Raising Resilient Kids

A child stands on another child's shoulders and retrieves a plane from a tree.
Sara Palacios

"Hey, Izzy, do you want to race?"

My daughters were playing in a soccer field one afternoon when Mikayla, 8, issued the challenge to her 6-year-old sister.

"Sure," Isabelle replied. "To that tree?" She pointed toward the other side of the field.

"OK!"  Mikayla said, "Readysetgo!"

She took off at a sprint, securing a several-step head start before her sister recognized what was happening. Isabelle started after her, running pretty well but devoting much of her energy to screaming, "You cheated! You cheated!"

Then there was Lexi, who at 3 years old was usually not a recognized participant in these contests. But neither that technicality nor her sisters' insurmountable lead would deter her. "Ready, set, go!" she echoed, running as fast as her shorter, chubbier legs could take her. She tripped and fell once, scrambling back to her feet to keep going.

As the parent on duty, I felt I should tell the girls to try to play fair and not completely freak out when life doesn't seem that way. But I allowed myself a moment of warm pride toward little Lexi and her resilience that often surfaces whenever she is outsized, outrun or outwitted by her older sisters. The picture of Lexi motoring determinedly across that field remains stamped in my mind as an icon for a trait I want all my kids to have as they negotiate life in a world that is often hostile and unfair.

I may not be the fastest. I may have gotten a poor start, and I may fall down. But I'm going to get back up and keep running. 

The ability to bounce back

Is resilience something we can teach our kids, just as we'd teach them about generosity or taking turns or being respectful to others? Not exactly. Everyone is born with a measure of resiliency, and it can be nurtured or hindered by life situations. Some kids naturally seem more resilient, while others seem to develop the trait over time and through trials. In some ways, resilience just means "experience doing tough stuff, and knowing how to make it not so tough the next time."

Kelly Flanagan, a psychology professor at Wheaton College, says that resilience necessarily includes two factors: "risk or adversity, and positive adaptation or competence." Most parents probably want to raise children who can positively adapt and demonstrate competence. We're somewhat less comfortable with the idea of exposing our kids to the risky, adverse situations that build these traits. Isn't our job as parents to protect our kids from these things?

Certainly, we should steer our kids away from potentially dangerous situations. But childhood is an excellent training ground for our kids' future, offering small, appropriate doses of challenge every day to grow resilience in our kids.

Raise a problem-solver

A key component of resilience is the ability to look at a problem and find a solution. We can help develop this trait in our kids by encouraging them to participate in solving the mini dilemmas that occur throughout the day. "A large part of your training [is] helping them understand that they must gradually take responsibility for their own problems," says family psychologist John Townsend. "What begins as the parent's burden must end up as the child's."

What are you doing for your kids that they could do themselves? Ask them to consider what it would take to solve the problem, whether it's thirst or a broken toy or a misplaced shirt. "What do you think we should do about that?" "How would you find it?"

Older kids can be responsible for getting out of bed on time and studying for the algebra exam and figuring out how best to help a friend who is going through a tough time. While parents are always there to consult, our first step should be to help them come up with a solution on their own. 

As kids begin to face more complicated problems, it's good to equip them with a standard approach to solving a problem. Vicki Caruana, author of Giving Your Child the Excellence Edge, recommends teaching kids a four-step process for breaking down problems and honing in on the best solution: 1) Define the problem; 2) Evaluate all possible solutions; 3) Develop a plan of action; 4) Adjust plans when necessary. She recommends that kids face each problem by asking themselves, In what ways might I solve this?

Solving small problems today helps children grow to be resilient problem-solvers tomorrow. "When they're young, the stakes may not be as high and the consequences for mistakes may not be so severe," Caruana says. "Now is the time to help them learn to think for themselves and embrace the problems of life as opportunities to learn."

Praise with purpose

"Good boy!"

"Wow, you're so smart!"

"This picture should be hanging in a museum!"

We all want to praise our kids when they do something well. "Praise and positive feedback are a critical cornerstone for training children," says parenting expert Dr. Paul Reisser, lead author of Focus on the Family's Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care. "The positive things you say to a child should normally outnumber the negative by a wide margin."

But can praise sometimes backfire, even contribute to our kids becoming less resilient? The answer may depend on how we applaud our kids. In a widely publicized series of experiments with fifth-graders, researchers Carol Dweck and Claudia Mueller found that children behaved quite differently based on the type of praise they received. Children who were praised as being "smart" after accomplishing a puzzle wanted to keep proving how intelligent they were, so they generally selected easier follow-up puzzles. These kids had little interest in improving their performance—as long as they thought they measured up well against their peers. They were also more discouraged by failures, performing increasingly poorer after unsuccessful attempts at tasks and (sadly) attributing those failures to a lack of intelligence. 

But kids who were simply applauded for their effort and hard work chose more challenging follow-up tasks, continuing to demonstrate effort and a desire to learn from the task. What's more, these kids were less discouraged by failure and wanted to keep trying in follow-up attempts.

In an interview about her research, Dweck told Stanford Magazine, "I asked, 'What makes a really capable child give up in the face of failure, where other children may be motivated by the failure?' " The answer, Dweck found, may be in kids' perceptions about why they have failed. Children who thought their failures meant they had less ability were more likely to become discouraged—even in areas of strength. But those who believed that they simply hadn't tried hard enough—that ability was something that could be developed—would be motivated by their setbacks. 

In the years since that landmark study, the body of research seems to confirm these findings. The "right" sort of praise gives kids a stronger advantage in facing life's challenges. In a 2013 study, Dr. Elizabeth Gunderson refers to this as "process praise," praise that focuses on a child's strategies ("I like how you solved that problem"), specific jobs they did well ("The kitchen floor looks great") and especially their effort throughout various challenges ("Your hard work is really showing in these drawings"). Gunderson's team found that the more process praise that kids got during early childhood, the more likely they were to demonstrate resilience and an "I-can-do-this" attitude during their school years.

Parents set the bar

Children learn by observing their parents. They learn skills and information about the world we live in. And they learn a lot about acceptable behavior from what their parents model for them.

As parents, do we have an encouraging, we-can-get-through-this attitude when life throws difficulties our way, or do we demonstrate an ongoing fear of the world? Whatever our responses, our kids are learning about how they should respond to their own setbacks. If we're always complaining about a difficult neighbor or car trouble or a ridiculous fee the bank stuck to our account, our kids will begin to believe that life's complications are worthy of excessive attention and emotion. Yes, we should talk and pray openly about these things, but we need to show our kids what resilient character looks like in difficult circumstances.

Of course, we also play a crucial role in helping our kids learn how to navigate their own trials. While it's often tempting to steer our kids away from all situations that include the possibility of heartbreak, that kind of shielding does nothing to prepare them for the future. Are we equipping our kids with the tools to face reality?

In Raising Kingdom Kids, Dr. Tony Evans encourages parents to take advantage of the opportunities to help kids through life's disappointments. He tells a story about a mom from his congregation whose daughter was devastated after she didn't make the final cut in her choir tryouts. The mother was also heartbroken at the thought of her daughter's crushed dreams. But a friend helped her see the bigger picture: "I'd much rather my child learn how to handle these tough life lessons in an affirmative environment of love than to never learn them until she becomes a young adult, when she may not know how to receive it."

Evans says that life's inevitable setbacks are a can't-miss opportunity for parents to help their kids face trials in the light of God's Word and with an understanding of His sovereignty. And, as Evans notes, if there is one thing that Scripture teaches us about pain and disappointment, it's that often "setbacks are simply setups for something better."

When Is It OK to Quit?

by Paul C. Reisser, M.D.

Your daughter begged you to let her begin gymnastics classes, but now her muscles are sore, and it's clear to her that gymnastics is hard work—much harder than she thought it would be. Furthermore, she's not as good as the other girls, and more than a couple of times she's landed with a painful thud on the mat. She's had enough, but you've spent a couple of hundred dollars for a class that will continue for another six weeks. Do you let her bail out or make her continue to the bitter end—perhaps quoting the adage that "winners never quit and quitters never win"?

The answer will depend on your child and her track record. If she has a habit of making enthusiastic false starts and rarely bringing any project to completion, she will probably benefit from the experience of struggling to complete the course she started. This reality therapy will be especially important if you have funded the classes after she promised to finish them. In this case, being true to her word is the issue rather than the classes themselves.

When the activity in question is something that other family members enjoy together, such as skiing or skating, some positive encouragement to struggle through the learning process in order to enjoy a lifelong payoff would be appropriate.

If she has been consistently involved in other long-term activities but is clearly miserable in this one, you may want to let her quietly retire. Make sure the problem isn't a mismatch of a child and coach or a mistaken entry into a group that is too advanced. At times a change of venue, trainer or team can make a significant difference. However, if the activity proves to be a dead end, don't berate her for it. Allowing her to maintain her dignity will accomplish far more than any trophy on the family shelf.

Taken from the Focus on the Family Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care.

This article appeared in the October/November 2014 issue of Thriving Family magazine and was titled "Kids Who Bounce Back."  If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. Get it delivered to your home by subscribing for a gift of any amount.

Copyright © 2014 by Focus on the Family

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