It seems like there is a whole industry of specialists promoting training programs, self help books and all sorts of products to improve the resilience of children. But the truth is there is no one simple approach to helping a child build resilience. However, over the last 40 years or so, there have been a number of really interesting pieces of research that give us some clues to help kids learn how to bounce back
Make sure your home is a reading home
It might surprise you to know that one of the biggest factors that affects resilience is verbal skills. Children who grow up in households where they are read to, and they see adults reading are likely to develop a higher level of verbal skills than children who don’t. These verbal skills come in handy not only in nearly all areas of study, but for life in general.
Let your children find something they are good at
It doesn’t really matter whether they are good at ballet or love to crochet, children who have something about themselves that they are proud of always do better than kids who don’t. Healthy self-esteem doesn’t come from being told that you did well when you didn’t, or from being given a “developing” grade on a report card instead of a “D”. Healthy self-esteem comes from finding things you are good and enjoying the process of getting better, while taking pride in the genuine compliments people will pay about your success.
Promote their effort not their talent
There is compelling research that the language parents use in praising their children makes a difference in how likely they are to recover from setbacks. Children who are told things like “you are clever” d much worse that children who are told “you did well because you tried hard”. Being “clever” is a fixed characteristics, and there isn’t much that a kid can do about it. Working hard is something entirely within the control of the child. The same is true for words like: strong, pretty, fast, or good at math. Kids whose whole identify is tied in a fixed trait find failing such a huge shock that they are less likely to try again. Kids who have their identity tied into trying hard tend to just work harder when things get tough. Make sure you praise them for the work they put in, not just because of their natural skills.
Be honest with them when they fail at things
When a child brings home a D on their report card or doesn’t get picked for the music group or suffers anyone of a hundred disappointments in life, don’t lie to them about why. Don’t tell them the coach was just biased, or the teacher is unfair. Be kind, but help them to figure out why. If they are really really bad at football, maybe they shouldn’t be playing it, and they would be better off finding a pastime they are good at. But if they could be good at football if they tried harder maybe you help them figure out how to lift their game through practice and hard work. This will teach them that its ok to try at things, but most importantly, its ok to fail as long as you dust yourself off and try again.
Model good social skills
Kids with good social skills have better long-term outcomes than kids who don’t. Kids learn social skills by watching you. If you get angry to solve your problems so will they. If you sulk and refuse to talk to your wife when you have a fight then they will be learning not to address issues.
It is ok for kids to see parents disagree. But its even better for them to see you solve your problems like adults. It is also good for them to see you taking turns, sharing, helping people out for no personal gain, and being polite to people in the service industry. These social scripts will serve your child well as they are navigating their way through friendships, dating and even the job market.
Help them figure out their emotions
Emotional intelligence is a strong predictor of success in fields as diverse as science and sport. Children who understand how they feel and why, and can understand how other people think and feel and why do much better overall than children who don’t.
Kids are not born with the ability to control their emotions so they need you to help them to learn how. When a baby cries for no reason, they are soothed by mum or dad by rocking, stroking, and talking softly. As they get bigger, they need you to do this less as they learn to do it for themselves. But even for older kids, emotions can be big and scary. Part of your job as a parent is to help them make sense of their emotions. Give them a language of emotions and help them make good choices even when they are emotional.
Parenting to build resilience isn’t a sure-fire path to your kids’ success. It is about tipping the odds in their favour a bit. Life will throw them challenges, our job as parents is to give them the best chance to come out the other side of their challenges stronger for the experience.
As a child psychologist I am regularly asked by parents “Can you help my son/daughter become more resilient?” I hope this helps. Dr Aaron DJ Frost. Clinical Psychologist Brisbane at Benchmark Psychology