Cultivating a Resilient Child

by Lisa Green, LMFT

Resilience is a bit of a buzz word in the mental health community these days, and perhaps also in the worker community, but for good reason. Resilience is seen as the ability to recover from challenges, to bounce back in the face of stress and adversity- so it’s no wonder we’ve identified it as necessary to continue to function well in our high-stress and high-demand environments. Our children and adolescents are no less vulnerable to this high-stress environment full of transition, learning to function in a new culture, new experiences, social pressures, and even danger, not to mention the effects of parental stress that we can only shield them from so well. As parents and adults who support the young, it’s important to understand how to model and cultivate resilience in them, to build self-awareness and a positive sense of self that gives them courage to face difficult situations with hope and grit.

Let’s first note some of the signs of stress commonly seen in children and teens, indicators their coping skills and resilience need a boost, since at times they don’t have the insight or ability to describe what is happening internally when they are stressed.  Actually, this might be true of many of us adults as well! Signs of stress include becoming more emotional, or conversely more withdrawn from people and even activities they enjoy. Some children under stress become defiant, angry, or even aggressive with friends, family, or others, perhaps having tantrums or fits with seemingly little provocation. They might have a hard time concentrating on schoolwork, and their productivity or grades may suffer. There might also be increased physical complaints- like headaches or stomach aches- that have no clear origin or cause. Increased illness, actually having more colds, viruses, or fevers is common as well due to the effects of stress on the body and immune system.

How do we combat challenges and the effects of this stress? Here are five building blocks for resilience, and ways to foster them in the children you care about.

1. Emotional savvy– Being able to identify and name feelings helps children to know what to do with them: to be able to have a sense of mastery over them, to identify the circumstances that cause them, and begin to problem solve how to handle the situation in an responsible manner. To teach this skill, you can reflect to and guide your children in this, and it might sound like this: “It looks like you’re frustrated and sad that our plans changed and you won’t get to see your friends today, and I’m sorry you’re sad. You were looking forward to having fun with your friends today. Is there something you think you would like to do instead to have fun at home today?”

2. Sense of meaning and purpose– As adults, we chose to be in the countries we live in and doing the work we do. The children we bring with us have less of a choice, and especially as they get older, the demands and sacrifices of life as children of workers can begin to feel too costly. Cultivating understanding in your kids about your purpose, then helping them to formulate their own sense of purpose in their everyday lives, and finding some age appropriate, small but meaningful way to contribute to the work will help them to face the stress of things like learning a difficult language when it becomes overwhelming. Ask your children questions like: “What are the most important things in your life? What kind of things do you really care about?” Ask yourself: “What are my child’s interests and skills that he may enjoy using to help in this small way in the ministry?” and help them make connections from their answers to how they interact in everyday life, giving them a sense that what they do matters as well.

3. Solid support system– The presence of solid and supportive relationships are necessary to help children feel that they have a secure base from which to launch and explore the world, learn to take risks, and develop coping skills when things are hard. Give your children the ability to explore new opportunities and take some appropriate risk, then come back and reflect with you about it, to be taught, affirmed, comforted, and encouraged about the experience. This “risk” might be as simple as learning to ride a bike, talking to a new person, trying the first words of the new language, learning how to use public transportation, trying a new food, a new sport, or venturing somewhere on their own for the first time.

An additional core aspect of this supportive relationship is for the child to have some individual time with the parent or supportive adult that is focused just on them, and the relationship, when you are not trying to teach, train, or correct them, but simply to enjoy mutually rewarding activities together.

4. Critical thinking and problem solving abilities – Don’t always fix situations for your children in which they might be upset, disappointed, or even puzzled. Rather, in age appropriate ways, help them to clearly identify the challenge they are facing, and then help them problem solve possible actions they can take to work toward a solution, i.e. “You want to buy this toy, but you only have 5 dollars, and it is 10 dollars. What do you think you should do?” Then let them have some freedom to try out the solutions they come up with. This support in facing challenges and problem solving one situation at a time gives kids increasing confidence in their ability to master whatever problems or challenges life throws at them.

5. Positive self-esteem- Every child has strengths and weaknesses. Helping them accept the things that are challenging for them without it diminishing their sense of self is crucial, and will involve modeling and reflecting, i.e. “You’re having a hard time in math, but it doesn’t mean you’re dumb. When I was your age I had to work really hard at math to get good grades too, and my brother still always got better grades than me and he didn’t work as hard. But that’s ok, because I really loved history and got good grades there. Everybody has things that they are better at than others, and it’s important for us to be different from each other. It makes the world interesting!”

Another good way to cultivate positive self-esteem is to proactively and consistently help your child engage in at least one thing that they enjoy and are good at. A child will have more confidence to try new things and courage to face difficult situations if they have experiences in which they feel they are successful on a regular basis.

The wonderful thing about resilience is that it can be learned and increased at any age. If you embark on building resilience in your children, you will be making a long-term impact on their ability to face challenges, recover from difficult and stressful situations, and have hope for their lives. A side benefit to helping build resilience in the kids you support is that it naturally also help foster more resilience in yourself- and everybody wins.