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Raising a Resilient Child

As a parent you know that a healthy diet, exercise, and a good night sleep are important for your child to grow and thrive. These are all about keeping the body healthy as well as nurturing social and emotional well-being. For a child to truly thrive, their mental health and intellectual development are two – but not the only other – aspects of development to pay attention to as a parent. And you can apply these same concepts to your own well-being. You’ve probably heard the term “resilience.” Resilience is, very simply, the ability to quickly recover from adversity.

How does resiliency fit into your parenting goals? You can think about it as teaching your child to be a “half-full” kind of person and fighting the negativity of seeing the bad stuff in life as what defines you. Being able to adapt well in the face of challenges: turning around your day when you wake up on the wrong side of the bed; using “not doing well on a test” as a challenge to figure out how to do better next time and learn from less than satisfying results; not being devastated after losing the big game; how to mourn falling out with your best friend or breaking up with a girl or boy friend and not being defined by the ended relationship; as well as more serious adversity, trauma, or tragedy.

What is the key to thriving in the face of the bad stuff? It is a kind of balance, of having the “muscle memory” of thought patterns and behaviors that replenish physical, mental and emotional reserves to bounce back.

Like so much of parenting, cultivating resiliency in your child means that your behavior and responses set the example that your child will mirror. Being resilient means developing your own emotional bank account. To do this includes:

  • Be aware of your own thoughts and feelings
  • Form and maintain strong relationships
  • Cultivate optimism; fight pessimism
  • Learn from experience and be explicit in modeling this for your family
  • Practice self-care, including making physical exercise part of your routine as well as some mindfulness exercises
  • Lighten up; don’t take yourself too seriously, be able to laugh and be silly sometimes

Another piece of this puzzle is having a “growth mindset,” an outlook that encourages you to see challenges as an opportunity and not a barrier.

Through decades of research, Dr. Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist, found that people’s beliefs about their intelligence differ. Some people believe that their intelligence and abilities are unchangeable. In other words, you have a certain amount of intelligence, and you can’t do much to change it. This is called a “fixed mindset.” Think about the phrase, “I’m not a math person.” This statement indicates a fixed mindset about math, because it attributes math ability to an unchangeable quality. Others have different ideas about their intelligence and abilities. Some people believe that it is possible to grow your intelligence through effort. This is called a “growth mindset.” Think about the phrase, “Math was really confusing at first, but I’ve studied hard all year and I understand it a lot better now.” This indicates a growth mindset, because it shows a willingness to dig in deep.

(Fixed vs. Growth: Understand the two basic mindsets that shape our lives

There are tools to help you consciously shift your language toward a “growth mindset.” A useful one is this simple chart about changing how you, and in turn your family, thinks about problem solving:

From: Greater Good Website/Magazine: Science Based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Click here for more resources.

The next step is how you encourage and praise your child. You want to praise a child for her hard work rather than for being smart, emphasizing the effort and not the innate ability. Think about great musicians; every child prodigy who turned into a brilliant soloist got there through working hard, sports superstars train every day. It isn’t enough to innately be good at something, you need to work hard at it. For most of us mere mortals, the ability to persevere and keep working on solving a problem or mastering a skill is an essential part of accomplishing anything. The ability to do that is like a muscle, it needs to be cultivated and exercised.

As a parent, you need to “walk the walk” through how you approach challenges, and you need to “talk the talk.” Just as you need to shift how you think about problem solving, shift how you talk about it. Offering sympathy may at first seem like the best approach when your child is struggling, but instead try encouraging a child to chip away at a challenge saying something like “Maybe it’s time to try a new strategy.” Of course, as a parent you need to know when a child has reached his limit and redirect him toward something that builds his confidence. And there are challenges that can’t be overcome, from something as trivial as a child being tone-deaf to something serious like a learning disability. As a parent, it is important to be attuned to this and a part of a parent’s role is to balance a “growth mindset” with your knowledge of who your child is.

Resources and Further Reading

How resilient are you? Take this test:

A listing of resources to build resiliency

Ken Ginsburg, MD, FAAP, in a 7 minute YouTube video introduces the 7 C’s Model of Resilience – competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control. It is a plan for helping children develop the skills to make them happier and more resilient.

The Road to Resiliency

Carol Dweck’s TedTalk on growth mindset and kids and challenges

This is a great set of short lessons on the role of the parent in Growth Mindset. Includes short videos, surveys, and activities. Includes a Spanish version.

How does this fit into school; an interview with Carol Dweck: How Can Teachers Develop Students’ Motivation — and Success?

Looking for a deeper dive into your own resiliency and well-being, this article has links to a variety of resources.

Want to read more, the book Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges by Steven M. Southwick, M.D. and Dennis S. Charney, M.D. provides a range of strategies for developing resilience.

For Teens

Creating Your Personal Stress Management Plan

When to Ask for Help

Ryan Leak: Chasing Failure (YouTube video)