Inevitably, children will worry about a big project, or experience heartbreak, loss, and failure at some point in their lives. Often, our parental instincts encourage us to rescue them from unpleasant emotions or hijack their experiences to keep them safe. Underneath this impulse is love.
And while we cannot protect our children from experiencing stress and distress, we can lean into our love to help them develop skills to handle these challenging moments - to stand in the face of them and to grow from them. Namely, we can teach and model resilience.
Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, challenge, tragedy, trauma, or adversity. When children are resilient, they are braver, more curious, more adaptable, and more able to show up in the world as their authentic selves.
All children are capable of extraordinary things, and resilience can be nurtured in all children.
Resilience And Stress
The amygdala is like the brain’s active watchdog, always on the lookout for perceived threats. This part of the brain is responsible for our instinctive and impulsive responses wired for survival. During times of stress and adversity, it sets our body into alert, eliciting either a fight, flight, or freeze behavioral state.
Stress can also cause the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control center, to temporarily shut down. This area is involved in attention, problem-solving, emotional regulation, and impulse control. Sometimes, such as in moments of acute stress, we need the amygdala to take over our ability to reflect, plan, or contemplate options. For example, if a cobra were at your feet, you wouldn’t have time to google what to do, your body would need to react swiftly in order to protect itself.
Other times, we need just the opposite - we need our prefrontal cortex to calm the amygdala so that we can think logically and respond in order to move forward. This is how grit is born. When we bolster resilience, the prefrontal cortex expands our capacity to recover from, adapt to, or find a solution to challenging situations.
Resilience And Behavior
Children have different levels of resilience and different ways of responding to and recovering from stressful times. All behavior is communication, and our children’s behavior gives us clues as to whether they are regulated and in their learning brain, or if the demands of stress are greater than their capacity to cope.
When children are dysregulated, they may become emotional, withdraw, or become defiant, angry, or resentful. When we become curious about behavior, we are able to meet children where they are to help them regulate and learn new skills.
6 ways to build resilience in children
1. Model resilience.
Research tells us that the presence of at least one reliable, supportive relationship is paramount in building resilience in children. When a child feels upset, angry, frustrated, or scared, the way they see their “secure person” respond communicates to them how to think about and deal with problems that are stressful. Additionally, spending 5-10 minutes a day of focused connection with your child helps them feel safe and can empower them to seek guidance when they are stressed or having a hard time.
2. Teach kids about their emotions.
During stressful moments and in the face of unpleasant emotions, children may not be able to quiet their amygdala to activate their prefrontal cortex. Because the prefrontal cortex is early in development, they can easily fall into a fight, flight, or freeze state. By helping children notice and label their emotions, it brings them into their bodies. As they understand that all emotions are acceptable and useful, they can honor what they are feeling and choose effective calming strategies to help them regulate and move forward.
3. Embrace mistakes.
When children fear failing, they develop a fixed mindset - we either win or we lose, pass, or fail. This type of thinking can enhance stress and lead to risk avoidance. When we teach that all mistakes are normal - ours and theirs - it becomes safe for them to step out of their comfort zone to try new things. Embracing a growth mindset encourages that our traits are not fixed, but rather grow with practice, and mistakes then become the building blocks to learn and grow.
4. Ask children for their opinion.
When we ask our children for their opinions or ask for their help, they feel powerful and valuable. In these ways, they can also practice communicating their wants, needs, and thoughts. As children discover who they are, they learn what they are made of.
5. Encourage healthy risk-taking.
Healthy risks are situations that encourage children to step outside of their comfort zone but result in little harm if they are unsuccessful. This may include trying a new sport that they show interest in, participating in the school play, or striking up a conversation with a peer. When children embrace risk-taking, they learn to challenge themselves, knowing they are powerful and capable just as they are and especially when they mess up.
6. Teach problem-solving.
Rather than telling children what to think, we can teach them how to think. Reflecting back on what you hear and asking questions is a great way to encourage problem-solving. By bouncing problems back to the child, it gives them opportunities to practice thinking through the issue to come up with solutions. Here are some questions you might try:
- What did you learn?
- What did you do today that made you think hard?
- What are some other ways you can solve this problem?
- How can we look at this from a new perspective?
Resilience and grit don’t prevent stress from occurring but they do equip us with tools to cope and transform something challenging into something beautiful or new. At the very least, resilience can help us know ourselves, set boundaries, and practice self-love. When we love ourselves through all emotions and situations - pleasant and unpleasant - then we step into who we are meant to be - and that person is exactly who the world needs.
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