Sometimes life asks us to handle so much challenge, so much change, so much loss, that it leaves us exhausted and ready to crack. (Sound familiar?)
But some lucky people are less stressed by stress. Some of us have more ability to maintain our positivity, to regain our equilibrium, to suffer major setbacks and still get up the next morning determined to try again. We call this Resilience.
Where does resilience come from? Certainly, some of it is genetic; hard-wired. And we can all re-train our brains to give us more resilience. But to help your child develop a resilient inner core, start with the parent-child relationship.
As Dr. Edward Hallowell says, "Resilience comes from knowing that you never have to be alone …. If you feel connected, you will always be able to deal with adversity. The skills we need to deal with adversity begin with a feeling of 'I can handle this' It is a feeling of 'No matter what happens, I can find a solution' ; a feeling of 'I have dealt with hard times and come out fine before ; a feeling of 'Even when I feel lost, I always have somewhere to turn.'"
There's a common misconception that children develop resilience by failing. Actually, children develop resilience by dealing successfully with failure.
When children have the support to get up and try again, they learn they can survive adversity and come out okay. When a child doesn't have that support, all he learns from failing is that he's the kind of person who fails.
So what kind of support can help your child turn set-backs into the confidence that no matter what happens, she can handle it?
1. The experience of disappointment and failure -- but ONLY when accompanied by your care and understanding.
The security of knowing that someone is watching out for her is what allows a child to explore, to risk bumps, disappointment and hurt feelings, and to come out the other side. So don't try to talk her out of her feelings when she suffers a big disappointment. Instead, empathize with her unhappiness and honor her grief. With your support, she'll feel those big emotions and move past them (instead of freezing them inside, which locks in that feeling of victimization.) She learns from experience that she can tolerate any emotion she feels and come out the other side, and that even when times are hard, the sun will come up the next day and give her another chance.
2. The experience of solving problems.
Every child faces problems every day. Hopefully, working through those problems will give your child the confidence to face the even tougher challenges in his future. So when your child encounters a challenge, he needs to know that you've got his back. But your job isn't to solve the problem. It's to support your child so that he feels empowered to tackle the challenge himself. So when your child gets into a jam, manage your own anxiety and resist jumping in to rescue. Instead, support him to brainstorm possible solutions and their outcomes. "Hmm... yes, you could do that. I wonder what might happen then?"
3. The experience of "Yet."
What happens when your child gets frustrated at failure, or that they aren't good at something? You empower them with the word "YET."
- "You're just not as good at that as you want to be YET."
- "You don't know how to do that YET."
- "You've learned lots of hard things so far in your life, and your brain is always excited to learn more. It just hasn't learned that yet."
- "You haven't figured out how to succeed at that YET, but you will if you keep trying."
4. The experience of accepting emotions and learning to manage their expression.
When kids feel overwhelmed by their emotions, they crumble. By contrast, kids who have better emotional regulation can tolerate the disappointment of losing, or the frustration of practicing when something's hard. They're more likely to apply themselves, and to overcome setbacks. How can you help your child develop emotional regulation? Start by demonstrating emotional regulation yourself. Talk about emotions and how to handle them constructively. Accept and allow all emotions, even when you need to limit behavior.
5. The experience of mastery.
Developing grit -- that willingness to be uncomfortable and work through obstacles as we pursue something about which we're passionate -- depends on the child working hard to accomplish her own goals, whether that's mastering a jump shot, short story, recipe or piano sonata. Notice that the motivation comes from within, not to please us, so it has to be the child's own interest. Make sure that your child gets plenty of time to initiate and pursue his own passions, which isn't always easy in this age of homework and screen time.
Knowing that someone cares, and is there to help him pick up the pieces, is the foundation of resilience. You can't protect your child from the rain that falls in every life. What you can do is make sure that that he knows how to find an umbrella, and has the confidence to make it through the storm. To teach him that, you don't withhold the umbrella and make him stand out in the rain. You provide backup, coaching him repeatedly, so he learns how to find or build an umbrella -- and has the emotional strength to do that, even when the rain pours down.
Now's the time to start practicing. Some day, your child will look back and remember that he's dealt with hard times before, and he came out fine. It's your unwavering love that will get him there.
Photo Credit: Thank you to Crushed Red Pepper.