Teaching Your Child Resilience

By Dr. Lisa Bateman, NeuroScience

As parents, we want to shield our children from stress and adversity as much as possible. However, we cannot protect them from everything; everyone will face challenges in his or her life. What we can do is give them the skills necessary to face those stresses and challenges head-on, to learn from them, and to grow in strength and maturity as a result. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, challenges, tragedy, trauma, or adversity. When children and teens are resilient, they are better able to cope with and overcome the challenging and stressful situations life may bring.

All children and teens have different levels of resilience and different ways of responding to and recovering from emotionally challenging situations in their lives. They also have different ways of showing us when they are not coping well with those emotional demands. Children may become very emotional, they may withdraw, or they may become defiant, angry, irritable, or resentful. Children with lower resilience may exhibit these behaviors more often.

Although it may seem like some people are born with higher resilience, it is something that can be taught and nurtured in all children. Science has shown that exposure to the right experiences can actually change the wiring of the brain in people of any age (meaning adults can benefit from resilience training as well).

So how do you help your children build resilience? Here are some tips:

Foster Relationships with Caring Adults
Research has shown that children are best able to work through and recover from adversity and stressful situations when they have a reliable, supportive relationship with at least one adult in their lives. A loving relationship with a caring adult (such as a parent, family member, teacher, or coach) can give children an opportunity to develop vital coping skills and can actually reverse some of the physiological changes that are activated by stress.

Similarly, support from loving friends and family is associated with higher self-esteem, motivation, optimism, and resilience. Sometimes children are so absorbed in their own worries that they have difficulty noticing the supportive people in their lives, so it can be helpful to remind them who they have rooting for them and teach them how to reach out to these people for support when they need it.

Help Build Executive Function
Children and teens have the ability to develop more resiliency when they have supportive relationships, positive role models, opportunities for social connection, and regular engagement in prosocial activities and exercise. Additionally, structure and routines play an important role, as well as opportunities to act independently and practice making their own decisions with helpful supports in place. These are all techniques for strengthening executive function that can help children manage their own behavior and feelings, thereby increasing their capacity to cope with stressful situations.

Many of us spend our time and energy thinking about things that have already occurred or worrying about things that will happen in the future. Mindfulness involves practicing observing your present thoughts and feelings without judging them and increasing awareness of and attention to the present. Children and teens can learn how to practice mindfulness from a clinician who is trained in mindfulness or even through an App on their smartphones, such as “Headspace.” Children and teens who practice mindfulness on a regular basis can become more resilient, which means they are better able to cope with daily challenges and stressors that they experience in their lives and be less likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Acknowledge Their Strengths
“You’ve got this!” When children have confidence in themselves and their abilities they are more likely to be able to handle future stressful situations. Sometimes we are so focused on addressing challenges that we forget to notice and appreciate strengths, both in ourselves and in our children. Helping children and teens regularly recognize and celebrate their strengths will increase resilience to adversity over time.

Nurture Optimism & Teach Them How to Reframe
Studies have shown that optimism is one of the key characteristics of resilient people. Similarly, the ability to reframe a situation to focus on what they have rather than what they have lost is a very valuable skill to have. If your child tends to focus on the negative aspects of a situation, acknowledge his or her feelings, but try to point out the positive. “I know you’re disappointed that it’s raining today and can’t play outside; how about we try out that new board game we have?”

Encourage Children to Take Age-Appropriate Risks
Age-appropriate freedom helps children learn to make their own decisions, helps build more confidence in their ability to trust themselves, and teaches them that they can cope when things don’t go exactly as they planned.

Let Children Experience Failure
We all want to shield our children from failure, but children need to learn how to handle the stress of failure during childhood so that they are better able to manage that stress during adulthood. Early experiences of overcoming stress can cause positive changes in the prefrontal cortex of the brain that can protect against the negative effects of future stress.

Encourage Children to Ask for Help
It is important to encourage children to take risks and have confidence in themselves, but it is equally important to let them know that it is okay to ask for help and that they do not have to manage alone. If your child is having continual difficulty coping and overcoming challenging situations, and it is impacting their functioning, it may be time to seek help from a licensed psychologist. A psychologist could work with you and your child to develop the skills necessary to build resiliency and emotional well-being.