As Cram it all in Year working parents, we have precious little time with our kids and a desire to make our time together as breezy and positive as possible. We’re not alone. It’s common to all kinds of parents – working and non-working. We act as a snowplow – to push all of the obstacles aside and make their path as smooth as possible. It can be heartbreaking, for us, to see our kids sad, frustrated, disappointed, struggling.
But really, we know we want them to learn resiliency – to have a healthy response to challenges and come out stronger. It’s the ability to rebound after disappointment. It’s the child who can calm themselves down, who doesn’t cower but speaks up when someone takes their ball, who joins the crew when they didn’t get a lead in the play. Here’s how to foster resiliency, which is informed by the model from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University.
What To Do (Bites)
Shift from fixer to supporter
We are hardwired to protect our young. We’re professional problem solvers. But our urge to protect our children from stressful situations, be the fixer, is more often harmful than helpful. It sets off a cycle that prevents learning resiliency. By helping the child to avoid an adverse experience, yes, they avoid the negative which feels good in the moment, but they learn that you’ll protect them rather than learning to manage themselves and overcome adversity. Instead, be the supporter not the fixer. It’s more beneficial to their growth and development if you’re there for support when they’re sad or hurting, or you tell them when you too were disappointed when you didn’t get picked for the best team. They learn it’s ok to be disappointed and it’s ok to be sad, and at the right time you can also explain perseverance and why that’s good for them.
Determining what is healthy vs harmful stress
It’s important to toe the line between allowing our children to experience healthy stress (which leads to resilience) versus harmful stress (which can lead to trauma). Children benefit from positive stress, which can be associated with experiences like starting daycare, learning to ride a bike or having a job interview – uncomfortable, but generally only mildly stressful. While not desirable (!), they can overcome tolerable stress – experiences like illness, injury, or loss of a loved one, that are buffered by supportive relationships. Harmful stress comes from chronic neglect, abuse, exposure to violence, etc., which is not supported by a protective relationship.
Remember, resiliency is built over time
Resiliency is taught and fostered over time, and exposure to different stressors is all part of learning this new set of skills. Using intentional language and supporting our children through difficulties, we help them hone the problem solving and self-regulation skills needed to navigate more intense challenges and develop their sense of self-confidence that they can overcome challenges.
It’s an effort to hold back and not jump in and solve your kids’ problems. My brain is wired to find solutions. The hardest part is to actively listen, acknowledging that they’re feeling a certain way.
Validate and accept that your child has negative feelings
What not to say:
Don’t be quick to dismiss their negative feelings in attempts to smooth things over by saying things like “don’t worry about it,” or “it’s not a big deal.” Being dismissive doesn’t help facilitate coping skills or make those feelings go away. It may make the child feel silly for having a perfectly natural emotional response. You may even find that validation can work wonders to reduce or prevent problem behaviors during difficult moments.
What to say:
Instead, try: “It’s normal to be thinking about that. I understand. It’s okay to feel sad sometimes.” Acknowledging and making it okay that they’re having those feelings can provide relief and validation to kids who may feel as though their feelings are a burden to those around them. Go one step further by offering to support with problem solving, e.g. “that’s a tough problem, let’s talk through it.” But remember, it’s also ok just to listen, let them blow off steam. That might be all they need.
If it’s hard, plan to practice. If your child finds trying new foods, going swimming or being dropped off at a program without a caregiver difficult, the answer isn’t necessarily that they’re not ready. Our instinct may be to avoid these triggers altogether, but in doing so, we rob them of the opportunity to learn the skill. Plus, our minds and bodies learn to react less intensely as we encounter a situation repeatedly.
So it’s okay to let them feel some discomfort, but set a goal and map out a plan to achieve it. Metaphorically: rather than throwing them straight into the pool, maybe you start by dipping toes in, then standing on the steps, then easing into the shallow end before they’re ready to take the plunge.
Talk the talk and walk the walk. Model resilience yourself, so they can learn from you. By sharing how you feel, how you are going to cope and modeling positive self-talk in the face of an obstacle, you can help teach persistence, problem solving and provide a healthy dialogue that they can remember and use when they are faced with a similar challenge in the future.
We see lots of kids who can’t handle it when something doesn’t go their way. They refuse to play, they quit the team, they sulk. It’s the kids who have learned resiliency that find a solution, who figure out how to be happy when things aren’t perfect.