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As parents, we wish we could protect our kids from every disappointment, defeat, or scary challenge.
Although this isn’t possible, we can teach our children to be resilient.
Resilient children have grit. When they encounter a difficult problem, they try to solve it instead of giving up. When bad things happen, they quickly bounce back, ready to face the next challenge. When they make mistakes, they grow and learn from them. Resilient children are hopeful, optimistic, and strong.
So while we can’t shield our kids from life’s difficulties, we can provide the tools they’ll need to navigate them successfully. Here are five tips to help you raise a resilient child.
1. Be a Supportive Role Model
According to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, the “single most common factor” for children who develop resilience is at least one stable, committed relationship with a supportive adult role model.
In fact, says researcher Emmy Werner, the more positive adult connections a child has, the more resilient he will be. These relationships can be with grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, coaches, or any other positive adult in your child’s life.
Foster and encourage relationships with strong and positive adults, and continue being the supportive role model your child needs.
Your child watches and learns from everything you do, so model resilient behaviors. Be calm and consistent. Admit to your mistakes, but don’t agonize over them. Talk to your child about what you learned or how you can do better next time.
Lynn Lyons, a psychotherapist specializing in working with anxious families, says modeling these positive behaviors can be particularly effective. Your child will learn that mistakes aren’t the end of the world, and that they can even be an opportunity to grow and improve.
Humor in the face of mistakes or difficulties is another positive tool you can model for your child, according to developmental psychologist Dr. Ashley Soderlund.
Think about how you want your child to handle challenges in life, and lead by example. Surround him with stable and positive adults, and he’ll learn to be strong and positive too.
2. Let Children Make Mistakes
When your daughter does a hurried, poor job on a school project, you may feel a strong urge to help her improve or fix it.
If you’re busy at work, and your son calls to say he left his homework on the table, you may want to rush to the rescue.
As uncomfortable as it is to let our children make mistakes, this is one way that kids develop resiliency.
Lynn Lyons explains that if children never make mistakes, they’ll never learn how to fix their errors or make better decisions in the future.
Stephanie O’Leary, a clinical psychologist specializing in neuropsychology, agrees, explaining that experiencing failure helps children learn coping skills.
Failure teaches perseverance and problem-solving. It causes children to think about their actions and how to avoid repeating these mistakes in the future.
Yes, says O’Leary, the short-term results of preventing our children from making mistakes will be “more smiles and fewer tears.” But the long-term results may be weak coping skills and lack of resilience.
In the real world, we won’t always be there to run interference for our children. As difficult as it is, we must learn to sometimes stomach our child’s temporary discomfort with the knowledge that this is the only way to build much-needed coping skills.
Plus, it’s better to let our children make mistakes and learn from them now, while the consequences are small, rather than later, when consequences become more serious.
3. Praise Kids the Right Way
Researcher Dr. Carol Dweck found that the way we praise our kids can affect their mindset and their inclination to take on challenges and persevere.
When we give our children praise like, “You’re so smart!”, they develop a fixed mindset. With a fixed mindset, children believe that qualities like intelligence are personal characteristics that don’t change or develop. As a result, they may avoid challenges that will test their abilities.
Instead of giving “person praise,” like, “You’re so smart,” or “You’re so creative,” try to give “process praise.” Focus on your child’s effort, as in, “I can tell you’ve been working really hard.” You can also give specific praise, like, “You really understand decimals!”
Praising your child in this way can help her develop a growth mindset, believing that her abilities will grow through hard work and challenges.
When a child with a growth mindset makes a mistake, the child focuses on how to improve next time. When a child with a fixed mindset makes a mistake, he’s more likely to believe that failure is the result of personal characteristics, such as, “I can’t spell,” or, “I’m just not good at math.”
Encouraging your child to embrace a growth mindset will help her become resilient, persistent, and eager to tackle challenges head on.
4. Teach Children to Manage Emotions
Managing emotions is a key to developing resilience. In fact, researcher John Gottman says emotional coaching is the key to raising resilient and happy children.
In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, based on 30 years of research, Gottman outlines three steps to emotional coaching.
The first step is to teach our children that all emotions, even the worst ones, are okay. Negative emotions can be opportunities to learn about ourselves, grow, and learn how to cope with these feelings effectively.
This step also involves helping your child label and validate his emotions. For example, you might say, “I understand you’re feeling angry because Joey wouldn’t let you play with his toys.”
The second step is to deal with bad behavior, if there was any, in order to set limits. For instance, if your child threw a tantrum, he would face consequences at this point. Explain that your child is not in trouble for feeling angry; he’s in trouble for the way he handled his anger.
Finally, you problem solve. Help your child brainstorm ways to fix the problem or to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Dr. Kenneth Barish, author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems, also recommends taking ten minutes at bedtime to discuss the day.
During this time, you can repair moments of conflict or misunderstanding. Help your child put the day’s disappointments and perceived failures in perspective.
Ask your child if there’s anything he wants to talk about, and listen patiently to his feelings. If there has been conflict between you and your child, try to set aside your feelings and listen to his side of the story, then talk through it and work together to resolve the disagreement.
As children learn to manage emotions in a healthy way, they will also learn to be more resilient. They will be able to deal with life’s challenges and disappointments with emotional maturity instead of tantrums, breakdowns, and giving up.
5. Teach Kids to Problem Solve
Along the same lines, it’s important that we teach our children to effectively solve problems.
When your child comes to you with a problem, help her brainstorm ways to address the challenge. For example, if your child is nervous about a test, talk through specific solutions like developing a study schedule, finding effective study strategies, and managing time.
As you brainstorm, help your child consider what the results might be for each solution she proposes.
Lynn Lyons states that we should give our children frequent opportunities to learn what works and what doesn’t. This means that we shouldn’t immediately rush to solve problems for our children or tell them the best solution. Trial and error is one of the best ways for our children to learn. This, too, is uncomfortable but necessary.
Children who know how to tackle challenges head on will grow to be resilient. These children can take failures and disappointment in stride, knowing that these are only problems to be solved.
You can get our free "My Problem Solving Plan" printable and use it together with your child to help them build their problem solving skills.
Sometimes, life can be confusing, challenging, and disappointing. As we send our kids out into the world, we want to be sure we’ve given them the tools they need to solve problems, bounce back from challenges, and remain positive.
You can start by being an example of resilience for your child, and surrounding her with other adults that you feel are positive role models.
Praise effort and improvement so that your child will learn to embrace, rather than avoid, challenges.
Foster independence in your child when it comes to making mistakes and solving problems. Letting go - even just a little - isn’t easy, but we need our kids to learn to stand strong on their own.
And teach your child that even the worst emotions are okay to feel, as long as she manages them appropriately instead of acting out or shutting down.
We can’t - and shouldn’t - keep our kids in a bubble or hold their hands through life. But we can give them the extremely valuable tool of resilience.