“No matter how much we might want our kids to be resilient, they don’t become that way automatically. Just as we have to teach children to be respectful, we also have to teach them to be resilient.”
– Educational specialist David Walsh (2007, p.70)
Every loving parent wants what’s best for their child. We want their lives to be filled with as much happiness and success as possible. And we put a lot of effort towards this goal. We pour money into parenting books, Baby Einstein videos, and other educational products. We fuss about them attending the best quality schools and receiving the highest education. We save for college funds and shuttle them around to afterschool activities. But what in your parenting teaches children the attitudes necessary to foster resilience?
For many parents, the answer to this question is: not much. In fact, some of the very things that are most harmful to a child’s long-term resiliency have become common practice throughout society. Too many parents try to help their children avoid pain altogether rather than helping them learn to effectively deal with the pain that comes along. They try to manage life for their children rather than helping them manage it on their own. They may try to pump up a child’s self-esteem artificially rather than nurturing a competence that comes naturally through hard work, trial, and especially error. Many parents spend a lot of time elevating the emotional significance of certain things in a child’s mind, creating negative energy that turns what might otherwise be a minor setback into a life-debilitating event. Others confuse their own interests for those of their kids, pushing their children in a certain direction according to their own unfulfilled desires. There are parents who do all they can to impede exploration and growth so as to try and keep children in an ignorant, babyish state; an imagined “innocence” that protects a parent’s idealized views of what childhood should be while getting in the way of natural development.
Then there are those parents who take the opposite approach, trying to toughen children up in all the wrong ways. They withhold affection or are reluctant to express love because they don’t want a child becoming “too soft.” In reality, plenty of nurturing has precisely the opposite effect. Or they might train children to suppress their emotions by scolding them with admonitions such as “big boys and girls don’t cry,” thinking that this will result in a child who is tough. In reality, all this does is develop a falsely tough exterior; a thin coating of bravado covering a vulnerable emotional mess that resides just underneath.
Patterns for dealing with life are being established all throughout childhood, and these patterns will form the conditioned responses that children revert to later on. This is why it’s important for parents to accurately understand what does and does not nurture resilience in their children. Whereas there are a number of things parents do that can make children more vulnerable and less equipped to handle adversity, the good news is that there are a number of things parents can do in raising their children that will promote resiliency.
Next we will explore what different parenting approaches tend to produce resilient kids, and which parenting styles can hinder resiliency, leading to less competent kids who are ill-equipped to handle life.
The Definition of Resilience
The American Psychological Association describes resiliency in the following way: “Resilience is an interactive product of beliefs, attitudes, approaches, behaviors, and, perhaps, physiology, that help children and adolescents fare better during adversity and recover more quickly following it. Resilient children bend rather than break during stressful conditions, and they return to their previous level of psychological and social functioning following misfortune. Being resilient does not mean that one does not experience difficulty or distress or that life’s major hardships are not difficult or upsetting. Rather, it means that these events, although difficult and upsetting, are ultimately surmountable.” (APA Fact Sheet, Fostering Resilience in Response to Terrorism: For Psychologists Working with Children)
Let’s recap the four components of resiliency: BELIEFS, ATTITUDES, APPROACHES, and coping BEHAVIORS. You’ll notice there isn’t a word about what type of trauma or negative event was endured. There’s nothing about having to shield children from difficult circumstances or protecting them from every injury or unpleasant experience. Resiliency is about a healthy state of psychology; one that allows children to bounce back and maintain a love for life even in spite of the harshest struggles.
Resiliency has also been described as a phenomenon whereby individuals show positive adaptation in spite of significant challenges in life. (Luthar, Cicchetti & Becker, 2000) It’s the process of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences and achieving a positive outcome. (O’Leary, 1998; O’Leary & Ickovics, 1995; Ruther, 1987) A study by Garmezy & Rutter (1983) found two primary factors associated with resiliency: A) Support from others, and B) A child’s ability to understand and cope with the situation (i.e., proper coping perspectives and life outlook). This is the broad theme throughout most of the research on resiliency. In the next heading, we’ll discuss more specifically some of the things that build resiliency in children.
There are a number of factors that build resiliency in children, as different studies have found over the years. Youth who bounce back quickly after experiencing hardships tend to possess the traits and resources listed below. The more of these parents can develop in their children, the more resilient their kids will be:
How To Build Resiliency in Children
Traits in the child that promote resiliency:
- Well-developed social skills
- High measures of emotional intelligence
- An ability to focus their attention and well-developed problem solving skills
- Higher intelligence
- A positive and well-grounded self-esteem
- High degrees of social tolerance and patience towards others
- Self-efficacy, or the belief that they have the skills to control or manage their problems
Measures of belief that promote resiliency:
- Flexibility in beliefs and an ability to adopt multiple perspectives on life
- A sense of purpose and hope in the future
- A sense of personal responsibility over one’s actions and circumstance
- A sense of control over their life and the ability to act independently
- Possessing a clear coping strategy for dealing with setbacks that emphasizes positive, pro-social principles
- An optimistic outlook towards life
- The belief that change is a natural part of life; a challenge rather than a threat to their personal goals and wellbeing
- The belief that outcomes are largely shaped by one’s own efforts
Personal resources and environmental measures that promote resiliency:
- A healthy relationship with at least one parent or caretaker figure
- Access to a network of close social support and personal confidants
- Involvement in religious or civic activities
- Special interests and hobbies to focus upon that allow a child a means of temporary escape
- Exposure to adults who cope well with stress and who model productive coping strategies
- Access to effective schools, good teachers and safe neighborhoods
Things that impede resiliency in kids
- An overprotective environment or helicopter parenting. Overprotective parents foster dependency in their children while shielding them from chances to experience failure, which harms resiliency.
- Maintaining a rigid belief structure or placing too much emphasis on ideals for “how life should be” or how people are supposed to behave.
- Coping strategies that focus around anger, hatred, victimization, condemnation or punishment of others.
* General references for above information: Masten, 2004; Masten, Best & Garmezy, 1990; Rutter, 1990; Dohrenwend & Dohrenwend, 1981; Silk et al., 2007; Werner & Smith, 1992; Luthar, 1991; Weist et al., 1995)
Throughout the rest of this chapter, we explore some of these issues in greater detail, and follow with additional chapters highlighting ways parents can help develop these skills for resiliency in everyday life.