Life isn’t easy, and as parents, one of our biggest priorities is to raise kids that can bounce back from disappointments big and small. From toddlers to teenagers, how can we build resilience in kids—so they can pick themselves up when we aren’t there to do it? To answer this question, we spoke to developmental psychologist Aliza Pressman, host of the Raising Good Humans podcast, which has recently featured women like Jessica Alba, Eve Rodsky, Dr. Samantha Boardman and others. “If you can’t bounce back in the face of a challenge, your life becomes so much less meaningful and harder to bear. Even if relationships, when there is a conflict you don’t know what to do,” explains Dr. Pressman. Here’s what she had to say about the topic:
What does “resilience” mean when we’re talking about kids?
I would say that resilience in kids and adults is our human capacity to bounce back in the face of adversity. We tend to think that resilience is just a personal attribute—you’re either born with it or not—and it’s actually really a dynamic interaction between who you are and the external experiences and relationships you have to help you build coping mechanisms. These can be developed throughout your lifetime, but the earlier you start to build resilience, the better.
How can you build resilience very early on?
In the earlier years, it’s delivering coping skills with manageable threats. You wouldn’t want to put your kids in an actual threat, of course. But if your toddler is counting on a red plate but you have a blue plate, this is a perceived but manageable threat. Having moments where you’re stretching the window of being uncomfortable, but in the context of a loving environment, begins to introduce the concept of resilience.
So how exactly does the plate example help to develop their resilience?
You provide empathy in that situation. Acknowledge that they’re upset about the plate they wanted, you know they’re mad and you understand that, and that’s okay, but the other plate is dirty, and we’ll make it clean for tomorrow. You didn’t say ‘I don’t want you to be uncomfortable so I’m going to clean the other plate.’
That makes sense. And the plate is a metaphor for larger hurdles later on in life?
You don’t want life to always be comfortable and then they get shown into the real world and it’s a disaster.
How about older kids in sports – how do you integrate this concept there?
If they’re upset because they lost a game, you’re not going to tell them not to be upset, you’re going to say ‘it’s really hard to lose games and I’m sorry you experienced that, but someone will always win and someone will lose, and this is the time you lost.’ Then you can say tell them to do whatever they need to do to get out those feelings, and then reinforce that they have to shake the other team’s hand. Finally, ask how they are going to work hard to be better next time.
Love that example. What else can we do, for big kids and small, to build on this concept?
One of the other things that supports resilience is building autonomy. I don’t love the terms helicopter parent, snow plow parent…we’re under enough scrutiny as parents already. But if you suspect you’re helicoptering, ask yourself ‘Can my child to this for themselves?’ Are they capable of packing their lunch? Doing their homework? Let kids do what they can do for themselves and then guide and support them. You’re scaffolding their growth.
For those of us in Toddler-ville, scaffolding can be a true lesson in patience! What about the reality of getting to preschool on time?
Of course, do for them what they can’t do for themselves, but talk them through it – for instance, tying their shoes. Maybe they can stick their foot in and then you tie it.
Eventually, what can resilience look like in an adult?
I love the Maya Angelou quote “You can tell a lot about a person by the way (s)he handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.” Someone who is self-regulated can say ‘I’m feeling these feelings but how am I going to manage those feelings so I can meet my goals and manage the day?’ Self-regulation stops you from going on autopilot and gives you a pause before you act on a feeling. How you respond to your emotions is going to directly impact your resilience.
Since self-regulation is so closely linked to resilience, how can we specifically address that?
With young children, board games or musical chairs are exercises in self-regulation…learning rules and taking turns.
So in other words, don’t let them win at Chutes and Ladders?
No, don’t always let them win. Practice those uncomfortable but safe moments. If your child is upset when they lose, be there to support them emotionally, but don’t let them win.
We’ve talked a lot about younger kids. Other than sports, how can we boost this trait in school age kids and older?
Same thing – don’t rescue kids from having challenging experiences or feelings. If your kid finds out there is a birthday party they aren’t invited to, a rescue would be calling the parent and getting them invited. A supportive parent will say ‘that happened to me once and I was sad and I understand how that feels. How about we do something fun?’ Sit with them and their feelings and then have your own day. You’re letting them know the human spirit is filled with a range of feelings, and you know that you can handle it. Sad isn’t bad!
Anything else we haven’t discussed you’d like to mention?
Practice showing gratitude – modeling it by thanking anyone who helps you, in front of your kids. At the dinner table, play the rose, thorn and bud game. What’s something to be grateful for, something that didn’t go well and something to look forward to? That’s a practice that will help them wire their system to expect things to be grateful for, and look forward to…to be hopeful.