resilience: (noun) 1. The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; 2. The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness. As a parent, there’s nothing more gut wrenching than seeing your child suffer under the burden of pressure – in whatever form that pressure exists. Brisbane child psychologist Dr Aaron Frost says he is regularly asked by parents to help make their kids more resilient.
The truth about psychology is that it is unfortunately focused on those who struggle, rather than those who thrive. And in kids, that is what resilience is; thriving despite the stuff that gets thrown in their way.
However, despite this lack of research we do have some pretty good hints as to what it is about some kids that makes them resilient and the good news is that we, as parents, can help out with at least some of those things. There are four key factors that help us to predict which kids will be resilient to life’s trials and tribulations:
Kids are not born with the ability to control their emotions so they need you to help them learn it. When a baby cries for no reason, they are soothed by mum or dad by rocking, stroking and talking softly. As they get bigger, they need you to do this less as they learn to do it for themselves. But even for older kids, emotions can be big and scary. Part of our jobs as parents is to help them make sense of their emotions. Give them a language of emotions and help them make good choices even when they are emotional. To do this, you need to pay attention to your kids and stay in tune with them and what they are feeling:
- Teach them to label their emotions. When they are glaring at you shaking with rage, say “I know you feel angry/frustrated” etc.
- Give them techniques to manage these emotions: deep breathing, distraction, taking themselves away to calm down, counting to 10 etc
- Model good emotion management yourself. Children learn by seeing and if you are a good example, they will most likely follow in your footsteps. If this is something you struggle personally with, it’s something worth working on.
Self-esteem is not created by telling your child that they are good at everything. This teaches them a) that you are a liar, and b) that praise is hollow. Your child being good at things creates self-esteem and they get good at things by persevering at things they are bad at until they get better.
Watch your language with your child. Do you praise them for being smart or strong or pretty or any other fixed characteristics over which they have no control? Or do you praise them for the effort they put in – something that they do have a lot of control over? Research shows that praise for effort is incredibly powerful in creating a child who doesn’t give up easily.
- Let your kids have opportunities to fail and know that they have failed. But find parts of the experience that they did well and think about how they might improve next time.
- Show unconditional love, regardless of how good your children are at any type of skill. Be proud of their efforts.
- Catch yourself (and other people) praising fixed characteristics and change your language.
Kids learn social skills by watching you. If you get angry to solve your problems, so will they. If you sulk and refuse to talk to your partner after you’ve had a fight, then they will learn not to address issues. It is OK for kids to see parents disagree. But it’s even better for them to see you solve your problems like adults. It is also good for them to see you taking turns, sharing, helping people out for no personal gain and being polite to people in the service industry. These social scripts will serve your child well as they are navigating their way through friendships, dating and even the job market.
Finally, one of the big predictors of resilience is language. Kids who have better verbal skills tend to have better than average long-term outcomes. It is important to foster language from an early age.
An American study found families who had more than 20 books in their house produced children who had better academic outcomes than families with less than 20 books. I was amazed to learn about a state-funded initiative that delivered one book a month to families in order to improve child outcomes. Obviously, having books propping doors open won’t produce good language outcomes. The truth is that families who value reading tend to have more books and you can make someone value reading by buying them books. Show your love of reading to your children. Read your favourite childhood books to them even if they can’t read them for themselves. Make sure they see you reading a book every now and then. And, most importantly, talk to them about the books they are reading.
Parenting to build resilience isn’t a sure-fire path to your kid’s success but it is about tipping the odds in their favour a bit. Life will throw them challenges but our job as parents is to give them the best chance to come out the other side of their challenges stronger.
Words: Dr Aaron Frost
Dr Aaron Frost is a clinical psychologist and director of Benchmark Psychology at Upper Mt Gravatt. Visit www.benchmarkpsychology.com.au.