Parents sometimes fall into the trap of choreographing their child’s success. They steer children away from potential bumps along the road rather than teach them to how spot and avoid these hazards, or how to keep going when they hit a patch of rough terrain.
While you might want to shield your child away from disappointment, they will eventually experience failure in their teen and adult years. Teaching resilience to children and applauding their grit is a necessary part of the successful transition from child to adult.
What Is Resilience?
Resilience is our ability to bounce back when things go wrong. Resilience isn’t sweeping the negative away; it’s seeing the negative and reframing it to support a continued path towards the desired outcome.
Research conducted by JoAnn Deak, author of Your Fantastic Elastic Brain, found that children who continue to press forward when something is difficult actually grow more dendrites—the branched, tree-like projections of a neuron that propagate the electrochemical stimulation from other neural cells to the cell body. When these tree-like projections are thick with many branches they’re able to connect more easily with other dendrites. This type of brain development makes it easier to solve problems and work through complex thoughts.
Striking the Right Balance
Children need competence, confidence, and connectedness to develop resilience.
Children are more likely to stick with a difficult task—even if they’re not successful on the first attempt—if they have the information required to solve a problem, the self-confidence to try, and a sense of connection with their teacher, peers, and family.
As parents, we need to recognize when they’re developmentally ready to try things on their own and where they still need guidance. Giving children the power to do as many tasks and activities for themselves can help boost confident and competence. Examples might include encouraging them to pour their own drink, start their own shower, or walk to school on their own.
Resilience Is Not a Character Trait
Positive emotion enables resilience. This means that by developing an optimistic attitude you become more resilient. Let’s look at two different reactions to a child falling and skinning their knee.
Mom “A” screams in alarm and then says “Oh no, your knee is bleeding. My poor baby, we better go wash that right away so it doesn’t get infected.” The child begins to cry loudly and she carries him into the house.
Mom “B” waits to see the child’s reaction. When he looks to her unsure of what to do she says “Were you trying to fly again? That was pretty awesome before you fell.” She doesn’t show any alarm so her child follows her lead.
Mom A has escalated a situation and planted fear that the cut will get worse. Mom B has pointed out that her child had the right idea, just the execution was off.
What Can I Do to Encourage Resilience in My Children?
Follow these seven steps to help your children become resilient:
- Model it. Children need to see the adults in their lives admit to making mistakes, apologize for them, and then make better choices the next time around. They also benefit from seeing you try new things. So learn to kayak, make an iMovie, or take an online course. Or try to learn something new with your child.
- Applaud the effort. The next time your child does well on an assignment, do not say, “You’re so smart.” Instead say, “You had a great plan for that assignment and it paid off.” If our children only think they’re successful when they’re “smart” they might feel ill-equipped to handle the curriculum as it becomes more difficult. If you praise them for planning and working hard, even if the outcome isn’t successful, they will feel a sense of achievement.
- Remind them of difficult goals they’ve achieved. Children fall many times when they learn to walk, and most don’t just get on a bicycle and start riding. Point out their successes.
- Teach them about grit. It doesn’t take talent to reach your full potential; it takes grit and the ability to persevere through challenges. Practicing grit and perseverance will lead to greater success.
- Let them fail. Many parents tie their own self-esteem to their child’s success. Practice detachment. Allow them to make mistakes and then encourage them to try again.
- Gratitude. Remind your children to be thankful when things work out. More importantly, have them focus on the joy of the journey, not the destination. This keeps happiness in the present moment rather than holding it as a future goal.
- Let it go. The best advice might come from Disney’s movie Frozen—and it makes a wonderful kid-friendly mantra. When they get upset have them say, “I let it go. Everything is okay.” Then dance it out playfully to the hit song “Let It Go.”