How to Raise a Resilient Kid

Wouldn't it be great if kids could pick themselves up after a fall and be back swinging on the monkey bars, undeterred? They can, and they will, if we give them the basic tools they need to develop resilience. Happily, this emotional muscle can be strengthened at any age, in many simple ways.
12/03/2015 07:15pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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A young English boy dreams of things in the sky.

Wouldn't it be great if kids could pick themselves up after a fall and be back swinging on the monkey bars, undeterred? They can, and they will, if we give them the basic tools they need to develop resilience. Happily, this emotional muscle can be strengthened at any age, in many simple ways.

image copyright Lorraine Allen

As parents, we instinctively want to protect our kids from harm and pitfalls; but they're natural parts of life. The American Psychological Association notes that while we "tend to idealize childhood as a carefree time," in fact, children are tasked with adapting to different social and family environments, from moves, to new schools, and their skills and performance are regularly tested, academically, socially and physically. And these days, we have a lot more to worry about than just monkey bars. Kids are exposed to violence, danger, and even terror through the media and in real life, despite our best efforts to shield them. But instead of worrying about what might happen to our kids, as they grow, and wondering how we can protect them from everything we cannot, we're far better off focusing on helping them develop resilience, so that they can overcome any challenges, stresses and hurdles they'll face throughout life. "The ability to thrive despite these challenges arises from the skills of resilience," the APA explains.

After decades of research, Martin E.P. Seligman at Harvard has identified three ways people react to trauma and adversity depending on our levels of resiliency:

• Those who crumble, feel hopeless and remain stuck in a rut.
• Those who stumble, feel despair, but bounce back.
• Those who not only overcome, but who thrive despite hardship, emerging stronger than before. ("These," Seligman explains, "are the people of whom Friedrich Nietzsche said: that which does not kill us makes us stronger.")

If we give our kids the tools they need to bounce back from adversity in childhood, it will continue to serve them well their whole lives, and they will be far more likely to fall into Seligman's third, most successful group. Here's a road map that's clear and simple to follow:

1. Offer Support
Being present, showing unwavering love and support, and providing basic care and a safe home are the cornerstones of the supportive environment kids need to help build resilience. It's important to note that when kids are misbehaving or struggling, as they often do, they are testing the strength of this foundation they so rely on. When things get tough, stay calm, and listen. If kids feel their struggles are taken seriously, they will be better able to overcome them.
We can also create supportive environments by including family and community, such as school friends, neighbors or church groups, regularly in our lives and in the lives of our children. Help them feel that they are surrounded by a strong support system, and this will in turn give them the strength they need to learn to feel secure in themselves, and in the world.

2. Promote Optimism
Seligman and his colleagues found that in the most resilient individuals "optimism is the key." Fostering optimism and a positive outlook in kids helps them to develop a sense of constant potential for positive future outcomes, despite adversity. Try asking kids about something positive they experienced each day. If they're feeling down and can't think of anything, encourage them by saying, "Let's think back on the last time you felt really great. What were you doing?" Or, if a child is struggling with something, like a recent move or a difficult class, ask them how they wish things would turn out. Envisioning their own version of a positive outcome is a good exercise to help kids feel from feeling despair, and instead keep their chin up and be able to move forward, even when faced with difficult situations.

Sharing stories with kids about characters who have overcome difficulties with positive attitudes is another great tool to promote optimism. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Mulan, and Rosie Revere Engineer are just a few popular examples.

3. Foster Self-control
Starting even before that coveted moment a toddler graduates to big-boy underpants, there are countless opportunities in a child's life, both big and small, for parents to help kids develop the skills they need to become more resilient by empowering and encouraging them to take control of their own world. We can notice and praise their potty training efforts and shoe-lace-tying, even when they fail, to show that struggling and imperfection are a normal parts of learning--not something to get too beat down by. We can applaud and encourage the control they are trying to take of their own lives, and help them build the skills they need to succeed, one step at a time. When kids gain self-control, they gain confidence, and are less likely to despair when life throws them a punch.

Involving kids, in age-appropriate ways, help your family overcome hurdles together, even ones as small as fixing a flat tire or broken door knob, are great ways to build problem-solving skills, confidence, a sense of control and therefore resilience, too.

4. Build Purpose
Giving kids the opportunity to contribute to society helps them understand that they are an important, valued part of it. Try these: volunteering at park clean-ups; checking on an elderly neighbor; pet-sitting; donating books to the library; delivering food to a shelter.
Kids strive to feel important and useful. Offering opportunities to help others builds resilience by providing this deep sense of purpose and accomplishment they yearn for; one that's not graded with a pass of fail, but is unquestionably good. Helping others promotes kids' personal connections to their community, and their sense of self-worth and hope, too, that they can make the world--their own world--a better place.