Resilience is the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds and “bounce back” with confidence and strength. Despite our best efforts, we can’t protect children from all challenges or adversity, but fortunately, we can provide them with the tools they need to successfully navigate these difficulties. Being resilient doesn’t mean that a person won’t experience distress or emotional pain when bad things happen – however, it can help kids solve problems and acquire skills for coping.
And how do we build up children’s resilience? By letting them struggle.
That may sound harsh, but stay with me. When we swoop in and rescue children every time they encounter difficulty, we send them the message that we don’t think they can handle it on their own. Soon, they start to believe this message themselves, and the next time they have a problem, they’ll be less likely to try to come up with a solution on their own.
This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon children as they figure out problems by themselves – in fact, the opposite is true. While they struggle, we can stand close by with suggestions and encouragement. We can remind them of times they were challenged in the past, and managed to succeed. Feeling your support and pride will give them the security and confidence boost they need to keep trying.
“Without struggle, there can be no progress.” – Frederick Douglass
So, what does this look like? How do we let them struggle?
Allow your children to do age-appropriate tasks themselves. The next time your four-year-old is struggling to get the lid off a container, stop yourself from intervening and doing it for her. Accomplishing new things helps children build self-esteem. While they struggle at the task, you can help by providing verbal support: “Wow, that looks hard! I can tell you’re giving it your best shot.”
This is also a good chance to increase your kids’ comfort with asking for help if they truly can’t (or shouldn’t) do something on their own.
Help your children think for themselves. Rather than automatically answering a child’s question or finding a solution for their dilemma, help her figure out the possible answers. You can say things such as, “Hmm…what do YOU think about that?” or “How can we break this problem down into smaller pieces?” Then, you can sit back and watch the connections being made in their brains as they process the problem. When they reach an appropriate solution, provide feedback: “That was a tricky situation, but you solved it all on your own.”
Teach your children to own up to their mistakes. If your child breaks a friend’s toy, develop his empathy by helping him understand how the friend must have felt about this. Next, guide him in figuring out how to repair this relationship – whether that means helping to fix the toy, or saving up (his own!) money to buy a new one. Let your child learn the steps necessary to making genuine amends, as opposed to giving a disgruntled and meaningless, “Sorry.”
Model resiliency. As you know, your children watch everything you do! They very often repeat what they see and hear from the grown-ups around them. Although it isn’t always easy, try to model calm and patience when solving a problem of your own – let your children see your disappointment and frustration, followed by your process for working through it. For example: “I’m annoyed that my friend hasn’t returned my phone call. It hurts my feelings when people don’t respond in the way I want them to, but I know I should be more patient. I’m sure my friend is just busy, and will answer when she can.”
As much as we may want to, we cannot eliminate all risk and challenge from children’s lives. What we can do is teach them how to tolerate frustration and problem-solve.