Resilience is a very “in” word, but the question is, how to teach resilience? As a word, it’s quoted frequently, largely in response to the link made by experts and parents alike about how those who won’t let their children experience failure end up impacting their child’s ability to deal with the bumps of life later on. Building resilience is key to your child’s eventual happiness and dictates their future ability to withstand stress as an adult. That’s why it’s so important to get it right.
Teaching resilience starts early.
I agree, but today I want to go much further because, you see, I perceive a missing link. Everyone talks about resilience as something you learn as you get older, say, at 8 or 9 years old. Few, if any, talk about the importance of developing resilience earlier than that, which I see as critical to a child’s capacity to even have a hope of dealing with adversity later on. That’s where I see a societal disconnect. Early on, everyone wants to protect little people, especially children, who many people think are too small to be subjected to anything that might somehow stress them out.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting we throw the book at our three-year-olds and let them see if they can make it. Not at all. What I am suggesting, though, is that there is a disconnect between when people think resilience starts developing and when it actually does, or more importantly, when it should. My premise is that children, even the very youngest ones, should learn to deal with stressful experiences. After all, resilience is like a muscle: the more it’s used, the stronger it’ll get.
How your child reacts to stressful events depends on you.
Instead of shielding and avoiding stressful events, there is a third way, and much of how your children grow up and learn to deal with stressful events comes from you. As part of my job, I answer letters from people all over the place. One of the common questions I get asked is how to help a child deal with hurt feelings, and this forms part of how to teach resilience, as learning to cope with hurt feelings is an important part of developing it. Below is a typical letter.
I am hoping for some useful advice. My 2.5-year-old son Ben is a very sweet and sensitive kid. He tends to be more of a follower than a leader at this stage. The other day, while at a friend’s house, Ben and two other boys (ages 3 and 4) were playing in the yard. They were playing quite well when all of a sudden the 3-year-old yelled at my son, “I don’t want to play with you!” and said he only wanted to play with the other boy. Ben looked crushed (and it took every ounce of strength for me to hold back my own tears!). Ben asked the boy why he didn’t want to play with him. I was watching this all take place and felt extremely hurt and very confused. I told the boys that it’s too bad they didn’t want to play with Ben because he is so much fun to play with, and I tried not to make a big deal out of it. I tried to distract Ben by asking him if he wanted to play ball with me instead. It broke my heart to see Ben get left out (I remember feeling like that as a child, and it hurts!). How should I handle situations like this and teach my son how to handle himself and his hurt feelings?
I quite understand how difficult it is for a mom to stand by and see her son hurt. I remember when my eldest son was two and wanted to play in the park with the “big boys,” who, of course, weren’t interested. Having said that, children learn to cope based on how we deal with disappointment. If you take disappointment in stride, then your child will too.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if, during your son’s normal and brief moment of asking, “Why don’t they want to play?” your son looked over at you to see your reaction. What he saw will have largely determined his response, so you were quite right to suggest it was no big deal and simply move on.
You see, your child learns to deal with problems by watching how you deal with them. If you look calm and give off a vibe that you can handle the problem, your child will see that the momentary difficulty you’ve encountered has not caused you any significant distress and that you can cope with the ups and downs of life. You are, in effect, modelling resilience.
In terms of Ben, if there is a natural moment that arises where he wants to talk about the experience, by all means listen and encourage him to talk, but make sure you do it in an upbeat way that focuses less on the problem and more on what else he could do in terms of either playing something different or perhaps finding other friends he could play with later.
You can’t, however hard you try, shield your child from these experiences, nor should you. Instead, it’s important to give him the skills to cope and help him become a resilient human being. So how do you do that? Well, much of what we go through in life is about perception. How we perceive events and what we expect from them If we expect every word said in haste to create hurt feelings, then that is what we will get.
We can’t know what made the 3-year-old not want to play, nor can we control him or his reaction. While we can’t know what precipitated the incident, the way you deal with it is of paramount importance. The issue may have been about rejection, or it may have been because the child was tired and grumpy—we all have bad days. Perhaps he wanted to play with the older boy for a bit because the older boy was doing something more interesting to him.
We could hope for a kinder reaction, but children are visceral and tend to say what they think. The way the 3-year-old determined the play date was over was completely normal for that age, yet it doesn’t have to be about rejecting Ben. Looking at the event as though it is purely about rejection will skewer Ben’s perception of the incident and perhaps even give him hurt feelings when he could have simply dismissed it.
Later on in Ben’s life, there will be moments of true rejection, and it’s important that you help Ben deal with these. Gradually, he will need less and less of your support (although it’s always nice to have it) to manage the setbacks that are, in effect, a normal part of life.
There will also be moments when, as a child, the hurt is momentary and best ignored. I think the above was one of them.
How to teach resilience: What would be the best way to react?
All parents are going to react on a scale of responsiveness. On the low end, Mom could have given him a friendly, upbeat pat on the head, refrained from examining the situation in depth at all, and suggested something else to do that didn’t include her or brought him into her activity in a natural way. “Oh, now you can help me sort the socks.” As two-year-olds are easily distracted, this may have worked well.
Ben’s mother’s response was in the middle. She responded and used distraction effectively, but the distraction was playing with her. Thus, Ben now became the focus of her activity, and she became a substitute for Ben, losing interaction with other children. If used occasionally, this wouldn’t be a problem, but if that response was overused, Ben would become used to the idea that if a problem occurred, mom would fix it by substituting herself physically in times of stress. In this way, she would undermine his natural development of resilience.
Secondly, by making Ben the focus of her activity and effectively dropping what she is doing, she loses the opportunity to help her son work through his feelings by being engaged in natural activity alongside her. She also gave the incident unnecessary magnification by stopping her activity and putting her focus on her son.
How to teach resilience: Don’t be a hothouse mom. You’re growing a child, not a tomato.
A hothouse mother would likely have responded at the top of the scale of responsiveness. She may have spent a lot of time discussing the perceived hurt, which in turn would have magnified the hurt. Secondly, it’s likely a hothouse mom would have gone rushing outside to prevent those nasty boys from being mean, but by doing so, she would have attached a negative reason to the end of the play that may never have even been there. In that way, Ben would learn to see experiences from a negative standpoint, whether or not they had been intended that way. Ben would have also learned that the moment any potentially harmful experience arose, he should rush over to Mom to have it resolved for him.
So what does our story of Ben reinforce? Well, it shows you how to teach resilience and points out that while resilience originates in the secure foundation offered to a baby, it is magnified by dealing with stressful experiences effectively. That’s why it’s so important for parents to allow those experiences to happen and to help small children come to terms with negative experiences instead of trying to wipe them away altogether.
I know that it’s sometimes heartbreaking to stand back as a parent, but trying to “fix” things can often make things much worse and can often deprive the child of their ability to cope with adversity in later life. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather they had a short jolt when they were little with support than feel lost later on.
For the definitive guide to what resilience really is and when and how you should start teaching it, read a parent’s guide to building resilience.
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