Promoting Resiliency in Children
As a young parent, I thought that the key to raising successful, well-grounded, happy children was a trauma-free childhood. Surely with hard work, luck and prayer my husband Bill and I could spare our kids pain and difficulty and send them on their way to adulthood emotionally healthy and ready to tackle the world.
But life refuses to be controlled, and our children, as is true with every family, were faced with difficulties and hardships.
To Robert Brooks, PhD, author and psychologist on the faculty at Harvard Medical School, the key to emotional health in the adult years lies not in trying to ensure children never face difficulty, but in teaching them how to be resilient, to bounce back, when the inevitable difficulties of life come crashing in.
According to Brooks, children with a resilient mindset demonstrate such characteristics as:
• high self-worth
• ability to set realistic goals and expectations
• good interpersonal skills with peers and adults
• ability to problem solve and make decisions
• ability to view hardships, mistakes and obstacles as challenges to confront
• ability to recognize both their weaknesses and strengths
While some individuals seem to be born with natural resiliency, Brooks believes resiliency can be taught.
“If parents understand the components of a resilient mindset, then all of their interactions with their children can be guided by strengthening this mindset,” Brooks said.
Brooks considers self-discipline or self-control to be a major aspect of resiliency.
“To nurture the development of self-discipline in their children, parents have a key ingredient to contribute: discipline,” Brooks said. “One of the most important roles that parents play is that of disciplinarian.”
Discipline: A Teaching Process
“Parents need to recognize discipline as a form of education,” Brooks explained. “Children should not associate it with intimidation, humiliation, or embarrassment.”
According to Brooks, appropriate discipline will not include yelling or spanking, behaviors Brooks says “don’t help, but actually hurt. When parents resort to screaming or hitting, they are displaying the very behaviors they wish to stop in their children and are, therefore, serving as models of poor self-discipline.”
When thinking of appropriate discipline, Brooks encourages parents to first consider prevention. “We often put kids in situations they aren’t ready to handle developmentally, and then punish them,” Brooks said. “Developmental readiness is very important.”
For instance, while children need to learn not to throw food on the floor, punishing a 10-month-old for that behavior would not be developmentally appropriate.
Choices and Consequences
Brooks then encourages parents to discuss choices and consequences with children, as they are able to understand them.
“This helps children realize they have more control over situations then they might think,” Brooks said.
Instead of spanking a child for screaming for treats in the grocery store, a parent might say, “If you continue screaming we will leave the store and go home. Do you want to stay and shop with Daddy or do you want to go home?”
Brooks also suggests that parents include children in problem solving. For instance, if your child is frequently forgetting his lunch, instead of nagging him, or taking his lunch to him and then scolding him, parents should ask the child for ideas on how he can remember to take his lunch.
“If children come up with ideas for remembering to do things…they are likely to be cooperative, since the ideas came from them,” Brooks said. “This method increases their feeling of ownership, improves their problem-solving skills, and will help them become more resilient and cooperative.”
As a way to promote positive behavior, Brooks encourages parents to involve children in what he calls contributory activities. “When children are asked to help out, it boosts their self-esteem, dignity and motivation,” Brooks said. “Helpful behaviors promote self-dignity, responsibility and compassion and help defuse anger.”
For instance, he encourages parents to tell children that their help is needed when it comes to doing chores.
“Requests that are cast in terms of helping out tend to nurture compassion, responsibility and resilience, and thus minimize negative behaviors that provoke parental frustration and anger.”
Making the World a Better Place
Finally, in fostering both good behavior and resiliency, Brooks said, “Become a charitable family. Involve kids in charitable activities such as a walk for cancer, or serving food at a homeless shelter. This teaches kids that they can have some control over what happens and that the earth is a better place because they are in it.”
While we can’t protect our children from the difficulties of life, we can do much to enhance their ability to bounce back. With a resilient mindset children can face life with optimism, knowing they have the tools not only to survive life’s difficulties, but to grow stronger from them.