Holly Richardson: Teaching our children to be resilient

(Photo Courtesy Holly Richardson)

When he was just a little boy, a man I know lost his mom to illness. A couple of years later, his dad, in a drunken fit of rage, beat his older brother to death when he mistakenly thought his son had stolen a few coins from him. When he sobered up and realized what he had done, he couldn’t live with himself and took his own life — in front of this little boy and his younger sister.

Fast forward almost 20, years and this same boy is now a competent adult, working full-time and ready to start his last semester as an undergraduate in college. He is emotionally healthy and thriving. He doesn’t want pity. Those parts of his story, while a part of him, do not define him. He is resilient.

I wrote recently about resilience in adults and how resiliency can be learned. It can also be taught. According to numerous studies on resilience there are a few key factors to fostering resilience in children. Children need warmth, connection, firm limits and consistency.

A study published in “Professional Psychology: Research and Practice” in 2005 lists strategies parents, grandparents and other influential adults can utilize to increase resilience in children. They suggest some of the following:

Teach children problem-solving skills, including being able to identify “controllable” and “uncontrollable” circumstances. Let kids come up with solutions. Help them role-play difficult situations. Stop asking “Why?” but ask, “How can I fix this?” or “Now what?” Healthy problem-solving skills also include learning to see multiple options rather than only two diametrically opposed options.

Encourage children to express their feelings, both positive and “negative.” It is far healthier to express sadness, anger and disappointment than to internalize the belief that “Big girls don’t cry,” or “Be tough.”

Help children identify strengths and positive family experiences. The power of family stories that demonstrate succeeding, failing, then trying again increase children’s resilience. Build in time for family relaxation and storytelling.

Give children responsibilities, which allow them to gain a sense of accomplishment and mastery. Yes, I’m talking about chores, but I’m also talking about letting kids explore their interests and try new things.

Teach children to put things in perspective. Hard times don’t last forever. People grow and change. Unless you’re Uncle Rico from Napolean Dynamite, high school won’t stay the center of their lives forever. Children (and adults) can learn to stop catastrophizing the events of their lives.

Teach kids relaxation and self-control techniques. This can be a simple as letting a preschooler watch Daniel Tiger learn to calm down by counting to four, to engaging in physical activities to learning to meditate.

Teach children to help others. Not only is it common sense, but studies show that children who learn to help others are more resilient, are more responsible and have higher levels of empathy and self-esteem.

Teach your child to set goals, then move toward them by breaking them down in to smaller, achievable chunks.

Avoid eliminating all risk. It’s not possible anyway. Give children age-appropriate freedoms and responsibilities and then let them learn, without swooping in to rescue them. Just like we applaud babies’ first steps and don’t ridicule them for falling, so can we applaud other scary things our kids try, even if they don’t turn out so well.

Building resilience in our kids also means not providing all the answers and certainly not pat answers. Rather than telling a child that the shot they will be getting in the doctor’s office won’t hurt, talk to them about how they can get through it. Just because you know all the answers to your child’s homework doesn’t mean you need to jump in and do it for them.

Finally, if we as adults want the children in our lives to be resilient, we must model resiliency. Share our disappointments and heartaches. Be honest about our grief and anger and shame but also our joys. Let them see us work through arguments with friends and family. Let them know we don’t have all the answers either but let them know that we know there is hope.

Note: There are times and circumstances that need the help of a professional therapist. Please don’t hesitate to seek professional help when it is needed.

Holly Richardson is a regular contributor to The Salt Lake Tribune