I’ve decided to write this article, a parent’s guide to building resilience in children, because I believe the way we teach resilience now, focused primarily on older age groups, will have long-term impacts on the health of our children. I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read about the importance of developing resilience, but most of them are coming at it from the angle of teaching resilience to older children, teens, or grownups, as if the job can be safely left until the child is older. That’s a shame, because building resilience needs to be allowed to develop in small children, and frankly, the younger the better.
So why write a parent’s guide to building resilience?
As you know, resilience is mentioned all over the web, and for good reason. It’s a critical coping mechanism, but if we leave it until they are older, we deny children a critical part of their development, one that will have a major impact on them as they grow. The ground is muddied as to what does and does not create real resilience, and in Canada and around the world, parents are often unknowingly destroying their child’s ability to develop resilience, simply because most people have no idea of how inner resilience really develops.
First, how does resilience develop?
Is it learned? Is it something you can teach? Can you sit with your children, pointing to a book, and explain “resilience” as if it were like learning to use the potty or teaching your child how to share with friends? Does it come from trying to learn a skill over and over again until they can do it in their sleep?
No, it doesn’t come from any of those. Resilience is not a skill in the traditional sense. It’s an integral part of being. It results from how you are brought up, and the more you are exposed to situations that produce it, the more you will develop. Yes, you can improve your inner resilience, but it comes from experience, and only experience can teach it.
A parents guide to building resilience: Take away the bubble.
Isn’t it ironic then, that just at the time when we need our children to develop resilience the most, all the experiences that produce it are coming under assault?
So what are those assaults, and how are they impacting our developing children in a way that might ultimately affect our very ability to survive as a species? Well, the assaults come under names that we might not even recognize. Try “self-esteem” and “safety” and all the other words out there that are designed to make us feel good without doing anything remotely outside of our comfort zone.
Inner resilience is necessary for a decent, happy, fulfilled life.
You see, resilience comes out of struggle. That’s it; there’s no other way to get it. Taking the wrong bus and ending up at the wrong stop will build your resilience, but only if you aren’t able to place a rescue call for someone to pick you up. Failing math and having to try harder—that’s a good one. Having to go to another soccer game and try again because you messed up the last time and everyone is mad at you. Realizing that a course or activity you thought you’d enjoy is just terrible but sticking with it anyway, even though you’re sometimes miserable.
All the things that we generally think of as negative experiences to be shied away from are actually integral to being able to actively navigate the world as an adult and deal with the bumps in life. Sadly, we’re parenting children in a way that ensures children will have a harder and harder time navigating that future. All the experiences that create resilience are being systematically wiped away.
Look at what’s on offer.
And it starts so young. Take the wonderful toys on display at Christmas and look at how they offer us a stunning example. There’s the Fisher-Price “Smart Cycle.” Get all the benefits of riding a bike without the risk! No wind in your hair. No thrill in taking the corner too fast. No wobble when you move the handlebars too severely. There’s no need for all those worries when your bike is firmly hooked up to the TV. The Fisher-Price “Fun 2 Learn Smart Fit Park” is the same. Who knew you didn’t have to go outside and get a tad bit frosty to have some fun this winter?
Safe, secure, and coddled might sound good, but it denies children the very coping mechanisms that will make a difference to them as adults.
Babies are coddled and carried about long after they actively outgrow their bounds and want to explore. Moms and dads come running the moment their children squawk because they’ve been brainwashed to believe that meeting their children’s needs means never even allowing the minimum of discomfort to develop.
A parents guide to building resilience: What do the brain experts say?
Yet it’s that momentary discomfort and struggle that leads to real resilience and, ironically, even pleasure. In “Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment*,” Dr. Gregory Berns explains that satisfaction is more about the struggle than the achievement itself. In other words, it’s more about the journey than the arrival. The human brain needs new experiences that are challenging.
How many times have you heard that children should not be allowed to talk to strangers, even though the librarian is a stranger, as is the bus driver? How many children are not allowed to play at the playground without mom or dad in tow, following along behind? How many young children are not allowed to navigate the yard alone? Even older children are frequently denied access to city buses or the ability to walk to soccer practice.
Children need to live life to the full, not stand at its edges.
For far too many children these days, life is a series of dull experiences. Experiences that have literally had the life and inherent risk sucked right out of them.
So, for all of the children whose real experiences have been reduced to an empty shell, I implore parents to understand their children’s true needs and recognize the true value of a struggle. To find success through the parents guide to building resilience, this means try to resist stepping in to sweep away all your children’s problems, as you’re simply not doing them any favours in the long run.
Try to avoid giving major attention to minor setbacks.
Children, especially little ones, will look to you to see how you deal with things that affect them. Show fear of the world, and they will too. Showing undue upset at a minor bonk on their head or the fact that their friend has suddenly ditched them to play with someone else is to give them the idea that such setbacks are overwhelming and deserve great attention, dissection, and angst. By all means, discuss what happened, but do so in a way that allows them to develop resilience in the face of a negative event, and that’s by not focusing on it or giving it undue attention. To see an example of this in practice, see how I explain to one mom how to deal with her son’s upset over the loss of a friend. here.
Talk while focused on another activity.
The best way to discuss an event without giving it undue attention is to open the natural doors of communication and talk about it while focused on something else. Try sorting the laundry basket together or sweeping the floor. Talking to your children while engaged in another task has been the way parents have offered support to their children for millennia.
Ask yourself why it’s so much easier for people to talk to teenagers in the car. It’s because you’re focused on the act of driving, and that’s far less intimidating to anyone who wants to open up about something bothering them. To chat while doing something with your child is to create an environment that transcends minor difficulties and offers support in a natural way that helps children learn to bounce back from disappointments.
Give your child the keys to knowing how to find their way.
As my guide for writing a parent’s guide to building resilience, my father used to have a saying. At some point, all of us will go into the “jungle,” a period of difficulty that often defines life. Unfortunately, some of us get lost and never make it out. Some will come out on their hands and knees, and some will come out with the monkeys carrying the coconuts. Whatever you do and however much you protect your child, they will, at some point, enter that jungle. Let’s understand just how important it is to give them the skills to at least come out, coconuts notwithstanding.
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