Building Resilience from the Ground Up

Running on a dirt roadWhen little children fall and skin their knees, drop things that break, get pushed around by other kids, run outside without a coat, don’t eat a thing when it’s put in front of them—our “mother bear” instinct comes out and we do everything we can to protect them. Of course, our job as parent is to make sure they are warm and fed and unharmed. But do we do too much?

Is our job to be protector? To a certain extent. We can’t protect them forever so we must raise them to be well prepared for protecting themselves long before that day arrives. We have gotten more and more careful and are asking our children to be more and more careful. Are we unintentionally creating children who are afraid and anxious? Aren’t we asking them to tend to our fears instead of finding out for themselves what life has in store?

It used to be that children were pretty much on their own, except when at school. They knew the neighborhood kids and their parents and what to do if they got in trouble. Now we barely allow them to be without adult supervision for more than a few minutes. Every activity is adult run.

It may seem that the time when our children need to be able to fend for themselves are far away. However, their capability to bound and rebound, to fall and get back up, to gain resilience begins in toddlerhood. Children need to do for themselves as soon as they are able. They also need us to know the difference between when they can’t do something alone and when they can but want or need interaction with us that comes when we help. For instance a five year old is perfectly capable of dressing herself but will feign helplessness, much to the chagrin of the parent, when what she really wants is the close physical interaction of being dressed. When we understand the desire, we are more able to put aside our worry that she’ll never be able to do anything on her own, and actually enjoy helping her get dressed.

Building resilience is not always about pushing children out the door but more about listening to them and taking their lead more than we tend to. Children often know what is best for them when we often fear that they have no idea and will fail without us.

When your child:

~ wants to go out without a coat, wait until he gets cold instead of forcing him into it.

~ says she’s not hungry, let her wait until her body tells her she’s hungry without running after her with one more bite.

~ expresses emotion with dramatic words, hear him out before telling him not to use such language.

~ tells you what she wants, ask her how she can make that happen instead of telling her you can’t afford it.

~ falls, wait until he expresses hurt before assuming he is hurt.

~ breaks something, hand her a dustbroom and dustpan to clean it up instead of telling her she should have listened when you told her not to touch.

~ gets called names at school, ask him how he felt and what he wishes he could say to the name callers instead of telling him what to do about it.

~ wants you to play with her, follow her lead in the play rather than telling her how it should be done.

~ wants to light a candle, teach him how to strike a match instead of forbidding something that could be dangerous.

~ doesn’t want to hold your hand or wants to wander around in a populated place, decide on a specific meeting spot in case anyone gets lost.

~ wants to run and climb and jump, allow risky play.

Obviously these suggestions are relative to age-appropriateness, but my hope is to get you to think about how you might be over-protective in areas where capability, coping, self-esteem, and resiliency can be gained if you let go a little. The Atlantic magazine article on “The Land”—playgrounds in the UK that look more like junkyards and allow risky play—may raise the hair on your head but it is in answer to the over-protection that so many of us are putting in the way of raising capable children. What can you learn from it?

When young children are allowed to take risks and learn from them, they will be more adept at handling and making smart decisions about the risks they engage in as teens and young adults. They will be better learned in the natural consequences of their behavior so their pre-frontal cortex thinking will take more precedence when you are not around to protect them.


5 Building Blocks to Raising Resilient Children

How well does your child deal with adversity, cope in difficult situations, become stronger after disappointments? In other words, how resilient is she? We often think that our job is to protect our children from the tough situations of life, but in fact, our protection helps only us. We don’t want to hear their anger, experience their sadness, or deal with their disappointment. In many cases, we were not allowed those feelings so we don’t know how to allow our children to have them. They may frighten us—so we make sure they don’t have them. When we prevent these 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 we:

  1. Trust our child’s ability to handle difficult problems
  2. Convey in words and body language confidence in their ability to cope
  3. Allow and accept their feelings of sadness, fear, anger, disappointment over situations they cannot change
  4. Do not jump in to rescue them or fix situations that cause their frustration in order to avoid our own fears
  5. Balance our own wants and needs with theirs, which will inevitably cause their frustration and disappointment

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 overprotection 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 with those feelings. They need to know they are normal.

Many situations are too much for children to handle: a school environment that puts on too much pressure, a truth that is too much to handle, 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 cause natural feelings. Allowing those feelings does not mean changing the situation or giving in to make them happy. Their ability and opportunity to feel sustains their resilience to move past the feelings.

Lessons from “Chinese mothering”

Never have I experienced such a collective button being pushed than with Amy Chua’s revelatory story of how she raised her two girls the Chinese way. Is it the threat we feel when she throws western parenting under the bus? This is what happens to anyone of us when we feel blamed, disdained, or put down. We get defensive and either take it in as defeat or fight back. Exactly what our children do when we blame them. We are clearly getting our hackles up as she puts down what we do, especially what we have doubts about doing.

I just finished the book, and I must say I found her unabashedly honest about her dictatorial methods that would make the hair on anyone’s neck stand straight up—methods she says would be seen even as illegal in the western culture. I have a hard time believing that most Chinese mothers would say the things that Chua said to her girls. Her story points out many things we can learn from. Her girls are as different as night and day attesting to such different temperaments. Her oldest went along with and apparently agreed to go along with her mother’s style. It pushed her to reach her greatness. Her youngest took more than I would expect rebelling all along the way to which Chua’s very Chinese mother even gave warning. This daughter’s final straw came in public in Red Square in Moscow when she screamed our worst nightmare at her mother—a point to which she was driven by a mother who just would not listen.

It is important for all parents to hold high expectations of their children—as long as they can meet them successfully. But children are different. Not all can come in first or be the best. But even though her younger daughter could be the best, she didn’t want to be. The cost was too great for her—she was missing out on other aspects of a life she knew she would enjoy more. The question is what are after for our children? Is performance the key? Do we want our children to be the best at the risk of being a well-rounded person. So, yes, we should push our children to the point of “optimal distress” according to David Palmitter of Marywood University in Scranton, PA; not to the point of no return. It is important for children to be pushed or push themselves through a good deal of frustration, disappointment, and even defeat so they achieve true self-esteem through perseverance and accomplishment. But the push should not go so far as to cause such discouragement that a child gives up trying. Expectations need to be realistic and fit the child.

What Chua has that is evident is 100% belief in her daughters’ capability and strength. And 100% confidence in herself. This strength is a lesson we can take from this book. Western parenting falls short due to lack of self-confidence and trust in our children. When that dips, fears take over and loom large enough to fill us with doubt and inconsistencies. These trip us up every time. Chua’s strength and her evident love for her girls, which underlies all her retributions is what holds the family together.

I do believe that accomplishments of greatness can be achieved in a kind, respectful, non-blaming, and fully supportive environment. Let us find a balance. We can stand to gain a great deal more confidence in ourselves and our children while at the same time focusing on the importance of strength in relationship. I always want my children to see me as a source of love, support, and advice. That was always my barometer as I brought them up. Is what I am saying building or breaking connection? At 32 and 28, they still gain from that connection. I feel good about the strength of our relationships as well as proud of their accomplishments. We can find answers in moderation and balance without swinging to extremes.