If there’s one parenting instinct that’s universal, it’s the urge to protect our children. Unfortunately, if there’s one fact that’s universally known, it’s that we won’t always be able to. Luckily, there is something we can do to prepare them for adversity – we can nurture their resilience, the ability to bounce back from life’s hardships.
“Resilient people meet with success because they persevere,” says Kimberly Arias, Director of Programs at Project GRAD in Long Island, New York. “It is particularly important for children to develop this as early as possible because it sets their pattern for dealing with adversity for the rest of their life.”
Experts agree that resilience is a product of both internal and external forces. “Both personal characteristics--an optimistic perspective, good social problem-solving skills, tenacity – and environmental resources produce adaptive responses to adversity,” says Mark Fraser, PhD, MSW, author of Risk and Resilience in Childhood: an Ecological Perspective.
The good news is that you can strengthen your child’s resilience on both fronts. While you can’t change your child’s inborn temperament, you can affect his or her outlook. Encourage optimism. Focus on the positive, and try not to get bogged down by anxiety and “what if’s?” When crises do occur, keep things in perspective and remind your child that things won’t always be that way. This doesn’t mean taking a Pollyanna approach; some dreams won’t come true. Accepting reality rather than struggling against it helps people move on. But looking at the glass half full, rather than the glass half empty is a good start.
When your child feels overwhelmed by a huge project, don’t take over. Instead, help him or her draw up a list of baby steps that will help him or her reach the goal. Learning to move forward through uncertainty one step at a time is a lesson that will help with everything from college applications to health care. Similarly, when your daughter is faced with an upsetting situation – say, a fight with her best friend – encourage her to take action rather than stewing passively in her anxiety.
Build your child’s confidence the old-fashioned way – not by complimenting his every move, but by stepping back and letting him solve minor problems on his own. Teach him that he can trust his gut and he’ll have an easier time getting up after he stumbles. And don't forget to help him work off some of his energy. Encourage a healthy lifestyle with time for physical exercise and stress-relieving breaks.
Of course, even the most psychologically resilient child in the world does better with a support system. Parents play a vital role; so do other family members, teachers, coaches, mentors, and friends. In times of trouble, having someone to bounce ideas off of is often just what kids need to bounce back.