When Life Throws Punches, How Resilient is Your Child?

th-2How 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.




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15 comments on “Newsletter
  1. amy russell says:

    So true. I appreciate the simplicity of the message: let go of the fear and be there. Thank you.

  2. Anita says:

    How very true! I feel so guilty of not been able to do just this 1 thing – “Be there for her”.
    But as I read this article, I find some hope that it is never too late to change

  3. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    That’s brilliant Bonnie, I can never get enough of these messages; sometimes the same message “wrapped up” in different ways, and every time it makes it more and more easy to absorb and take on board in an unconscious/subconscious way. Thank you for these gifts Bonne! Warmest Amelia :)

  4. Kristi says:

    Amen Bonnie,
    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.

    • admin says:

      Kristi – Thank you so much for this comment. I hope everyone reads it. I may even add it to another article when I share parents experiences. You have been in the trenches and know what it’s like to have a difficult kid, didn’t try to change him, and came out the other end with a great kid. These stories are so important for parents to read.

    • Betsy says:

      “Don’t take their behavior personally” — This has become a mantra for me, thanks to Bonnie’s advice. I wish I had employed it when she was a toddler and preschooler. But better late than never!

  5. Amber says:

    hi bonnie,
    thanks for sharing this. I worry about my daughter a lot too, but I guess I don’t give her enough credit either.

  6. Kirsten says:

    This was a timely piece for me. Had just done back to school night and came home to an 11 year old anxious about leaving all his school work at a friend’s house. He was anxious and I had listened to the message of the night, “let them have these experiences where it is safe, don’t rescue them, 70% of this year is organization”, but I knew what my own child needed in order to sleep wasn’t my fear that he wasn’t ever going to pull it together…I also have a much more emotionally challenging middle son (9) and he is often trying so hard, but so inflexible about the actions of others, and still having tantrums, yet intelligent, sweet, and sensitive, sometimes the scariest part is when we aren’t present and then everything gets catastrophic. I was pleased to see the comment above and curious as to how Kristi got through the trenches without worrying about the impact on the family and her son’s self image ?

  7. Amelia Trabilsie says:

    Kristi your comment was so good to read, thank you too :)

  8. Leah Davies says:

    I love your quote, “You are your child’s mountain. While she swirls and blows like a hurricane, sometimes a tornado, around you, she needs to count on your stability and most of all your faith that she has and will continue to have whatever it takes to get through whatever it is” That is wonderful advice. – See more at:

    For 11 additional complimentary parenting handouts, video, and activity that is dedicated to helping parents raise responsible, caring adults, see:

  9. Kristi says:

    In response to Kirsten’s question: it wasn’t elegant, or seamless or a straight path, (and still isn’t) that’s for sure – but I think that is the essence of parenting. No matter what our virtual personas (or that of our friends) depicts to the outside world. It’s messy and scary. Parenting can be like walking alone in a dark forest. We learned to recognize early when WE needed counsel, we also allowed our son a chance to intermittently work with a child therapist, and brought along his sibling. One of my biggest realizations was: I needed to let go of MY agenda for my child. He is who he is, AND he is not this behavior currently. I learned (to try) not to get attached to ANY behavior, whether I liked it or didn’t like it, because it is likely to change. The family dynamic is a huge challenge always. My husband and I try to find common ground and create a united front. We learned it didn’t matter what other people thought we should do with our child, including family… we simplified life. Keep them fed, safe, loved. Keep looking out of the trench occasionally for some inspiration Kirsten and remember “This too shall pass” !

    • admin says:

      Kristi – This is so beautifully put. I so appreciate your response. I totally agree – families are a messy business not matter that they look like. Parenting is the hardest job on the planet. I love the steps of your realizations and how you maneuvered your way.
      Thanks for this.

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