How well does your child handle adversity, cope in difficult situations, become even stronger after disappointments? In other words, how resilient is she? So often with all best intentions of being a good parent, we inadvertently make it harder for our children to manage life and cause a dependence on someone else to solve their problems.
We often think that our job is to protect our children from the tough situations of life, but in fact, our protection helps us more than them. We don’t want to hear their anger, experience their sadness, or deal with their disappointment if that triggers feelings of failure in our parenting. In many cases, we were not allowed those feelings as children, so we don’t know how to allow our children to have them. Protecting our kids helps us to feel we are doing a good job, but protection can hurt our child’s ability to bounce back.
When a child has negative feelings, they may frighten us—so we try to insure they don’t have them. When we prevent or rescue our children from tough experiences, we diminish their resilience, their ability to cope with life’s inevitable frustrations and situations beyond their control.
Building resilience in children requires that you:
- Trust your children’s ability to handle difficult problems. This may require a perceptual shift from seeing your small child as helpless and in need of you directing and teaching all the time. Children are way more capable than we give them credit for. Stand back and watch and give opportunities for small masteries.
- Convey in actions and body language your confidence in their ability to cope. Show don’t tell. That means allowing them to cope instead of jumping in, giving them the opportunity to experience the natural consequences of their choices and behavior. Convey that you believe in them and know they can get through whatever it is that comes their way—with your help and support when needed. This starts with separating from you to be in the care of another, allowing physical activities without yelling, “You’re going to hurt yourself”, dealing with bullies and cliques, handling school failures, managing homework.
- Allow and accept their feelings of sadness, fear, anger, disappointment over situations they cannot change. This requires that you not ‘give in’ in order to avoid the hassle of a meltdown. You do not have to do anything, simply be there and acknowledge and validate their experience and feelings.
- Do not jump in to rescue them or fix situations that cause their frustration in order to avoid your own fears. You may fear that your child cannot handle disappointment or the cruel words of another child. You may fear that without your droning on about homework, it will not get done and your child will fail. You may fear that if you do not yell 10 times, your child will never do what he is told.
- Balance your own wants and needs with theirs, which will inevitably cause their frustration and disappointment. For instance, you may not want to add on more driving for yet another activity but are afraid to say no, so you agree and inevitably feel resentful of all you do with no appreciation. Your needs and wants are as important as your child’s. Make sure you honor them so your child learns to honor them too.
Children are so much more capable of dealing with and solving problems than we give them credit for. Our natural sense of nurturing can easily switch to over-protection when we think we are responsible for our children’s happiness. We do not serve them by protecting them from unhappiness or telling them they shouldn’t feel what they are feeling. Let their tears flow, allow their anger and disappointment. You don’t have to do or change anything. Simply acknowledge and empathize so your children know their feelings and experiences are normal.
Many situations are too much for a child to handle: a school environment that puts on too much pressure, a truth that is too difficult to understand, etc. But life inevitably throws us situations beyond our control, and how well our children are able to get over them and move on depends on their resilience.
A schoolmate who taunts with a hurtful name, a desired toy you think inappropriate or unaffordable, a limit that feels unfair, all trigger natural, unpleasant feelings. When you allow those feelings to come out, your child learns in time how to understand and deal with them and eventually control them. Their ability and opportunity to feel sustains their resilience to move past the feelings.
Altering the situation, doing something to cheer your child up, nagging about homework and checking it, denying feelings in an attempt to get your child to see the positive, telling your child what to do and when to do it, or giving in to make him stop screaming, means you are rescuing your child from inevitable failures and disappointments, hence undermining resilience.
What all this means is that you can do less, make your parenting easier, feel less exhausted and drained by all you must do to get your child to … whatever, and in turn encourage the resilience your children will need for the rest of their lives.
Questions and Answers and a Story
Handling a Biting Toddler
Q. My 2.5 year old is biting out of frustration when she can’t communicate, i.e. I want that toy, etc. Yesterday marked the 4th kid within 2 weeks. I talk with her, I explain the situation as I see it, I remove her from the situation explaining how it hurts. I have asked her to apologize. I am exasperated and feel nothing is getting thru! I explain how we need to use our words and try to help her find her words but it seems she is too young and doesn’t really get what I am saying. She is fine with older kids, it is when she is challenged by a peer and she wants something they have, she bites their hand to let go. After one biting incident at her program, she swatted at me later in the day when it was time to leave a friend’s house.
A. This is a tough stage for both your daughter and you and could last for awhile. Many children this age decide to communicate through biting, hitting, sometimes head-banging. I think the biter is the hardest for parents who must be vigilant around other children. She is on target developmentally and even though her language skills are improving it does not take the place of biting. This is a developmental stage she will outgrow and does not require teaching her to stop biting. You must certainly remove her from the situation, just as you have described. But do not force an apology, don’t explain too much and do not expect that she should be able to stop because you have talked to her about it. It simply takes time for her to become capable of resisting her temptation to bite. I believe that will happen sooner rather than later when you accept her as a biter, do not reprimand her or threaten her and accept that you will have to keep a vigilant eye and have an enormous amount of patience. Do: Remove her to another room anytime she bites and tell her that biting is not ok because it hurts; ask her if she is ready to play again and if she thinks she can play without biting (but don’t hold her to it!); ask her if she would like a hug when she bites (this has miraculously ended the biting of one child I know of); give her something she CAN bite and keep it with you at all times. If she balks at being removed from a situation explain to her that it is your job as her mother to keep her safe and make sure other children are safe too. Assure her that she will be able to stop biting.
Disrespect at School
Q. My 9 year old son is smart, creative and very stubborn. He hates school, refuses to even try, disrespects the teachers and acts out in anger if they try to make him do his work. He is more than capable of getting As on tests but usually gets Ds because he just stares out the window instead of doing his test. He doesn’t do any of his school work during class time so we have to spend a few hours with him every night catching up on his homework. He is well behaved and lovable when he’s doing something he enjoys but seems to think that if he’s bored, he doesn’t have to try. My husband and I have tried everything to help him realize that, even if he doesn’t enjoy school, he needs to still do his best. We praise him when he does well and try to acknowledge everything he is good at. We have also withheld privileges when he behaves inappropriately at school. Nothing works. He is now meeting weekly with a school social worker. Hopefully he will develop some coping skills. My problem is this – even though we are working very hard to help him be successful, I feel really judged by his teachers. They know he is meeting with the social worker (at their request) but they still phone me to complain about how difficult he is. I just want to burst into tears when I get those calls because I feel totally powerless. Can you give me any tips for how I can handle this?
A. It sounds like your son is trying to tell you that this school is not the right place for him. The problem with our mainstream parenting culture is that we see his resistant, defiant behavior only and try behavioral techniques to change it rather than looking to the inner emotional state that is causing the behavior. My guess is that he is responding disrespectfully to his teachers because he feels disrespected by them. If you feel judged by them, imagine how he feels. He is smart and he is bored, and his nature will not comply with what offends him—I think that is a good thing. But even when bored, children will work for someone who respects and believes in them. He is not happy, and is being told that that is not okay. When you withdraw privileges you tell him that your acceptance of him is conditional on doing something that his integrity cannot stomach. He will not respond well to that. What he needs is to know that you hear him and that you want to work together to find a way for him to deal with this school that you know is not meeting his needs. Share your frustration that you feel judged as well. When you show compassion for his problem, and acknowledge the disrespect he feels at school for who he is without trying to change him, then you can talk about the importance of showing respect even for people we don’t like. A different school or home schooling has the potential of making the difference for both of you—not always an option. Let him know that you find yourself in a predicament with the school that does not feel helpful or supportive and that you have been trying to get him to be compliant to help you with that predicament, and you see that is not helping him. Then give it time for him to trust that you care more about him than the school. In the meantime, let his teachers know how judged you feel and that you are switching your focus to understand him better rather than going for compliance.
Best intentions can send messages of blame
Q. My 12 yo son constantly (out of boredom) teases and annoys his 10 yo brother. Literally my 10 yo is watching his ipad and his brother will “throw” a cushion at him, or walk past and smack his head. I do the usual, why did you do that?.. you wouldn’t like that if we did that to you etc… and he just walks off… The other day, just going to the car, the 12 yo “pushes” the 10 yo into the side of the car, so I say to him once again, “why did you do that?” I don’t understand why you feel the need to annoy your brother all the time, please don’t anymore, let’s have a nice day”.. so we get in the car… and he does it again, I give him an ultimatum (which I shouldn’t have) and say, you can stay home. He jumped at the chance, even though he had wanted to go. He got out of the car, we tried to get him to come back but he wouldn’t. He sat in the trunk of the car, refusing to move, saying, “If I can’t go, then you can’t go.” My husband forcibly removed him, having lost his temper, and we drove off (only for half an hour, as I didn’t want to leave him too long). What could we have done? I did say to him “What can we do to resolve this? How can we all have a nice day?” and he didn’t want to listen or acknowledge anything we said. Anything can set my son off, from being asked to help out, or just telling him no he can’t have another dessert and then BAM. Also, regarding punishment– we have taken his ipad away (I know we shouldn’t) but I really don’t know how I go about teaching him that it’s wrong to keep annoying his brother, and wrong to call us names. My husband has yet to understand how we can get our son to choose to do the right thing without coercion.
A. Your attempts at getting him to see it your way send your son the message that he is a problem and his brother is not. “Why did you do that?” places blame and lets him know you don’t get it. He doesn’t know how to answer that question. If he says the truth, he might fear getting in trouble, so that question sets him up to lie or not answer. It’s your job to find out what is going on between them so you understand and then to facilitate conflict resolution so you get out of the problem they are having and help them work it out between the two of them. Your oldest might have some stored up resentment toward his brother or he’s bored and is trying to get different attention from his brother. Regardless, the task is to address the cause of the behavior instead of asking him questions that feel like blame. You are putting focus on what he is doing wrong (so he’s the bad kid) and what he should not do to his brother (the good kid). Do you see? From the 12 yo’s perspective, you don’t care about him and what is going on with him, you only care about his little brother. When you stand up for the younger, the older one is only going to take it out on his brother more (hence the hitting in the car). This behavior needs to signal you that he is HAVING a problem, not BEING a problem. You may not get to exactly what the problem is but you need to connect with your 12 yo not blame him. I suggest reading the chapter on conflict resolution in my book, Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids so you don’t unintentionally create a perpetrator and a victim.
For many years my son was overwhelmed with the stimuli of the world and fell apart multiple times daily. He would become a screaming, writhing, spitting creature who scratched his own face to bleeding trying to deal with the difficulty of ordering food from a menu! So many public breakdowns it was so hard to know what we should be doing! Get tough and demand that he “behave”? Well that really didn’t help. Thanks to you and a local therapist I learned not to get caught up in MY emotions when he was out of control of his, just be there. We learned to limit the stressors for him. Today he is a different kid. Successfully navigating the high school waters of intellectual, social and physical challenges and knows when he has had enough and needs to have some downtime. As a primary care provider who sees a lot of parents struggling-I tell them to relax-be there, keep them safe and don’t take their behavior personally- and of course I recommend your books and website! Keep up the great work, and thank you.