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. Everybody talks about resilience as something that you learn when you’re older, let’s say 8 or 9 and above. 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, 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 smallest 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 from 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 letter that’s typical.
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 friends’ house, Ben and 2 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 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 ‘why don’t they want to play’ that 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 looking at 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 resiliency.
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 to 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 be because the child was tired and grumpy…we all have off 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) 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.
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 bought him in to 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, used distraction effectively but the distraction was playtime 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 over used, Ben would become used to the idea that if a problem occurred, mom would fix it by being a 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 gives the incident unnecessary magnification because she stops her activity and puts her focus on her son.
Don’t be a hothouse mom. You’re growing a child, not a tomato
A hothouse mother would likely have responded on 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 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 also have learned that the moment any even potential hurtful experience showed up, he should rush over to mom to solve it 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 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 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.
This site is all about to help you as parents, create a strong foundation for your child. If you’re struggling with challenging behaviour or would just like support, find out how Annie can help you give your child the very best start in life.