When Stephen King first began writing, few believed that he would be successful. But he didn’t let that hold him back. In his memoir “On Writing”, he says that by age fourteen “the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and went on writing.”
It was only after 60 rejections that a publisher finally agreed to publish a short story that he had written.
What made Stephen King push on? What helped him believe that one day, he too would be successful? Why did he keep going when many others would have given up? Stephen King kept dusting himself off and trying again because he was resilient.
Life is made up of unexpected challenges, and the ability to bounce back after experiencing setbacks is referred to as resilience. But adopting a resilient mindset can be challenging for children.
If your child is struggling with resilience, they may:
- Have a hard time recovering from challenges
- Develop issues such as sleeping difficulties
- Dwell on problems and become easily overwhelmed by difficult situations
- Overreact to “normal” situations
- Adopt unhealthy mechanisms to cope with the issues affecting them
- Appear to be constantly angry or irritable, which is often a conscious or unconscious attempt to camouflage the real problem and a sign of their inability to react appropriately to difficult emotion-provoking situations.
Raising resilient children: what does the research say?
The available research says that today’s children are experiencing more stress and anxiety than ever before, and the Covid-19 situation has not made things any easier. Cases of mental health issues are rising among children, meaning that it is more important than ever to strengthen your child’s ability to overcome hardships.
Strengthening your child’s resilience is an easy place to start. Many studies that have focused on building resilience have come to similar conclusions. They suggest that:
- Social relationships are decisive in your child’s ability to overcome difficult situations. The more your child has strong relationships, the easier it will be for them to deal with adversity. Family relationships are the most important, but strong social relationships with other people in your child’s entourage can also act as a buffer against hard times.
- Practices such as kindness and gratitude act as protective factors against life’s challenges. In other words, a child accustomed to expressing gratitude or kindness to others may find it easier to cope with difficulties.
- Emotional intelligence is a major predictor of resilience. This makes sense when you think about it: a child who has learned to recognize big emotions and who has developed a toolbox to deal with those emotions is more likely to overcome challenges
- The more your child experiences regular positive emotions, the higher the chances that they will succeed in dealing with difficult situations
Despite considerable research on resilience, grey areas still persist. For instance, it is difficult to tell with certainty whether certain factors strengthen resilience, or whether on the contrary, people who are more resilient develop those factors more easily.
That being said, one thing that the resilient theory has taught us is that how you child deals with a problem is more important than the problem itself. If they are able to develop resilience, they will find it easier to overcome frustration and challenges.
The good news is that breaking the non-resilient mindset may not be as hard as it seems. In one study, researchers sought to identify whether resilience was an innate characteristic. In other words, they wanted to know whether some people were just “born more resilient than others” or whether this characteristic could be learned.
They observed individuals who had experienced significant trauma to determine which factors (biological, social, genetic, psychological or spiritual) had the greatest impact on their ability to bounce back.
The researchers found that while genetic factors played an important role in overcoming hardship, the more individuals had additional protective factors, the easier it was for them to deal with difficult situations.
We now know that children can be taught to be resilient, or more appropriately, their home environment can be structured in a way that helps them strengthen their resilience. In other words, it is possible to promote resilience-building factors in children.
The more your child participates in activities that help them learn about reducing stress and anxiety, about coping with difficult emotions, about maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and so on, the more they are likely to adapt to or recover from difficult situations in their lives.
We now know that certain parenting habits can strengthen your child’s ability to navigate the stresses of daily life with greater ease.
Here are seven things you can start doing today to make it easier for your child to bounce back after challenges.
Easy ways to strengthen your child’s resilience
1) Don’t help unless if you have to
Helping your child to develop a more resilient mindset is not about removing obstacles from their path. He or she becomes resilient when they are able to meet and overcome obstacles. This means that it is important to show them that you believe that they are capable of success and to give them opportunities to do things for themselves.
An easy way to achieve this is to encourage them to solve problems by themselves. You could say something like “why don’t you try and then we’ll go over it together”, or you could encourage them to give their opinion: “what do you think would work?”
A good rule to live by is: ask more questions and give fewer answers.
Pushing your child out of their comfort zone can also help improve their resilience, but be careful not to push too hard! This could look like encouraging them to accept more responsibilities at school, or to do a new chore at home, or even to try out a new activity.
2) Be a model of resilience
By now you know that your child is always watching you, and they are always learning from you – this is not just an old cliché.
If you want them to show resilience, be resilient yourself. This means dealing positively with difficult situations and talking about how you managed them despite any difficult emotions you may have been experiencing.
3) Increasing “feel good moments” can help develop your child’s resilience
Positive psychology research says that you are more likely to live longer if you feel good. In one study, 180 nuns’ autobiographies, which they had written while they were in their 20s, were analyzed when those nuns were older (between 75 and 95).
The researchers found that the nuns who had reported the most positive experiences (instances of happiness, interest, love, and hope) lived up to 10 years longer than those who had reported negative experiences.
Other studies have found that positive emotions do more than just make you live longer. They foster creativity, increase focus and attention, make it easier to process information, boost resilience, foster optimism, improve cognitive abilities, and broaden critical thinking skills.
According to Barbara Fredrickson, the well-known positive psychology researcher, positive emotions help build children’s’ social, physical, intellectual and psychological resources. In moments of distress, your child draws on these resources to thrive.
One easy way to make your child feel good is to promote playfulness every day. Fredrickson encourages parents to provide opportunities for their kids to explore and discover, invent, or just simply fool around.
Play not only promotes skills acquisition, it also fosters the development of physical and cognitive skills. Here are several things you probably already do:
Ensure that your child gets to play every day.
- Provide them with opportunities to engage in unstructured but stimulating play. Your child is more likely to develop better problem-solving skills and creative freedom when they engage in less structured play.
- Allow your child to have “stand-and-stare time.” They will benefit from simply observing the world around them.
- Encouraging “feel good moments” also means being aware of your child’s strengths and interests and encouraging them to participate in activities in line with those interests.
4) Make time to hang out with your kids
Finding time to spend with your kids is hard! But it’s not really something that you can afford to ignore. The most resilient kids have strong relationships with their parents and feel that they can count on their support.
According to several research studies, even one stable and committed relationship with one parent goes a long way in helping your child bounce back from hardship.
Like in any other relationship, the parent-child relationship requires constant nurturing. The good news is that you do not have to spend hours every day with each of your children. Scheduling even 10 minutes a day with each child to spend one-on-one time can do wonders for your relationship. Here is a FREE CHALLENGE with ideas of simple things you can do every day with your child over the next 30 days.
If scheduling regular time to hang out seems difficult for you, take advantage of the moments that you are together to be fully present: as you are driving them to their extracurricular activities, as you are making meals together, as you are waiting in a queue, and so on.
Family traditions are also a great opportunity that can help strengthen your entire family’s resilience. Even a simple gratitude routine where each family member talks about the things that they are grateful for before mealtimes can help strengthen your child’s sense of wellbeing and their resilience.
Here are a few family traditions that can help bond your family:
– A morning or bedtime tradition – A morning or bedtime ritual can help family members connect. Simple rituals such as hugs, kisses, snuggling, special handshakes, or the use of specific words is a great tradition every family member can enjoy.
– A read-aloud tradition – Reading together as a family is an easy way to hang out together and it also helps develop your kids’ language skills. It is also a great strategy to adopt if you have reluctant readers at home.
– A family meeting tradition – (for instance at the start of the year/ on the first Sunday of every month/ every two months, etc.) can help your family connect and talk about your family’s expectations. They are also a great way to ensure that all family members can raise issues affecting them.
– A breakfast tradition – Why not pick one day of the week when everyone is present to do something different for breakfast – brunch, breakfast picnic, pancakes, etc.
– An “International night” tradition – an “international night” or “day” is a great and easy way to teach your child about other cultures. Let the entire family participate in finding information about different cultures (what’s the most common meal eaten there, in which continent is the country located, what’s the capital city, etc.) and use Google to make a typical meal eaten there.
5) Adopt growth-mindset parenting
A child with a growth-mindset believes that they have the power to change things. They believe that obstacles and setbacks can be overcome.
The growth-mindset theory was developed by Carol Dweck. Dweck says that the feedback that we give our children can influence their perception of failure and success. She says that it is important to talk to your child about the processes that lead to success rather than simply praising them.
For example, if your child studies hard for their test, your feedback should focus on the “studying hard” part because this is what will allow them to understand the relationship between their behavior and their results.
Adopting growth-mindset parenting also means teaching your child to focus on the future rather than to dwell on the past. In other words, helping them focus on “what will you do next time” or “what will you change next time”? is more likely to help them become more resilient.
6) Allow your child to be accountable for their choices to build their resilience
We all try to solve our children’s problems. This could look anything like:
- Replacing the toys that they break even after you had warned them about their rough play
- Buying them things even when you know you shouldn’t because you “can’t stand to see them sad”
- Doing their homework or helping them more than you should for any number of reasons
Failing to hold your child accountable for their mistakes does little to help them develop a resilient mindset. Worse, it teaches them that there will always be someone to smooth out their path.
Letting them experience the consequences of their actions is an effective way to teach them about choices, consequences and resilience. Explain your limits, then allow them to make their own decisions and to experience the consequences of those decisions.
7) Be attentive to learned helplessness
Your child’s past experiences influence how they behave, now and in the future. If those experiences are constantly negative, they learn that there is no need to put in any effort. They learn to give up even before they try. This is what Martin Seligman and his colleagues refer to as learned helplessness.
A child who has developed learned helplessness:
- Is constantly pessimistic – they think that their effort will not make a difference, so they do not even try
- Lacks motivation and must be pushed to get almost everything done
- Doubts their skills and thinks that they do not have what it takes to succeed
- Focuses on the things that they are poor in rather than on their strengths
To prevent learned helplessness, it is important for your child to regularly succeed. This means setting appropriate expectations that take into account their real skills, capacities and development.
It is also important for your child to develop an optimistic explanatory style, meaning that they must understand that they can control how they react to the setbacks in their lives, and that those setbacks are only temporary challenges that will pass.
When should you worry about your child’s lack of resilience?
Resilience can “come and go”, meaning that your child can deal with different challenges in very different ways. However, resilient children are likely to deal with difficult situations more easily than those who are not. While most children tend to develop a more resilient mindset as they grow older, some find it harder to deal with failure and everyday challenges. This could look like:
- An inability to overcome challenges even with your help
- Reactions that are constantly inconsistent with the reality of the situation
- An inability to overcome situations that happened weeks or even months ago
- An inability to function normally because of an event in their lives
The general rule is that if you feel worried, concerned or overwhelmed by your child’s behavior, you should always seek professional help. Start with your family doctor – they will help identify whether your child’s behavior may be explained by a pre-existing condition.
As you work toward the development of a resilient mindset in your child, remember that resilience is a habit and like all habits, it will develop over time. Strengthening your child’s resilience-building factors will make it easier for them to cope more easily with failures and setbacks.