8 Steps for Teaching Resilience

Think back through the past week and call to mind all the setbacks, curveballs and challenges you had to navigate. (Pause).

I’ll bet you fashioned quite a list. Chances are, you found (or are working on) a workaround for each one. That’s resilience. It’s a learned skill parents need to teach kids…a lesson best taught (and practiced) early and often.

As much as we may want to shield our children from life’s disappointments, they will face inevitable setbacks at every stage of development:

·      A toddler playmate breaks a favorite toy

·      Mommies and daddies go off to work leaving little ones in the care of relatives or babysitters

·      The long-anticipated first day of school disappoints

·      A treasured family pet dies

·      A ‘tween bestie suddenly prefers other friends

·      The starting position on the baseball team goes to a classmate

·      A teen is bullied online

·      A high school senior receives rejection letters from every one of her top choices

·      New college grads have trouble find a job that fits

No matter what form the problem takes, children often look to parents to make the problem and its pain go away. As they should. Yet as every parent knows, we too feel the pain of our child’s rejection, hurt feelings, grief or loss of hope. So how do we help our children manage setbacks and effectively manage change – and deal with our feelings as well?

It begins with recognizing that while we may have suffered a narcissistic injury that we’ll need to address, our first responsibility is to attend to the needs of our kids.

Here’s an example. Let’s say your uber-talented son didn’t make the cut at the performing arts high school that’s part of an established pipeline to his top-choice prestigious music school, while a less capable (in your mind) student was accepted. Your teen, who has long labored evenings and weekends practicing his horn and composing new music, is understandably devastated that his hoped-for academic path is now off-course. There’s a decent chance he’s pissed off, too.      

Were you to magnify his ire by railing against the injustice and trashing the admissions office, it may feel as if you’re being empathic because you’re reflecting your kid’s feelings. Think again. Rather than helping your son manage the situation, you’re actually escalating it. While he may feel momentarily justified and “supported” by you, relief of this sort is extremely short-lived. Worse, he won’t have learned one positive thing about how to successfully manage his feelings or chart a new path forward.

Teaching children resilience is a two-fer, enabling parents to help their kids develop a sense of self-efficacy in dealing with setbacks, as well as helping parents free their kids to differentiate from them – a critical developmental activity.

 Here are 8 steps (which will not happen in one conversation) for doing just that:

1.    Listen to what your children have to say about the setback – in as much detail as they want to share (and don’t be shy about prompting).

2.    Invite them to describe how they feel about it – and express empathy for their pain or unease.

3.    Ask them if they have any ideas for managing the situation (naturally, young children may need some strategizing help).

4.    Let them know you support their efforts. Ask them what they think they might need from you to move through their feelings and find a workable solution.

5.    Make sure they know you have confidence in them, and that you trust they will reconcile the situation.

6.    If they choose to figure out and/or execute a fix-it plan without your aid, don’t keep asking them how it’s going.

7.    Reiterate that learning how to fail is just as important as learning how to succeed (actually, it’s even more important!). Kids need to understand that the only real failure is not learning from our mistakes. It’s helpful to share examples of how you’ve bounced back from failure.

8.    Take time to process how you feel about your kids’ setback AWAY from them. You may be heartbroken, disappointed, frustrated, scared, etc., but you must process those emotions independently or with the help of another adult. This way you can be present for your child and not contaminate the situation with your issues.

A deeper dive on number eight is in order.

So often parents come to me personally distraught about whatever issue their kid is navigating. We forget that the job of parents is to give our children the dignity to have their own lives and to support them in solving the problems that arise as a result.

Parents need occasional reminders that our children are not extensions of us. When they become tweens, their friends become more important than we are and they start to pull away from us. Often, parents struggle with what they perceive as rejection. But that’s not what’s happening at all. They are simply differentiating from us – a necessary and critical developmental milestone. When we are clear about where we end and our kids begin, we’re better able to accept, tolerate and celebrate their choices, successes and failures as theirs, not ours. 

As it turns out, parenting is a master class that helps parents hone their own resilience when it comes to their kids’ differentiation