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When Life Gives You Lemons: Building Resilience in Kids

Posted by Karla Belzer - Parenting

On the way to his first ever game where actual score would be kept (and mean something), my son confides in me that he is nervous. "Do your best and have fun" were the only words of wisdom I could manage to squeak out while he tried to calm his own butterflies. As the game progressed and wanting to be proactive, my mind raced towards what I would say to comfort my child if his team lost and how I could help him bounce back from this temporary let down. With my mind focused on every possible thing I could say for every possible outcome, one word kept popping up: resilience.

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the "ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or even significant sources of stress. It means 'bouncing back' from difficult experiences." In helping to overcome adversity, resilience helps children (and adults!) learn to thrive in life, despite the circumstances of life. Exposure to the difficulties of life can even help one become strengthened or transformed by the difficulty. Resilience is a good thing and is making lemonade out of lemons.

Children at all ages and stages experience setbacks, challenges, adversities, and even failures. Sadly, children around the world are exposed to stressful, crisis situations including natural disasters, violence, and abuse and neglect. More often, children experience the less traumatic, but still troublesome stressors of rejection from peers, parental or family problems, school or sport performance, or even exposure to world news. As best as parents try, it is not always possible to keep children safe by preventing stress and trauma.

Resilience is not something people have or don't have, nor is it something we are born with. It is a skill that can be learned and taught so that we are more able to cope with the uncertainties and problems in life.  Research has shown that a prime time for developing resilience in children is in early childhood. Through the development and maintenance of positive relationships and environments that provide cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development, young children are offered the resources and skills that help them learn to cope and adapt to changes throughout their childhood and then to the rest of their lives. Other research has indicated that families and communities that provide care and support and hold high expectations have an important role in developing resilience in young children.

For children of all ages, there are several steps parents can take to build resilience in their child:

  • Accept and assist. Help your child understand that negative things will happen in their life. Talk through their feelings in relation to those events. Thoughtfully suggest ways for your child to emotionally cope with the setback. Focus on accepting your child for who she is – her strengths and weaknesses – and avoid criticism. Acceptance of your child teaches her that she will not be criticized, thus, helping her to become more confident, resilient, and appreciative of herself.
  • Be realistic. Talk about realistic goals and expectations. Encourage your child set achievable goals and expectations. In relation to goal setting, ask your child if he thinks the goal is realistic and brainstorm responses if the goal is not met. Help your child identify his strengths – and work on developing them.
  • Listen and support. When children experience adversity, they often do not want to be lectured or given advice. Consider asking their opinion so they can practice communicating their feelings and perspective. Provide empathy and assurance that they will "bounce back." Let them know that you are listening and that you support them. It is important to give your child your undivided attention by listening with your heart. Foster decision making and problem solving by asking your child his thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the set back. Let the child be the talker; you be the listener.
  • Encourage participation. Resilience in children increases when they have a sense of belonging. Encourage your child to become involved in his school and community and have positive friendships. Teaching your child to handle disagreements and interpersonal difficulties effectively helps her address and handle difficult situations – and become more resilient.
  • Provide challenge. To build resilience, it often means being exposed to a tough situation and living through it. While children should certainly be protected from dangerous or risky situations, small, appropriate doses of challenge can be offered every day to build resilience. Avoid eliminating all risk but allow appropriate risks to teach your child essential skills. Provide age-appropriate freedom and independence in activities to help your child learn his limits.
  • Role model. Children learn through their parents and often mimic our attitudes and actions. How do you as a parent handle a setback or difficulty? What message is your handling of the situation sending your child? Overreacting or reacting negatively to life's little inconveniences teaches children that the trials of life are worth excessive attention and emotion. Strive to have a "we-can-get-through-this attitude" to better equip your child to face difficulties.

In reality, our children will at some time be faced with adversity – despite our best efforts. Whether it is the loss of a loved one, harsh words from a friend, poor grade on a school project, or loss of the "big game" – challenges will come. Remember, it is through these difficult times that growth and character are developed – and lemons are made into lemonade.

Your turn: What are ways you have helped your child work through adversity?

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