Is Your Child Resilient?
Parents can help their children learn to overcome hardship and solve problems.
Most parents and caregivers want to raise resilient children – children who are able to overcome hardships of varying magnitudes. Indeed, strengthening this “muscle” within a child leads to greater long-term mental health.
How someone deals with an issue depends on how his or her brain is wired. In essence, resiliency boils down to a person’s ability to solve problems. Not all kids have the same problems, and certainly, not all kids try to solve problems the same way.
Although it is often associated with overcoming serious trauma, resilience covers a wide range of issues. For instance, how a child deals with a parent taking a toy away shows how resilient the child is.
“How do you behave when someone cuts you off in traffic,” said Dr. Robert Hudson, pediatrician and professor of Pediatrics, University of Oklahoma School of Community Medicine. “If you immediately lose your cool, then you probably didn’t solve that problem very well.”
Guiding Your Child
Individuals can begin to strengthen their resilience at virtually any age, but parents can take a developmental approach to guide their children to becoming more resilient adults. Hudson says that parents should begin helping their child through the process when they’re as young as 4 years old. Specifically, it’s important to allow school-age kids to make mistakes.
“That’s the only way you learn and today’s parents unfortunately spend an enormous amount of time trying to keep their kids from screwing up,” he said. “That doesn’t teach them to solve problems and that’s why we have a crisis in the teens and twenty-something’s. They don’t know how to solve problems and now their parents aren’t around [to fix things for them].”
Dr. Hudson says consequences have become less frequent, too. According to him, one study showed that a parent regularly asks a child to do something by repeating the same few words five-to-seven times. The parent then changes the words another three-to-five times. Following that, the parent screams and threatens the child. However, even after becoming angry, two-thirds of the time, the parent ultimately takes no actions, there are no consequences to entice the child to change his or her behavior.
“You’re supposed to tell children what you expect them to do, give them a period of time to do it, and if they don’t, there’s a natural consequence,” Hudson said. “If you are warning them and threatening them, they’re not going to learn how to do it themselves.”
The problems a child faces might vary depending on age, but the process remains the same. In theory, the older a child is, the less work a parent should do toward building his or her resiliency.
“Their number one thing to accomplish in their teenage years is to become autonomous,” Hudson said. “If teens only listen to what you say and do what you say, then they are not being autonomous.”
Dr. Hudson argued that parents should serve primarily as the child’s “backbone of reality” during their adolescent years.
“It’s your job to remind them of the process,” he said. “To say ‘well, that didn’t work out. What are you going to do next time?’”
If a parent suspects that his or her child has a problem that needs to be addressed, then there are several indicators to be on the lookout for. Perhaps the most obvious one is if the child is having frequent meltdowns.
“If they insist on their way, then they live in a best-case-scenario world,” Hudson said. “They have only one answer to every problem, and when that answer doesn’t occur, they get angry.” Parents might suggest a cool down, and then trying a different way.
A refusal to try new things is another sign. For example, children who routinely eat the same three meals for dinner are typically less resilient than their peers. Additionally, there are kids who have poor communication skills with their siblings or peers. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with children wanting to keep to themselves, but they are, by definition, less resilient.
Family & Children’s Services Project Director Kimberly Parker offered several indicators, too, from acting-out or risk-taking behaviors to regression in previously learned behaviors such as toilet training or sleeping at night.
What Determines Resiliency?
How one’s base resiliency is determined is up for debate, with some attributing it to the environment that the child grows up in. Hudson, however, points to genetics as the main determinant.
“Children are not blank slates when they’re born – they’re born with a genetic set of predetermined temperaments,” he said. “Now, the environment can either make things worse or not.”
Hudson rejected the notion that simply trying to improve a child’s self-esteem is enough to strengthen their resiliency.
“You can love your child to death and support them, but if they don’t have fine motor skills, then I don’t want them being my brain surgeon,” he said. “We sometimes ignore some natural strengths and some natural weaknesses that parents should identify.”
Speaking more toward that, Parker emphasized listening to a child’s opinions and concerns, while also supporting and encouraging the child’s own ability to problem-solve.
Listening and Positive Parenting
“When a child comes to a parent with a concern – maybe they didn’t make the soccer team – instead of a parent trying to run in and fix that, they can kind of help their child process what happened,” Parker said. “Like asking, ‘what are some things we can do to start working for next year?’”
Through her work at Family & Children’s Services, Parker often provides kids with a calm-down kit – a collection of items children can use when they’re feeling worried or overwhelmed. This can include a stress ball, a notepad, or simply pictures of things that they enjoy.
Family & Children’s Services Clinical Supervisor Jessica Cothran highlighted the gradual process that building resiliency entails. She notes that, in some cases, at least, praising children for their efforts and building their sense of self-worth can lead to developmental milestones.
“It’s about taking the smallest little thing and honing in on it,” Cothran said. “Like, ‘Kenny gets into arguments every day, but today he wasn’t in the principal’s office during the first two hours of school!’ It’s about making a big deal over the little increments and then working toward larger increments of success.”
Jason Williams, a former Youth and Family Counselor at the Tulsa Boys’ Home who is now in private practice, describes resiliency as the ability to “suffer well” – a kind of “soulful suffering that produces humans instead of robots.”
Williams points out that developing solid coping skills is just as important for the parent as it is for the child.
“What kids learn is tolerance,” Williams said. “Once they see you dealing with it and knowing that life will not overwhelm, they recognize that life will not overwhelm them, either.”
As important as it is for parents to show how well they can tolerate certain hardships, it’s equally important that they allow their anxiety to have a space to breath.
“Kids are so intuitive that they will pick up on your anxiety during your attempts to comfort them,” Williams said. “It’s almost better to just allow them to see your anxiety and for them to know that that’s part of this deal. It’s not going to undo us. I’m not running from it – I’m willing to be anxious for a while.”
Many of the boys who Williams worked with were removed from the home; they’d experienced violence and loss. He encountered a great deal of rage, as well as what he called defensive disassociation – instances in which some of the boys would refuse to relate to others as human beings.
“I was in the hotbed of trauma and I wondered whether resiliency could even be cultivated or created,” he said. “It certainly can be exacerbated by a lot of the things that we think of as being helpful – ‘stay positive, get your act together.’ These are all things that compound the problem and only increase the shame.”
Having been screamed at and threatened by some of the boys, Williams describes his handful of breakthrough moments as the ones in which he didn’t run away from the situation.
“You don’t overreact, but instead respond with curiosity,” he said. “That kind of disarms them for a minute. Just that general sense of curiosity and openness can actually make space for something new to emerge.”
Provide a Safe Space for Failure
Williams also spoke to the idea of allowing children to fail in a safe space. In elementary school, for instance, the consequences of failing to do homework or science projects are relatively low. However, as low as the stakes may be, it’s paramount that children learn how to problem-solve at this stage without any “rescuing” from the parents.
“Doing your kid’s homework all the time is problematic,” he said. “But what you could do is say ‘well, I’m going to provide this space for you and we’re going to make sure that we’re here to at least answer questions. I’m not going to do it for you, but we are going to make sure that we’re setting up the structure.’”
Rescuing a child from these low-risk scenarios can unconsciously send the message that the child’s not capable. A parent’s attempts to keep their child from experiencing adversity may, in the short term, solve one problem, but the implied message is that the child could not have handled it.
As a father of two girls, Williams would often allow his daughters to experience a lot of the emotions that he knew were difficult.
“Without abandoning, if you can hold that safe container and you allow them to kind of figure it out, then it actually sends the message that ‘hey, you can do a lot more than you think you can do, and you’re a lot stronger than you think you are,’” Williams said. “‘There’s something in you that we all have that’s going to come online and help you out and you’ve got to trust that.’ But you can’t say that – you’ve got to let them experience it for themselves.”