With school years cut short and play-dates and birthday parties canceled for months on end, COVID has brought stress and uncertainty to our young ones. Some children have endured difficult situations, including losing loved ones, instability in their home, and even domestic violence. How can we ensure they emerge more resilient and ready to face future adversity?
Our best bet is equipping our children with healthy coping skills. Resilient children can stand tall in the face of challenges and use problem-solving skills to forge ahead. They are confident, curious, and independent. Here are some ways you can foster resilience and build coping skills in your child.
Strike a balance between supporting and overprotecting
One of the most challenging things as a parent is to see your child struggle with something. Even with small struggles like toppling building blocks or difficult math homework, we are ready to help them. How can we step back and let children safely struggle?
Struggling with a problem stretches your child's mind, creating new connections and helping them develop solutions. It also nourishes creativity and innovation in getting the job done, one way or another. For example, if your child wants to make new friends, they will need to step outside their existing friend circle. They'll need to make an effort to talk to a new person. If your child is shy, they may find something like this intimidating.
As much as you may want to call another child’s mother to ease the way for your child and facilitate a playdate, take a step back and reflect. Would doing so allow your child to remain closed off? Would this teach them to assume you will jump in and help them whenever needed? Can you do better to nudge them toward independently coping with difficult situations? Helping children work through problems eases the fears associated with change.
In a similar vein, comments when seeing a child fumbling with a task such as "let me do it" or "leave it, I’ll get it” can signal overprotection and overbearing, making children feel incapable of doing it themselves. Instead, try letting your child do it themselves first. Instead, tell your child they have to try and finish the task without help. Then, if they continue struggling, they can ask for help. Even when you help, say, "let's do it together," which signals your support while still embracing self-sufficiency. Being supportive shows your child you have their back, while being overprotective hinders new skill development.
The Self-Esteem & Confidence Kit PDF is a collection of worksheets and activities for children to help develop high self-esteem and confidence. Kids will learn how to overcome their negative self-talk and start believing in themselves and their abilities.
Help your child identify emotions and appropriate responses to emotions
Behind every behavior is an emotion. Recognizing these emotions, labeling them, and then working through them helps children develop skills to deal with similar situations in the future. Help children learn various emotions with an emotions chart — one popular version uses emojis. Ask your child to identify how a fictional character might be feeling at any given moment, or give voice to your feelings. Saying things like "I am sad because I had a disagreement with my friend" or "I am afraid of spiders" allows your child to connect emotions to behaviors.
Ensure your child knows the appropriate ways to respond to the emotions they feel. Ask them, "Remember when you were angry because you lost the game? How can we deal with a similar situation in the future?" Your child may not always know the appropriate response, so provide cues to lower frustration. You can say, "When I get angry, I take a deep breath, take a sip of water, and then count backward from 10 before I react. Would you like to try this next time you are feeling angry?"
Instead of scolding your child when they’re angry, guide them by helping them identify their feelings to build resiliency. Categorizing some emotions as "bad" and punishable tells a child those emotions are not healthy and therefore cannot be worked through properly. If a child is angry about something, use a time-in. Be with your child in that difficult moment and identify what you see. "Your face looks like it is hot and sweaty, let's get a cool cloth." As you help cool down the physical symptoms, talk about what emotions they might be feeling. For children who are non-verbal, have them point to the feeling they are identifying. Never push a child to talk; stay "in the moment" until they are in a stable place to talk.
Be sure to check out the Emotions Fan in the Growth Mindset Activity Kit PDF! With this fun activity, kids can learn to label and understand their emotions in a creative way.
Encourage children to solve their problems
Our children face many daily issues, from our little ones learning how to tie their shoelaces to our teens dealing with a break-up. Replace rescuing with coping skill education to help them learn to help themselves. Provide a coping skills box with a list of activities or items to help soothe strong emotions. Fill the box with a weighted blanket, puzzles, putty, and fidget toys. Hang reminders on their wall with breathing techniques. Being able to solve their problems not only helps build coping skills and resiliency, but it also increases self-confidence and self-esteem.
Parents can help children take control by giving them 10 minutes to struggle with a problem. After that time, collaborate with your children to help them evaluate potential answers. Ask them, "What are the different approaches you have already tried to solve this problem?" Doing so shows your child you expect them to try before coming to you. They will also feel accomplished when they feel capable of managing the situation independently.
At times, your child may need extra help, especially understanding the various approaches to a problem. Children can also feel stuck, and you may hear, "I can't do it" or "It's too difficult." In these situations, share strategies like making a pros and cons list for each problem, writing down each solution, and testing it. Add creativity by asking, "What would [insert favorite cartoon character here] do if they faced the same situation?" and try to think like that character with them.
Model the skills and behavior you want children to exhibit
Your child may not always listen to what you have to say, but they are always observing and learning from your actions. Observational learning refers to learning by observing others, retaining the information, and replicating later. We see this most often in toddlers. Think of how a child imitates funny faces you make at them.
Take advantage of your difficult moments to help children learn how to navigate big feelings. When traffic is making you late, and you want to rage, breathe. Tell your child what you are doing and why. "This traffic has me so mad; I'm going to take some deep breaths to help me calm down." When you don't get the promotion, talk about it. "I was hoping to work in that different position, but I can work towards the next opportunity. I'm going to feel sad for a while, though, and that's okay." In the words of Susan Stiffelman, psychotherapist and author, "Let your kids see you struggle, how you handle it, how you get through it, how you rest, or how you ask for help."
Our popular Circle of Control poster can help your children overcome disappointments and frustrations and focus on the problem-solving instead. It helps children understand putting their energy into things they can control will help them arrive at solutions more effectively.
Find moments to talk with your children about how you are feeling and how you will address it. For example, "I am unable to solve this problem. I think I will take a 10-minute break to clear my head, and then start fresh". Show children how to sequence the emotional regulation steps to ensure they embrace the emotion, label it, and move forward appropriately. Co-regulation models appropriate identification and response to emotions while helping to maintain balance for your mental wellness.
Help children identify their threshold and set their boundaries
There will be times when children need more than a guide, they need intervention. It can be confusing knowing when to step in and when to allow children to tread independently. Learn to read your child’s non-verbal cues.
If you sense your child becoming overly frustrated, identify physical symptoms you are seeing and offer solutions supporting their struggle. “I hear you sighing quite a bit. Why don’t you take a walk around the house and come back in a bit”. You could also set an alarm that what they know there’s a lifeline if they can’t figure things out.
There’s a fine line between struggling toward a solution and struggling leading to giving up. Ensure children are in a balanced emotional state before being asked to complete a difficult task independently. A child who struggles in math may need a pep talk before and some reminders or visual cues for working through problems. It’s essential to set up the environment to embrace a healthy struggle so children feel a sense of accompaniment even when they cannot find a solution independently.
Children with strong emotional regulation skills can identify coping skills to help them bring balance to their world. They use activities that foster calm and balance. Parents who co-regulate with their children promote independence in problem-solving and in working through difficult moments. An emotionally regulated home and classroom also promote safety and security, so children feel free to make mistakes and embrace new opportunities.
Nayanika Guha is a freelance writer and development professional. She has completed her undergraduate degree in psychology and a MicroMasters program in social work and is a former child social worker with experience in group home settings. She is passionate about advocating for children’s rights and gender based issues.