Most parents instinctively recoil when it comes to thoughts of their children facing failure or dealing with a difficult situation. In fact, parents typically think it’s part of their job to shelter and protect their children from the storms of life. It’s a totally natural assumption. But it’s not always the most helpful when it comes to preparing a child for the future.
Ask yourself: Do you want to raise a child who understands the importance of kindness and compassion? Do you want to raise a young adult who knows how to adapt to imperfection, develop new skills, and be confident and independent in the face of adversity?
Research shows that all of these traits are gained through the opportunity to face down tough challenges. Struggles can help your child savor life’s best moments and give him or her the rewarding satisfaction of overcoming obstacles — and succeeding.
You can foster your child’s ability to seek challenges and bounce back from tough times — to be resilient — from a very young age.
What is resilience?
If you look it up in the dictionary, you might see the term resilience explained as having the ability to bounce or spring back into shape after being compressed, stretched or bent. Trees are resilient to wind and storm, for example.
Resilience is also a human quality. A resilient person is someone who recovers his or her strength and spirits after undergoing acute or chronic hardship, someone who triumphs in the face of adversity.
Think of Frederick Douglass, who emerged from slavery as a great orator and intellectual. Or Eleanor Roosevelt, who experienced the early death of her parents but went on to become a noted political activist. Frida Kahlo survived a near-fatal accident that ended her dream of becoming a doctor, so she turned to painting and is now known worldwide for her art. And Malala Yousafzai, an education activist born in Pakistan who survived a gunshot wound while riding her school bus. She has received a Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocating for girls’ education around the world.
But resiliency isn’t just found in famous people. It’s an important quality for anyone to have because no one can escape life’s often unpredictable challenges.
You can gauge your child’s current level of resilience by observing his or her ability to cope with everyday stressors, as well as long-term sources of stress. Start by thinking about your child’s individual disposition and his or her initial reaction to stress. What’s your preschooler’s response to being told to put on a seat belt? How does your 9-year-old react to being assigned a big science fair project?
Each child’s individual biological response to stress plays a role in his or her level of resilience. Some children show great sensitivity to stress; others are more easygoing in nature. Resiliency isn’t just predetermined, though. Your child’s ability to adapt and thrive in the face of a challenge also is shaped by experiences and relationships.
Researchers sometimes liken a child’s resiliency to a seesaw. Stressful experiences — such as the loss of a parent or having a chronic illness — may pile up on one side of the seesaw, weighing it down in favor of negative outcomes. On the other side, however, are positive relationships and supportive resources. These help make stress tolerable for a child, tipping the seesaw the other way — toward positive outcomes. The stressors don’t disappear, but the child is given the necessary tools to achieve a positive balance.
As a parent, you can help your child acquire the skills he or she needs to deal with life’s challenges. Resiliency can be built out and developed over time.
The importance of relationships
Having the support of a stable, committed grown-up — whether it’s a parent, caregiver or teacher — is one of the most important factors in helping a child feel that he or she has what it takes to overcome adversity. This kind of trusted adult-child connection provides young children with a buffer from the stresses of external life, creating a protected space in which to grow and learn.
The more of these stable relationships a child has, the better. Although your own relationship as a parent with your child is of major importance, think about other current trusted relationships your child has in his or her life. This could be a grandparent, aunt or uncle, coach, piano teacher, or family friend. Consider how you might help strengthen these relationships or create others that would benefit your child.
Resilience is kind of like an emotional muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets. To help your child develop this muscle, encourage him or her absorb the following key concepts.
- Decisions have consequences — Allow your child to experience the outcome of his or her decisions.
- Failure is a part of life — It’s important for children to learn that failure isn’t a deal breaker. If your child sees failure as an opportunity to learn rather than quit, he or she is more likely to try new things and get better at them.
- Everyone has strengths — Every child has unique abilities. For some kids, conventional areas such as academics or sports may not be their strong suit. But they may have strengths in other areas, such as in creativity or courage.
Angela C. Mattke, M.D.
Dr. Mattke is a general pediatrician in the Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. In addition to being Medical Editor of “Mayo Clinic Guide to Raising a Healthy Child,” She is host of Mayo Clinic’s interactive Facebook Live show and podcast called, “#AskTheMayoMom,” where she discusses and answers audience questions about common pediatric health topics. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrAngelaMattke. For more information about pediatric health topics, follow @mayoclinickids on Twitter.