A 4-year-old comes home from daycare saying nobody will play with him. An 8-year-old cries over her math homework. A 12-year-old is upset because he’s not picked for the school play. A 16-year-old loses a track meet. These may seem trivial to an observer, but ask any parent, and he’ll tell you that his heart seizes to watch his child in emotional or physical pain—no matter how serious.
At the end of the day, parents just want their children to roll with the punches, to take things in stride, to work through their suffering—to be resilient.
Robert Brooks, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School, has been studying resilience in children for the past several decades. Research in resilience primarily looks at children who grew up under great adversity—children who were abused or neglected, Brooks explains. “The research has really wanted to understand why some of these children did well in life while others did not,” he says. “I became fascinated years ago with the idea of taking the information we gather from these kids who’ve gone through great adversity and applying it to all kids.”
What the research shows is that there is a certain outlook resilient children have that enables them to live a more fulfilling life. Brooks, who coauthored the widely read Raising Resilient Children with clinical psychologist Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., says parents can nurture this mindset in their own children.
Research studies have found that adults who overcame adversity have at least one thing in common: someone in their childhood who believed in them and stood by them. Resilience researcher and psychologist Julius Segal called this person a “charismatic” adult in a child’s life. “He defined this person as ‘an adult from whom a child gathers strength,’” Brooks explains.
So, how can you be that charistmatic adult in your child's life? Here are Brooks' six key dimensions of charismatic adults (and resilient children):
Identify and Appreciate Children’s Islands of Confidence
Charismatic adults never deny a child’s problems or difficulties, but they also acknowledge a child’s strengths—their islands of confidence. Always begin with the strengths; then help to strengthen weaknesses.
Accept Children for Who They Are
We must learn to accept our children for who they are rather than who we want them to be, Brooks says. Children have an inborn temperament that parents must accommodate. “We know that some kids are born easier to raise, more difficult to please, more shy or cautious,” Brooks says. “We know that some hypersensitive kids cannot tolerate going into a loud supermarket when they’re 4 or 5 years old, for example. It’s parents’ jobs to accommodate their children’s temperaments.” And it’s important to understand, he says, that accommodating a child’s temperament is not the same as giving in. Don’t give in; instead, give choices.
Involve Children in Problem Solving
Resilient people turn problems into problem solving. “Parents need to involve and include the child in solving problems,” Brooks says, adding that it’s hard to be resilient if you don’t know how to proceed when you have a problem. “Problems are there to be solved,” he says. “What we really want to do is show that you’re on your child’s side.”
Give Children Opportunities to Contribute to the Wellbeing of Others
Brooks has found that when people are asked about their positive and negative memories from school, their favorite memories always have to do with being asked to help—passing out the milk and straws, tutoring a younger student. “I think there’s an inborn need in children to want to help,” he says. And whether children have opportunities to contribute to the wellbeing of others determines their feelings of competence, and therefore their resilience.
Help Children Recognize Mistakes as Opportunities for Learning
“Resilient kids, if they fail a test or fall while dancing or strike out—what they feel is that there are adults out there who will help them figure out what to do next time,” Brooks says. In contrast, kids who are not resilient feel like every mistake is a rope around their neck that keeps getting wrapped around more and more. Brooks suggests that parents think about what they do when they make mistakes, and then think about what they do when their kids make mistakes. Instead of admonishing them, Brooks says, parent should ideally "go over and engage kids in problem solving.” One boy Brooks interviewed described it this way: “I wish my parents would be my defense attorneys instead of my prosecuting attorneys.”
Discipline with Positive Feedback and Encouragement
“I always emphasize for parents that one of the most powerful forms of discipline is positive feedback and encouragement,” Brooks says. “We have to catch kids when they’re doing something right and let them know it.” Brooks explains that people are more willing to take risks in life if they recognize rules and are able to self-discipline.
Though being mindful of these points on a daily basis is challenging, it could make a difference in your child's confidence level and resilience.