How To Raise Resilient Kids

Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties and failures.

By Meghan Fitzgerald
Founder of Tinkergarten®

Resilience: I can’t think of a skill more central to learning, emotional health and managing the challenges that life throws at us. Yet according to many psychologists and educators, there has been a decline in resilience among adolescents and young adults. Colleges and universities report that they can’t keep up with the mental health needs of emotionally fragile students often overwhelmed by fear of failure. Although these reports are alarming, I am also optimistic that we can reverse this trend for our little ones.
What is Resilience?

Resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties and failures. It is also closely tied to the willingness to try new and challenging things. If kids are better able to recover from setbacks, they are likely to take more risks. By taking more risks, failing, and then bouncing back, they learn even better how to be resilient.

Resilience is a learned skill that children can acquire early in their lives, and parents and teachers play a critical role in this process. Parents can learn a lot about raising resilient kids from pediatricians and educators like Kenneth Ginsburg, author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings. Knowing that most of us don’t have time we’d love to study extensively, I want to share some key points to know about the brain and a few conscious steps I’ve found helpful in supporting my wee ones as they develop resilience.

How are learning and emotions connected?

In order to learn anything new, we engage our emotions. All sensory information we take in gets fed quickly to the amygdala, the emotional center of the brain. I think of this pass through the amygdala as the brain trying to determine, “What is important here? What I should I spend my energy on? Should I try to avoid this because it’s dangerous?”

As a matter of survival, humans must know how to recognize danger and avoid it. When we meet novel situations, we have two choices. We can see a new situation as cause for fear, and flee from it, or we can see it as a challenge, muster our resources and dive in. When we are in challenge mode, we get curious, we mobilize, and we seek to understand the situation. In other words, the nervous system gears up to learn!

How can we help wee brains opt for challenge mode?

An experience that induces fear stimulates the amygdala, and the brain looks for solutions to alleviate the fear. If a child determines he lacks the resources to manage the situation, whether those resources are physical, cognitive or emotional, the brain will choose to flee. Alternatively, if a child feels he really has the resources to face the situation, he moves into challenge mode.

What role do we as parents, caregivers and teachers have in helping kids believe they have resources?

Young children rely on countless interactions with beloved caregivers to develop a fundamental sense of self. This starts in infancy. A baby co-regulates with his parent or caregiver, learning that emotional distress is manageable from his caregiver’s responses to his emotional outreach. Over time, sensitive, reliable responses by a caregiver give a young child a model for how to respond to and manage emotions.

In other words, kids learn in direct response to how we respond to situations. Every time we stay calm, every time we allow space for them to try, and every time we are there to soothe a risk gone wrong, children further build their sense of who they are and of what they are capable.

When a child is faced with a new, challenging situation, we can remain steady, supportive and give her the space and allowance to tackle it. By doing this, we communicate to her that she can do it—that she has the resources. If and when she falters or fails, we can also be there to celebrate her effort and soothe her pain or frustration. Over time, risk taking becomes routine and failure becomes a manageable part of life and learning.

Be mindful, and you’ll find ways to do this!

Next time you are playing, exploring or just being with your child, be extra mindful of how you respond to the challenges and new situations he faces. Look for chances to demonstrate that he’s got this, that you’re not worried about challenges. If he fails, do what you can to help him cope with it. Every time you do, you’ll help him develop the capacity to be resilient when you are no longer right by his side.

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