Tips to build resilience in children
The good news is that while some of the factors that influence resilience are beyond our control, like genetics,1 research has uncovered a set of characteristics that predispose kids to be able to bounce back, some of which can be built with practice.2 The following strategies are a good place to start.
Encourage your kids to feel their emotions. “It’s really important that children are given permission to feel and experience all of their emotions,” says Emily Toner. “And especially the challenging ones like anger, fear and sadness. It can be a natural instinct to want to shelter your children from all hardship and disappointment but the danger of doing this is that they can then become overwhelmed or unable to cope when faced with everyday challenges, like having a fight with a friend, not getting a good score on a test or not being picked for a sporting team. In short, sheltering your kids in this way means they haven’t been given the opportunity to practise resilience.”
And let them make mistakes. Grant Blashki says allowing children to take some risks is another “resilience training” strategy. “Allowing and encouraging some sensible risk-taking means that they get a chance to test themselves, try things out, fail and have another go,” he explains.
Promote problem solving. “I think the other thing that’s really helpful here is teaching kids good problem-solving skills,” says Blashki. “Let’s say something has gone wrong and they’re feeling upset. It’s a matter of helping them say, ‘Okay, what are the options here, how could we manage it and what might you do differently next time?’”
Toner agrees. “After allowing children to experience their own challenges, be there for them when they need help to understand and process their emotions. Then engage in problem solving and talk about what they might want to do next,” she says. “Invite them to think about the best, worst and most likely outcomes while they’re problem solving.”
Talk about your own experiences. And in particular, those times when you’ve experienced setbacks or failure, says Heppell. “When we don’t talk about failure with our kids, they don’t deem failure to be normal, and that’s not healthy,” he says. “On the other hand, talking about failures openly helps kids understand it and realise that it’s going to happen, without it impacting their self-esteem, their self-worth or their status because it’s something that happens to everyone.”
Toner says it’s also important to be open about your challenges in the moment, too, in an age-appropriate way. “Model the ways in which you bounce back or deal with difficult things in your life,” she advises. “And don’t be afraid to let them see you sad or hurt sometimes and particularly how you reframe a difficulty into an opportunity for growth and learning.”
Help them practise gratitude. Intentionally acknowledging the things we’re grateful for is a scientifically proven way to help to improve resilience,3 and Heppell is a strong advocate. “Actively practising gratitude doesn’t make your kids forget about or push away those negative emotions, but what it does do is give them hope that tomorrow will be different,” says Heppell, who explains it can be as simple as encouraging them to identify three things that went well during the day, every day. “It doesn’t have to be big-picture stuff. It could be the fact that they got BBQ Shapes in their lunchbox. It’s about teaching our kids to focus on what they do have, not what they don’t have, which rewires their brain to scan the world for positives rather than negatives.”
Be there for them. A common denominator among kids who have strong resiliency skills is having at least one committed and supportive relationship with a parent, caregiver or other adult.4,5 “So when your kid shows you that they want to talk about something, make that your priority and build trust by practising unconditional and uninterrupted listening,” says Heppell. “Nothing is more important than your child being willing to open up to you.”