Expert / 13 May, 2019 / Dr Justin Coulson
In 2015 I wrote an article for Australia’s most popular parenting website, Kidspot, describing 21 ways to help our kids become more resilient. The article went viral, thousands of parents liking, sharing, commenting, and asking for more.
Sometimes it was small-ish stuff; other times the issues were significant:
“My son always gives up and won’t try if he thinks he’ll fail.”
“My 12 year-old wants to give up sport (or music or art) because it’s starting to get a bit more challenging or serious.”
“My daughter feels like no one likes her but she won’t reach out and try to make new friends.”
“My child is dyslexic (or is on the autism spectrum, or has ADHD or some other debilitating challenge) and gets so depressed about school and learning.”
“My partner has left us and my kids just aren’t the same.”
The question that was at the heart of all of these pleas:
“How do I help my child be more resilient? How do I help them tough it out when they want to give up, or bounce back when things go wrong?”
My research into resilience and developmental psychology highlighted some big surprises, and some valuable gems for every parent who hopes their child will be resilient.
First, I was surprised to learn about how many misunderstandings exist regarding resilience. I found high quality studies – stacks of them – that emphasised that the tough-love “toughen up princess” approach is more like to wreck resilience than support its growth. Such statements lead kids to crumble. There’s less research on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, where we hover over our kids protecting them from potential harm, but what research exists suggests over involvement undermines resilience. (Be involved, but not too involved instead.)
Even more intriguing: praise can, in many instance, harm motivation and resilient mindsets. And competition can often work against the development of resilience too. When competing is about winning and a child’s identity is based around their last performance, competition can be outright harmful.
With those sacred cows slain, I then examined the factors that contribute to raising a resilient child. What specific things can parents and caregivers do to answer that question: “How can I help my child be more resilient?”
I identified 9 Ways to a Resilient Child that offered strong research supporting their use.
First, our kids need to develop a strong sense of identity. They need to know who they are. And studies have shown there are practical strategies for helping kids figure this out: things like sharing family stories about those times Mum did something courageous, Grandpa helped someone in need, or Dad made a difference in the community.
Our kids build resilience by learning how to be psychologically flexible. This just means they’re not rigid in their thinking. If something unpleasant happens they know how to roll with it.
One of the most curious findings about resilience is that self-control sets our children up to be more resilient. Almost everyone has heard of the marshmallow experiment (and if you haven’t, google it and watch the videos – they’re fun!). Well it seems that the kids who can delay gratification tend to be psychologically stronger and can manage themselves better when things don’t work out. This helps them to bounce back.
Epictetus taught that “people are not disturbed by things, but by the view they take of them.” Studies have shown that the way our children think about life and struggle can dramatically affect their responses to challenges. Stinking thinking leads to kids crumbling in the face of adversity. “This always happens to me. It’s not fair. I’m just hopeless.” On the contrary, if we can help our children to reframe their thoughts, they can see adversity as something that makes them stronger rather than something that weakens them.
Stanford University Professor Carol Dweck has brought the idea of a ‘growth mindset’ to the masses. It can best be described in the words of Henry Ford: “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” It’s more than a positive mindset though. It’s recognising that the brain is like a muscle. When you work it, your brain gets stronger. Helping children understand growth mindset can foster resilience, even in kids who think they’re dumb. They come to see they just need to exercise their brain more.
Other research highlighted that we strengthen resilience by focusing on kid’s strengths (rather than always pointing out their weaknesses), encouraging green time (healthy physical activity) over screen time, and offering them choice rather than being too controlling.
But the most vital ingredient in fostering resilience can be summarised in a word: relationships. It’s all about relationships. A strong support network to pick you up when you’re down, to offer encouragement, and to love you no matter what appears to be the most surefire way to raise resilience in our kids.
When life puts our kids in a tight spot and challenges arise – and they always do – we don’t want our kids to moan, “Why me?”. Instead, we want them to stand tall, strong, resilient, and calmly say “Try me.”