As much as we try to protect our kids from the harsh realities of life, hard stuff happens anyway. Do you know what it takes to be resilient?
When my kids’ great grandmother started forgetting their names (and almost everything else), we had to adapt. When my kids’ grandfather was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and then hit medical difficulty after medical difficulty before dying one month later, life turned upside down for our family.
Experts in the field of resilience say there are five key skills that kids need to go through difficulty and come out better afterward.
Key Skill #1: Kids need loving, protective relationships.
Kids (and adults) who bounce back from difficulty have a strong network of support, love, and care, say University of Minnesota resiliency experts Ann Masten and Abigail Gewirtz. They know who to count on, who to talk to, and who care about them—no matter what happens.
Key Skill #2: Kids need adults who care for themselves and adults who teach them how to care for themselves,
says Ronald Palomares of the American Psychological Association. Self-care is crucial for living a healthy life, but it becomes even more critical during hard times. Kids watch how adults care (or neglect) themselves during times of crisis. Kids also adapt better to difficulty when adults keep rituals and routines, which are another form of self-care. The routines of getting up and ready in the morning, doing homework and going to school, completing chores, and bedtime routines all give kids a sense of predictability during unpredictable times. When my father-in-law was in hospice, we continued to work, mow the lawn, eat meals together, and do homework even though we were often on the phone or booking an emergency plane ticket to visit.
Key Skill #3: Encourage kids to express their worries and fears,
says Ronald Palomares of the American Psychological Association. Kids—just like adults—are prone to imagine the worst, and their active imaginations can overwhelm them and give them a sense a dread. Allow kids to express their feelings (through talking, art, or physical activity), but also provide a context for what they’re feeling. Say, “I’ve been through hard things before. It felt awful. I thought it would never end. But hard times don’t stay forever. Things do get better. I’ve seen life improve, and it will happen again even if it doesn’t feel like it right now.”
Key Skill #4: Frame difficulties as opportunities for growth. Research says that kids who succeed in life as kids—and as adults—experience some difficulties during childhood and learn how to cope in positive ways.These kids grew from their experience. Richard Weissbourd, a faculty member of Harvard’s School of Education says it’s key to encourage kids not to dwell on the small, hard stuff and to become part of things that are bigger than themselves. For some families, that entails doing family service. For others, it means continuing to work hard at what family members are passionate about (such as playing a sport, playing an instrument, or creating art) even when your passions may be dulled by grief and fear. As family members do positive actions, point them out. Talk about how proud you are that they’re continuing to live their lives in effective ways even when life is hard.
Key Skill #5: Teach kids to solve problems well. Feeling empowered to make a difference even when obstacles look overwhelming is a key skill for resilience.
Robert Brooks of the Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising Resilient Children says that finding concrete ways to solve problems can help kids cope better. For example, with my kids’ great grandmother’s dementia, we visited her and brought her drawings that my youngest had made. My eldest liked to talk to her and ask her questions, even though her answers didn’t always make sense. We talked about how much she treasured our visits, even if they were hard and awkward for us. The last time my kids saw their great grandmother before she died, she didn’t know who they were at all. They said that didn’t matter. What mattered was that they cared for her and visited her anyway. They had a sense of power in a situation where it was easy to feel helpless and powerless.
This is resiliency. It’s the ability to go through a difficulty without having your life completely unravel. Although it may feel that your life has turned upside down, you can talk about your feelings and fears as you muddle through. You can teach your kids that difficulties happen to everybody and the way you get through a difficulty makes a big difference.
1. Ann S. Masten, Ph.D. and Abigail H. Gewirtz, Ph.D., “Resilience in Development: The Importance of Early Childhood,” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development, March 15, 2006.
2. Ronald S. Palomares, Ph.D., Bouncing Back: Teaching Children Resilience Skills (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, May 2008).
3. Louisa Kamps, “Raising Resilient Kids,” Good Housekeeping, December 2010, 121-126.
4. Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein, Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002)
5. Image via Nanagyei on Flick’r