.
Since all of our children (and ourselves) face difficult times, it’s critical that they know how to work through hard things, and overcome them. Resilience is what gets them through.
I have a favourite quote that I put in the front of my book, 9 Ways to a Resilient Child, that says, “When life puts you in a tough spot, don’t say, “Why me?” Instead stand tall and say “Try me.” That resilient mindset is the thing that keeps our kids moving forward instead of giving up, getting depressed, and saying “It’s all too hard.”
And resilient kids have been shown to experience higher wellbeing, better school results, stronger friendships, better physical health, and more. It seems that resilience helps build those crucial psychological, physical, social, and cognitive resources that help us get through life well.
What sort of childhood challenges can resilience help with?
Resilience is helpful for every challenge. Resilience is the compound interest of persistence. As our kids learn from their mistakes and try again, they grow stronger, more capable, and their resilience breeds greater resilience.
Helping kids be more resilient will help them with friendship challenges, school issues, academic difficulties, and even sadness related to family challenges or mental issues.
Does raising resilient children mean they have to do everything on their own?
Surprisingly, making kids do everything on their own might hurt their resilience rather than help it. The idea that kids should just ‘toughen up’ and get on with it is often unhelpful. Instead of toughening up, many kids give up. Or worse, they feel like the important adults in their life have given up on them.
I think of it like this: our kids are walking across a balance beam. We walk beside them with our arms outstretched in case they over-balance. When things get tough, we don’t just watch them fall and land on the ground. That would be cruel. They might be hurt. In some cases it could be catastrophic.
But when things get tough, we also don’t climb up on the beam and carry them across. Life doesn’t work like that. They’ll never learn.
Instead, we place our hand on their leg in support. We say, “Lean on me for a minute and regain your balance.” Then, when they have re-oriented themselves we say, “Ok, I’m right here beside you. Start to walk again and if it gets tough you can lean on me a little once more.”
The idea here is that we are always there as a support, but for the most part we don’t do any carrying. If they’re struggling with a friend, we offer hugs, love, and some tips on what they might do. Then we send them off to get things sorted out with that friend. If it’s schoolwork, we offer hugs, love, and perhaps some tips on what they might do. (Or we hire a tutor!!!) Then we say, “Ok, try again. It’s over to you. I’m right here.”
How can we help children learn to problem solve and deal with the unexpected?
I think that the idea I shared above is probably pretty helpful as a metaphor. Our job is to do precisely what you’ve asked in the question. It’s to help them learn to problem solve and deal with the unexpected – and NOT to do it for them.
Throughout 9 Ways to a Resilient Child I share a range of strategies that could be helpful. There’s the power that comes from what psychologists call “cognitive reframing” where we encourage our children to get out of “stinking thinking” and see difficulties and problems as an opportunity; developing a growth mindset where they see challenge as a chance for mastery and mistakes as a sign of learning; psychological flexibility which reduces rigid thinking and helps kids be flexible when things happen that they don’t like, and several other strategies as well.
Each of the ideas I talk about has simple steps for implementation, and they’re all evidence-based ideas from cutting-edge psychological research.
If you’re a parent who currently accommodates your child’s every need and eliminating risk, what are your top tips for moving away from that mindset?
It’s really hard to step away from a “risk-management” mindset as a parent. We want to do everything we can to keep our kids safe. And we want them to succeed. It makes sense that we might hover a bit, and even micro-manage. But it undermines their resilience.
Here are a few ideas to help you step back:
First, talk to your child about making safe decisions, or lay out your expectations and then listen to their feedback. Do they think you’re being wise or over the top. Telling your 5 year old it’s not OK to ride 2 miles to the shops is very different to saying the same thing to your 15 year old.
Second, take small steps. Don’t go from total homework supervision (or park supervision) to zero. Do it incrementally so you and your child can get used to the shift.
Third, stop taking full responsibility for your child. Let them make decisions.
Fourth, be okay with mistakes and failure – yours and theirs. Mistakes are how we learn and grow. Let them learn from their own experiences. So long as they’re not running into traffic or pulling a boiling pot onto their heads (obviously we intervene when real danger exists) we will help them be more resilient when we allow them to make mistakes, learn, grow, and be personally responsible.
Fifth, if they can do it, let them. Now and then they’ll need some support and assistance (like when they’re super tired), but generally it’s best for you to step back and let them lead. You might find that you’re struggling with it even though they’re not. If that’s the case, describe your feelings to yourself. “I’m feeling really agitated and nervous. I want to step in and help.” Simply naming it will help you tame that overriding urge.
What other skills should we be teaching our children to help them be resilient?
The data highlighted that helping them know who they really are – their identity development – is vitally valuable to real resilience. Additionally, helping them develop self-control is a game-changer. And emphasising, developing, and accelerating their strengths makes a real impact on both of those ideas, plus it really bolsters resilience in powerful ways.
Now let’s talk communication – are there any particular words, phrases or questions that can help in raising resilient children?
It’s tempting to suggest dozens, but for simplicity I’m going to highlight two ideas or phrases that are valuable and I’ll explain why:
First, “I love you, no matter what” is amazingly valuable. Kids are most resilient when they know a significant adult in their lives is there for them – no. matter. what. When they know that we are there under any condition, they feel safe to try hard things. They know if they fail, we’ll be there to support them. There may be nothing more important.
Second, kids become resilient when we do what psychologists describe as “autonomy-supportive” parenting. That means that when things are challenging for them we show empathy and explore the situation, talk about options and then… we hand the decision about what next over to them.
We use phrases like “What do you think?” or “Where do you think we should go from here?” In other words, we give them autonomy: choice. They’ll usually pick the resilient option! And if they don’t, we talk about their decision, understand it, and then we might encourage them to try a more resilient way forward.
How important is what we model to our children in all of this? And what should we be modelling?
One of the most powerful ways for kids to learn resilience is to see it. Our example is vital. The data shows that parents who struggle with resilience typically have kids who do too. So our example is a big predictor of our child’s resilience. But it’s not the only predictor.
Sometimes resilient parents have kids who struggle. That’s normal. And in those cases, we model resilience, but we also model empathy. We are patient and kind, we are compassionate (which means to suffer with). As we do this, our kids feel safe. And the safer they feel, the more likely they are to get up, try again, and show more resilience.
How can we help children manage their emotions with resilience in mind?
A lot of parents are really quite dismissive of their kids’ emotions. This actually reduces, rather than raises, resilience. Our best responses to big negative non-resilient emotions in our kids is acceptance and gentleness. Again, this promotes a sense of safety, which leads to greater resilience. Remember, our job isn’t to get up on the balance beam. Our job is to give them support when they’re over-balancing.
I’d recommend the following steps:
First, see the big emotion as a chance to connect. (That sounds easy enough, but when we cut their sandwiches into triangles instead of rectangles and they have a meltdown it’s rare for a parent to think, “Wonderful. She’s having a big emotion so now we can connect.”)
Second, stay calm and name the emotion your child is feeling. If you can name it, you can tame it.
Third, offer support, hugs, and love as you recognise and connect with the emotion. This will help your child regulate their emotions faster.
Fourth, empower them to be resilient by saying something like, “Well, that was a bit tough wasn’t it? What do you think we should do now?”
Fifth, set limits and boundaries together to grow from that challenging experience. (If she says, “I need new toast in rectangles” you might say “That would be so good wouldn’t it. But then we’d waste this toast. What else can we do instead?” Maybe you can cut it into lots of strange shapes. Maybe you might help her eat it as it is. The idea is that we support and empower, and our kids become more resilient.)
If you had to give a pep talk to my readers about how they can raise resilient children it would be?
I’d go with the balance beam analogy above! And I’d really emphasise the importance of helping them understand and develop a strong sense of identity, a recognition of their unique strengths, and an encouragement to develop a growth mindset that says “I can learn new things and do hard things.”
Are you concerned about raising resilient children? What do you think about the advice above? Do leave a comment and share?
9 Ways to A Resilient Child is available to buy on Amazon below