Some parents think that raising their children to be resilient means trying to instill confidence in their children.
And they think that the way to do THAT is to say, “Good job. Buddy!” after everything their child does.
Other parents, often Dads (sorry, Dads) think that raising resilient children means telling your children to “shake it off” when they fall down or miss a goal in a soccer game.
They often believe that it is better if their children don’t cry or focus on their disappointments and hurts.
But let’s look at what a researcher in the field has to say.
Dr. Lucy Hones studied resilience at the University of Pennsylvania and then at The University of Christ Church in New Zealand.
What she found is that resilient people are different from others in three main ways.
And, according to me, we can help our children to become more resilient by adopting some of the strategies that are used by resilient people.
First, Dr. Hones says, resilient people know that suffering is part of life — which helps them to accept negative events when they happen without feeling victimized. When it comes to children, it is important for parents neither to protect them from every scrape or disappointment nor discourage their children from feeling their feelings about getting hurt or disappointed.
What parents can do instead, is to help children to understand that difficult things happen in life, they won’t always succeed, and they will sometimes fall down and get hurt. And when they are disappointed or hurt, it is painful.
And parents can also help children to know that they can withstand disappointment and move on afterwards.
Recently, I talked to a psychologist who works at the counseling center of a local college. He said that he sees college freshmen ALL the time who have NEVER received less than an A and don’t know how to handle it when they receive a B or a C at college. And he said that he sees loads of freshmen who do not seem to know how to tolerate and manage disappointment or failure on any level. For example, he said when they are rejected from the fraternity or sorority of their choice, or when they suffer a romantic disappointment, they break down, they cry and they feel like they just can’t handle it.
These college kids have clearly been protected from failure their entire lives. And it has not helped them.
Second, Dr. Hones says, resilient people acknowledge what they cannot control and focus on what they can. So again, when it comes to children, we can help them to understand that there are certain things they must do in life whether they like it or not, and rather than trying to rescue them from these things or do these things for them, we can help them to understand that some things are hard and no fun but they need to try their best to get through them.
For example, I had a parent who came to me because her son never finished his projects for school on time. When I asked her how she had handled this in the past, she said that she hated doing this, but she felt that she had to help him because he was so anxious about getting the projects done by the due date that he would get himself all upset and stay up late into the night being unproductive. As a result, she often stayed up late with him on the night before it was due to get it done.
This mother, like so many parents, was not helping her son to do the thing he did not like to do, she was not helping him to accept that if he wanted to finish something on time he had to start before the last day. Instead, she was rescuing him. And I don’t think that this strategy was helping the boy toward reliance. I suggested that she hire a nice high school student to start the next project with the boy a couple of weeks ahead of time and come by a few times a week to work on the project with him. It is often hard for parents to get a child to do something differently, but often an older teen or a tutor CAN. This boy accepted this strategy and gradually learned how to start doing his projects ahead of time.
Third, Dr. Hones found that resilient people acknowledge the negative but focus on the positive.
She gave the example of someone coming out of their house and seeing a tiger on a hillside several thousand yards away on one side and a nice surprise on the front walkway on the other side. She said that it is of course important for that person to note that the tiger is there and to take adequate precautions to protect themself from it and THEN to go and get the nice surprise.
If, instead, she said, the person focuses on the fact that there is a tiger in the vicinity and as a result, stays anxious all day and night, they will never get to see what the surprise is and enjoy it.
So, how can we help children to focus on the positive?
The worst way is to tell them to do this. This will be meaningless to them.
The best way is through modeling. If we are anxious all the time, focusing on all the bad news and terrible events in the world, our children will undoubtedly learn from us that the world is a dangerous place, and they too will feel anxious.
Moreover, if we watch the news 24/7 and check our phones constantly, we will not be available to our children to comfort them and to provide them with an island of security and reassurance — which all children need.
If, on the other hand, we can acknowledge the terrible events going on in the world and in our lives, learn what we have to do to protect ourselves and take care of ourselves, limit our news and disaster “diet”, and then celebrate the good in our lives, our children will learn that there is a balance. Life has difficulties we must be knowledgeable about and deal with and it also has relaxed times and joyous events we can celebrate.
We do not have to deny the negative but nor should we focus on it full time — and we must help our children to do the same.
So, try these strategies with your children and see if they help them toward greater resilience.
And for more from Dr. Hones on resilience, see her TED talk: