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.
Resiliency Skills for Children
In addition to adopting a democratic parenting style (if you don’t already have one) or strengthening your commitment to this style (if you are currently parenting democratically), there are four specific skills you can teach your children to aid them in becoming more resilient.
- The ABC
The first resiliency skill we can teach our school-aged children is the ABC System adopted from Reivich. This helps them to understand the connection between their thoughts and feelings, and their behaviors.
The A in the ABC stands for the adverse event or situation. Adversity can be big (like having to move or the of a family member), or small (like a friend not wanting to sit next to you or forgetting your homework).
The B in the ABC refers to the child’s beliefs and thoughts about the specific event. The beliefs may be different for different children who experience the same adversity. For example, one child who forgets his homework may think, “I always forget my homework. I can’t remember anything. I’m so stupid!” Another child may think, “Homework is so dumb! Teachers who assign homework are so mean!” And a third child may think, “Uh, oh, I forgot my homework. Mmmm, well, now I have an extra night to correct the mistake I made on it. I’ll turn it in tomorrow.”
The C* in the ABC refers to the child’s emotional and behavioral conduct or responses to his beliefs and thoughts (the B)–this is how he feels and what he does in the situation. In the example above, the first child may cry or be exceptionally quiet and withdrawn for the rest of the day. The second child may become visibly angry and respond harshly to the teacher when she walks around the room to collect the homework. The third child may apologize to the teacher for forgetting her homework and ask permission to bring it in the next day.
Most people believe that how they react to a situation, their conduct (the C), is the direct result of the adversity (the A). This is not the case. How we feel and react (the C) is the direct result of what we think (the B) about the adversity. Identifying what we believe or think about a specific situation is the key to understanding why we behave the way we do. Teaching children to identify their thoughts at the exact moment when they are dealing with the adversity can be a challenge.
The best way to do this is by having them examine their self-talk. Self-talk, what Reivich refers to as “ticker-tape beliefs,” is what we say to ourselves. It determines how we feel and how we respond to specific situations. School-aged children may not be aware of their “self-talk,” but it is there.
Parents can help their children identify their ticker-tape beliefs by asking questions that specifically focus on what thoughts were going through the child’s head when a particular incident occurs. For example, if your daughter is upset because her friend did not want to sit next to her during lunch, you may ask your daughter, “What did you say to yourself when that happened?” or “What were you thinking when she said she didn’t want to sit with you?”
Once your daughter can identify her self-talk, you can begin to take her through the ABC . Reinforce the concept that feelings and behaviors are generated by what she thinks about the situation, what she says to herself when it happens. The situation merely invites these thoughts that lead to emotions.
* Reivich uses the term consequences. Here we’ve chosen to use the word conduct.
- Challenging Beliefs
The next step in developing resiliency is to challenge the ticker-tape beliefs themselves. Challenging our beliefs allows us to test the accuracy of the thoughts we are having. For example, if your daughter is upset because her friend won’t sit next to her at lunch and her self-talk is saying, “It’s no wonder she doesn’t want to sit next to me. I’m not a good friend. In fact, no one wants to be my friend,” you can ask her to challenge whether those thoughts are accurate.
Teach your child to look for the evidence that does not support her thoughts. Ask her to pretend she is a detective and search for clues that support the opposite of what her self-talk is saying. Your daughter might say, “Actually, I know I am a good friend because I just helped Mary with a homework assignment she was having trouble completing. And I know that other people want to be my friend because Judy called me last night to see if I would go to the movies with her on Saturday.” By having your daughter recall specific real-life evidence that her ticker-tape beliefs are false, she can begin to replace her negative self-talk with more constructive, encouraging words. By changing what she thinks, she can change how she feels and behaves in future situations.
- Putting it in Perspective
Children often get themselves into a downward spiral with catastrophic thinking. A child who dwells on an adverse situation and imagines a series of disastrous events that will follow is thinking catastrophically. A third-grader who forgets her homework one day is practicing catastrophic thinking when she thinks, “I’m so stupid. I always forget my homework. Now I’m going to get a D in this class. I’m probably going to get D’s in all my classes. And if I get D’s in all my classes, I’ll fail the third grade. My friends won’t like me anymore. My parents will be mad at me, too.”
By challenging your child on these beliefs, you can help her break out of the cycle of catastrophic thinking. Ask, “Is this likely to happen?” or “What’s the likely result of forgetting your homework?” Once your child begins thinking more clearly about the possible – and more realistic – outcomes, she can begin to come up with solutions to her problem.
- Real-Time Resilience
This final resilience skill can only effectively be used when the other three skills have been mastered. It is the skill used by children to “fight back” against negative thoughts when they don’t have a lot of time to analyze problems. This technique would work well just before a child takes a test, attempts a foul shot in a basketball game or asks a friend for a special favor.
In this technique, the child learns three phrases to resist negative self-talk: “That can’t be true because . . . ,” “Another way to see this is . . . ” and “The most likely thing that will happen is . . . and I can . . . to deal with that.” For example, if your child’s self-talk is “I’m so stupid! I always forget my homework! Now I’m going to get a bad grade,” you can teach your child to respond by saying, “That’s not true. This is only the first time I’ve forgotten my homework all year,” or “Another way to see this is an opportunity to correct the mistake I made on my homework tonight and turn it in tomorrow,” or “The most likely thing to happen is that I will lose points for turning it in late, and I can work harder on the next project to deal with that.”
Fighting back against negative self-talk is a powerful tool to stop negative thoughts as they occur. Training children to fight back can go a long way in making them more resilient when faced with difficult or uncomfortable situations.
All parents hope their children will develop strong friendships, be successful and make good decisions. These four skills can help build their confidence and boost their independence. By teaching children to listen to and honor their “inner voice,” parents can help them eliminate negative thoughts. Teaching these powerful thinking tools can equip them to face adversity well-prepared and able to thrive.
PEP Parenting Tips to Help Children Develop Resiliency
Do not do for children what they can do for themselves; it will make them feel as if you don’t believe they can do it, and they will begin to lose faith in themselves. Constantly expand their skill repertoire by training them in new skills as they grow older and more capable. Remember to anticipate lots of mistakes during the learning curve. Be supportive and encouraging.
When children are describing their self-talk, listen to what they are saying and paraphrase it back to them. If you are interpreting their thoughts, check to verify with them that you’ve got it right. Don’t tell them what they are thinking; let them tell you. Acknowledge that you’ve heard what they say, even when you are helping them by providing a reality check.
Have a regular time, such as at a family meeting or weekly family dinner, when each member of the family tells something they specifically appreciate about the other family members. This will point out to children some of the real things that others see as special in them as well as training children to notice positive things about themselves and others. In addition to formal appreciations, frequently acknowledge your children’s efforts and accomplishments. Detailed and specific encouragement will give your child helpful feedback that does not disappoint (in the way that praise or lack of praise can), or distract, like self-esteem methods.
Practice resilience in your own life. It will help you deal better with the challenges of being a parent and also be an important tool in teaching your children. When it is appropriate, share with your children your own resiliency struggles and how you successfully dealt with them, or how you messed up and what lessons you learned for the next time.
- Helping Others
Find opportunities for your children to work with or for others, such as other family members, the neighborhood or school community or even the larger society. It helps us put our own woes in perspective and we also feel better about ourselves when we make a contribution to others.
The Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) will be offering training for parents on teaching resiliency to children in the late fall. PEP’s regular classes and workshops teach practical skills for raising capable, encouraged children. Visit PEP: Parenting Education or call at 301-929-8824 for more information.
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