Raising Resilient Children

October 28, 2013

By , and

Posted in: Hot Topics, You & Your Family

Topics: Child + Adolescent Development, Healthy Living

This has been a tough year to be a parent.

From deadly school shootings, tornadoes tearing through elementary schools, and bombings by homegrown terrorists, to the steady stream of discouraging news on the cost of higher education and the lack of good jobs awaiting young graduates, it has felt like there are more and more threats and challenges facing families—even in settings that once felt secure.

As parents, we want to protect our children from suffering. At some point, however, we realize that our job is actually to raise resilient children, children who are capable of managing adversity themselves—whether it is the small struggles of everyday life, or an unexpected catastrophe.

Consider the story of an 8-year-old boy whose mother has just learned that she has advanced-stage breast cancer. He is a slightly anxious third grader who has finally settled into a consistent circle of friends, and enjoys playing soccer and video games. He has struggled some with reading, but thanks to extra support he received, he now really enjoys school. His parents are in shock about the diagnosis, and are trying to find a way to protect him from the news. They are certain that he will be so upset and worried that his academic and social progress will be derailed. And, they can’t help but imagine what would become of their son if he were to lose his mother at such a young age.

These parents are worried that their son will not be able to manage his mother’s illness, that the strain of his worries will damage his overall development. Such fears are familiar to most parents, although they often relate to different types of adversity.

The good news is that resilience is not, in fact, a fixed trait. Resilience is a process, and the capacity for it can be cultivated. Resilience is also wonderfully ordinary. The vast majority of children, even those facing considerable adversity, will manage the challenges they face during childhood, later growing into resilient adults. Ordinary does not always mean easy, though, and there are some fundamental principles that can help parents to both manage adversity, and cultivate resilience in their children.

1.       Provide A Secure And Stable Relationship At Home

Parents are building resilience in their children from their very first moments with them—watching them, soothing their cries, and feeding them. A secure attachment, the earliest positive experiences a child has with loving, reliable, attuned parents, is the very foundation of resilience. Children who have grown up in a safe, nurturing, predictable home are more likely to develop the optimism, self-control, self-efficacy and capacity for satisfying relationships that will be essential for resilience in adulthood.

2.       Support The Development Of Meaningful Self-Confidence

As infants become toddlers, parents need to increasingly balance their warmth and responsiveness with control and limit-setting.  Those parents that can strike this balance raise children with the skills to manage their responsibilities, build happy relationships, and develop meaningful self-confidence.

Meaningful self-confidence is a realistic knowledge of one’s own interests, strengths and weaknesses. It’s a belief in one’s unique abilities, including the ability to handle a challenge. Managing both the attunement and the control aspects of parenting contributes powerfully to the child’s development of healthy self-awareness, optimism, mature coping skills and social connectedness that will be critical to resilience.

Studies have demonstrated that parents who are good at the control part of the equation but have difficulties with the warmth, will have children who are more likely to manage school and self-control, but also more likely to experience depression and trouble building close relationships. Conversely, those children who grow up with very attuned, nurturing parents who are not as good at setting expectations and enforcing rules, are likely to be very confident and socially successful while challenged at maintaining self-control and managing important responsibilities like school. This is the tightrope that all parents walk.

At the crux between warmth and control is the critical feature of monitoring. This does not mean that parents should be secretly following their children on Facebook, watching them with webcams, or reading their blog posts. It refers to the time and energy that parents spend to learn about where their children are, whom they’re friends with, and what they’re doing. If parents can do this in a way that is honest and open, modeling clear communication and setting expectations that are enforced, they will be showing their children how invested they are in their health and well-being—not just telling them. Monitoring is where the rubber meets the road for parents.

3.       Model Resilience, Even (Especially) When It’s Difficult

It sounds straightforward, but it’s not always easy to be warmly attuned to your children’s needs, to effectively set limits, or to invest the time in knowing the details of their lives. After a terrible day at work, while trying to get dinner prepared and making sure that tired children do their homework, it is no small feat to listen patiently as one child details the litany of cruelties he suffered at the playground.  It is even more difficult in an overheated kitchen where children are screaming at one another for an exhausted parent to calmly and clearly enforce the rule about no yelling.  And, when a family is under additional stress (say, facing a parent’s cancer diagnosis), both sides of this equation become more difficult.

Perfection is not the requirement here; what matters is that the warmth and control are reasonably consistent, that they remain the rule and not the exception. When parents fall short, they simply need to apologize and acknowledge the fact that we all mess up. Parents should couple this apology with a calm statement that the family’s rules still apply. In that very moment is the marvelous opportunity for parents to model resilient behavior—whether by laughing at themselves, or otherwise taking responsibility for their own behavior. The rules are still important and manageable, but they’re not always easy to live by.

4.       Let Your Children Practice Managing Adversity

This may be one of the most difficult tasks for parents: letting their children manage challenges on their own. One child will fall and skin her knee, and then hop right back up and continue on her merry way. Anther child will melt into a pool of tears with that skinned knee, and need lots of comfort and reassurance. While the first child may be temperamentally more resilient, both children require parents that can step back and let them manage.

It’s when parents demonstrate confidence in the idea that their children can handle a challenge, that children start to trust that they can, in fact, manage their own distress. This is among the most important (and difficult) principles for parents: children must practice facing distress and adversity. By managing and then mastering life’s little adversities, children develop the growing belief that they can manage the larger events that arise in their lives. This is how children develop an internal locus of control, a conviction that the events that happen in their lives arise partly out of their own actions, and can thus be managed by their own choices.

Fascinatingly, there is a growing body of evidence that those young adults who report almost no adverse events in their lives experience anxiety, functional impairment and dissatisfaction with their lives at levels comparable to those young adults with the highest levels of adverse events. It seems that there may be a sweet spot somewhere in the middle, where young adults have had the opportunity to face, manage and master difficulties of varying severity as they grow up.

5.       HELP Them Practice Managing Adversity

Please, however, do not read this post as a suggestion that parents stand back and cruelly ignore cries for help. Instead, we are suggesting that parents find ways to calmly guide their children through the process of contending with their adversity. Whatever their temperament, children will pick up on the tone and content of a parent’s reaction to a stressful event. When parents can describe and discuss difficult matters honestly (in age-appropriate language), their children will believe that they themselves can also handle a difficult situation, thus learning useful strategies for realistically describing a challenge, and gathering support. When a parent can remain calm while simultaneously acknowledging the real feelings that accompany the stress, children will mirror this and learn to manage their own feelings. When parents can offer some ideas about how their child might begin to deal with their challenge, their child may devise some ideas of his own. This is how children acquire most skills.

So, what should the parents of our 8-year-old boy do? Once they have fully absorbed this news and begun to rally their own supports, the parents can begin to decide how to speak with their son about his mother’s diagnosis. They might focus on a calm, honest and realistic description of what he might see through her treatment. They can acknowledge the understandable feelings that accompany this news. And, they can highlight what their plan is, what they are hopeful for, and how confident they are that they will manage this challenge as a family. Their son will undoubtedly feel sad and worried, but he will also feel that they can face this challenge, and that strong feelings are bearable, especially with the support of loved ones.  With this, he will also be able to keep his focus on being a third grader, working on reading, soccer and friendships.

In the next 20 years, we are likely to learn a great deal about the genetic underpinnings of temperament and behavior that may provide even more specific suggestions to parents about strategies to support their individual children’s healthiest possible development. But, even without those blueprints, parents can help their children develop resilience. By treating every challenge, no matter how small, as an opportunity for them to practice realistic appraisal (managing their strengths and weaknesses while knowing when to seek guidance and support), parents will be developing their children’s capacity to be resilient in the face of adversity in both youth and adulthood.

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Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, Co-Director

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is co-director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also an as...

To learn more about Steven, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

Gene Beresin

Gene Beresin, Executive Director

Gene Beresin, M.D. is executive director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is also a ...

To learn more about Gene, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

Susan Swick, M.D., M.P.H.

Susan Swick, M.D., M.P.H.

Susan Swick, M.D., M.P.H. is the chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Newton-Wellesley Hospital where she also directs the Parenting At a Challenging Time (PACT) Program at the hospital's Vernon Cancer Center. Additionally, she is an instruct...

To read full bio click here.