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Resilient kids are adaptable problem solvers. They face unfamiliar or tough situations and strive to find practical solutions.
While adulthood is filled with serious responsibilities, childhood isn’t exactly stress-free. Kids take tests, learn new information, change schools, change neighborhoods, get sick, get braces, encounter bullies, make new friends and occasionally get hurt by those friends. They also face real-world, unfiltered traumas.
What helps kids in navigating these kinds of challenges is resilience.
Lynn Lyons is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist in Concord, New Hampshire, who co-authored the book “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children” with psychologist and anxiety expert Dr. Reid Wilson.
Lyons says when resilient kids step into a situation they “have a sense they can figure out what they need to do and can handle what is thrown at them with a sense of confidence.”
She said that this doesn’t mean that kids have to do everything on their own. Rather, they know how to ask for help and can problem-solve their next steps.
Resilience isn’t a birthright. It can be taught. Lyons encourages parents to equip their kids with the skills to handle the unexpected, which contrasts our cultural approach.
“We have become a culture of trying to make sure our kids are comfortable. We as parents are trying to stay one step ahead of everything our kids are going to run into.” The problem? “Life doesn’t work that way.”
Anxious people have an especially hard time helping their kids tolerate uncertainty simply because they have difficulty tolerating it themselves.
“The idea of putting your child through the same pain you went through is intolerable,” Lyons said. So anxious parents try to protect their kids and shield them from worst-case scenarios.
However, she said that a parent’s job isn’t to be there all the time for their kids. It’s to teach them to handle uncertainty and to problem-solve. Below, Lyons shared her valuable suggestions for raising resilient kids.
According to Lyons, “whenever we try to provide certainty and comfort, we are getting in the way of children being able to develop their own problem-solving and mastery.” (Overprotecting kids only fuels their anxiety.)
She gave a “dramatic but not uncommon example.” Suppose a child gets out of school at 3:15. But they worry about their parent picking them up on time. So the parent arrives an hour earlier and parks by their child’s classroom so they can see the parent is there.
In another example, parents let their 7-year-old sleep on a mattress on the floor in their bedroom because they’re too uncomfortable to sleep in their room.
Naturally, parents want to keep their kids safe. But eliminating all risks could rob kids of learning resiliency.
In one family Lyons knows, the kids aren’t allowed to eat when the parents are not home because there’s a risk they might choke on their food. (If the kids are old enough to stay home alone, they’re old enough to eat, she said.)
The key is to allow appropriate risks and teach your kids essential skills. “Start young. The child who’s going to get his driver’s license is going to have started when he’s 5 [years old] learning how to ride his bike and look both ways [slow down and pay attention].”
Giving kids age-appropriate freedom helps them learn their limits, she said.
Let’s say your child wants to go to sleep-away camp, but they’re nervous about being away from home. An anxious parent, Lyons said, might say, “Well, then there’s no reason for you to go.”
But a mindful approach is to normalize your child’s nervousness and help them figure out how to navigate being homesick. So you might ask your child how they can practice getting used to being away from home.
When Lyons’s son was anxious about his first final exam, they brainstormed strategies, including how he’d manage his time and schedule to study for the exam.
In other words, engage your child in figuring out how they can handle challenges. Give them the opportunity, over and over, “to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”
To paraphrase the adage, ‘If you give a kid a fish, you feed them for a day. If you teach a kid to fish, you feed them for a lifetime.’
When Lyons works with kids, she focuses on the specific skills they’ll need to learn to handle certain situations themselves.
She asks herself, “Where are we going with this [situation]? What skill do they need to get there?” For instance, she might teach a shy child how to greet someone and start a conversation.
Try asking “how” questions instead. “You left your bike out in the rain, and your chain rusted. How will you fix that?” For instance, she said that they might go online to see how to fix the chain or contribute money to a new chain.
Lyons uses “how” questions to teach her clients different skills. “How do you get yourself out of bed when it’s warm and cozy? How do you handle the noisy boys on the bus that bug you?”
Rather than providing your kids with every answer, start using the phrase “I don’t know,” “followed by promoting problem-solving,” Lyons said. Using this phrase helps empower kids to learn to tolerate uncertainty and think about ways to deal with potential challenges.
Also, starting with small situations when they’re young helps prepare kids to handle bigger trials. She said they won’t like it, but they’ll get used to it.
For instance, if your child asks if they’re getting a shot at the doctor’s office, instead of soothing them, say, “I don’t know. You might be due for a shot. Let’s figure out how you’re going to get through it.”
Similarly, if your child asks, “Am I going to get sick today?” instead of saying, “No, you won’t,” respond with, “You might, so how might you handle that?”
If your child worries they’ll hate their college, instead of saying, “You’ll love it,” you might explain that some freshmen don’t like their school and help them figure out what to do if they feel the same way, she said.
Try to pay attention to what you say to your kids and around them. Anxious parents, in particular, tend to “talk very catastrophically around their children,” Lyons said.
For instance, instead of saying, “It’s really important for you to learn how to swim because it’d be devastating to me if you drowned!” you might try just saying, “It’s really important for you to learn how to swim.”
“Failure is not the end of the world. [It’s the] place you get to when you figure out what to do next,” Lyons says. Letting kids mess up is tough and painful for parents. But it helps kids learn how to fix slip-ups and make informed decisions next time.
According to Lyons, if a child has an assignment, anxious or overprotective parents typically want to ensure the project is perfect, even if their child is not interested in doing it in the first place. But it’s helpful in the long run to let your kids see the consequences of their actions.
Similarly, Lyons said that if your child doesn’t want to go to football practice, you might let them stay home. If next game they sit on the bench, they might also be sitting with the weight of their decision.
Emotional intelligence (EQ) and self-regulation are key to resilience.
You can teach your kids that all emotions are OK, Lyons says. It’s OK to feel angry that you lost the game or someone else finished your ice cream. Caregivers can also teach kids that after feeling their feelings, they need to think through what they’re doing next, she said.
“Kids learn very quickly which powerful emotions get them what they want. Parents have to learn how to ride the emotions, too.”
You might tell your child, “I understand that you feel that way. I’d feel the same way if I were in your shoes, but now you have to figure out what the appropriate next step is.”
If your child throws a tantrum, she says, be clear about what behavior is appropriate (and inappropriate). You might say, “I’m sorry we’re not going to get ice cream, but this behavior is unacceptable.”
Of course, kids also learn from observing their parents’ behavior. Try to be calm and consistent, Lyons said. “You cannot say to a child you want them to control their emotions while you yourself are flipping out.”
“Parenting takes a lot of practice and we all screw up.” When you do make a mistake, admit it. You could say, “I really screwed up. I’m sorry I handled that poorly. Let’s talk about a different way to handle that in the future,” Lyons said.
Resiliency helps kids navigate the inevitable trials, triumphs and tribulations of childhood and adolescence. Resilient kids also become resilient adults, able to survive and thrive in the face of life’s unavoidable stressors.
For more information on resiliency, you can check out our article What Resilience Is and Isn’t.