Raising Resilient Children
Children are faced with numerous stressors. But why is coddling not the answer? A parent educator shows how we, as parents, can promote our youngsters' resiliency.
What Is Resiliency?
Each day after school, Sandy bursts through the front door, backpack swinging from one shoulder. If the day has gone well, Sandy is a delight to be around, cheerful and affectionate. But just as often, she comes home in tears, sobbing, “I’m so stupid, I can’t do anything right.” Or, “The teacher is so mean, she doesn’t like me!” Even more drastic, she’ll announce, “Nobody likes me.”
Sandy’s mom says that it’s her daughter’s temperament: Sandy’s just sensitive. So Mom does everything she can to bolster Sandy’s self-esteem. Because Sandy seems to be even more fragile in fourth grade than she was in third, Mom works even harder to cuddle, love, and protect her little daughter.
In one sense, Sandy’s mom is right, growing up is hard. Elementary school-aged children are faced with numerous stressors we wish we could eliminate from their young lives–disagreements between friends, anxiety over school, peer pressure, sibling quarrels, overly scheduled lives, little time to play outside, even exposure to and alcohol. But coddling doesn’t help. Often what our children need is to learn resilience–to become as resistant to negative influences and difficulties as Teflon is to sticky food.
Resiliency is the ability to persevere and adjust when faced with adversity. We all face adversity, but it’s the way we react that determines how we feel and how well we perform in those circumstances. Resilient children do better in school, have more positive social experiences and achieve high levels of personal and professional success. Children who are naturally resilient, or are taught to be resilient, thrive. Given all the temptations which school-aged children are faced with in today’s world, teaching our children resiliency skills may be one of our best weapons to “fight back” against negative influences.
Can Resiliency Be Learned?
The good news is that resiliency can be learned, according to Karen Reivich, Ph.D., co-director of the Penn Resilience Project at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of The Resilience Factor (Broadway Books). “Resilience can be broken down into a set of specific abilities, and those abilities can be learned and applied over time,” Reivich says. By altering the way we think about adversity, we can actually teach ourselves, and our children, to be more resilient.
With the right guidance, Sandy could learn to deal with the obstacles in her life in a far more constructive way. Just as physical training strengthens the body over time, there are no “quick fixes” in this important but challenging task. Learning resiliency skills can take weeks or even months. Internalizing them, for the skills to be used naturally without the need to consciously focus on them, will take even longer.
Self-Esteem, Resiliency Training, and Success
Parents, like Sandy’s mom, often confuse resiliency training with the popular self-esteem movement. Although the two may appear to be similar on the surface, there are significant differences. Most self-esteem programs focus on getting children to feel good about themselves. They often encourage children to use positive affirmations (“I am graceful and strong”) and self-awareness activities (such as looking into a mirror and identifying three things you like about yourself). The push for children to have high self-esteem is based on the belief that children who feel good about themselves will do well in life.
However, Reivich points out that self esteem and success don’t necessarily go hand in hand. “Children won’t succeed solely because they feel good about themselves,” she says, adding that some people with very high self-esteem engage in antisocial, immoral and sometimes even criminal behavior. Resiliency research, on the other hand, supports the notion that children who do well in life will feel good about themselves. What parents should be doing is teaching children the skills they need to embrace life with all its bumps and hurdles.
“The goal,” Reivich says, “is to identify and develop a child’s unique strengths and skills. It is the mastery of skills and abilities that leads to positive feelings about oneself.” When a child does well (works hard on a project; gets a good grade; is a good friend), he will feel good about himself. Reivich would rather parents focus their attention on helping children learn skills for doing well in life instead of supporting self-esteem slogans and activities.
How Do Parents Promote Resiliency in Their Children?
Resiliency begins with how parents personally handle adversity. Parents who can handle difficult situations with openness and grace provide their children with a role to follow. The atmosphere within the home and the way parents conduct their family life significantly influences their children’s resiliency.
There is also a strong correlation between parenting styles and resiliency.
- Authoritarian parents who rule with an iron fist and use rules and heavy-handed controls to force unquestioning obedience squeeze out the creative thinking skills needed in resiliency.
- Permissive or “laissez-faire” parents rarely exert control, set few limits, offer few boundaries and provide little parental guidance or supervision. They are not training their children to learn to live with boundaries, controls or limits.
- The democratic parenting style is most conducive to fostering resilient, capable and competent children. Democratic parents are supportive and communicative, monitor and supervise their children’s’ activities and behaviors, provide consistent discipline in a way that is firm and friendly, and teach their children self-control. Children raised in this environment are more likely to be socially competent, academically successful, and to respond well to adversity.
YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN