How to raise a resilient child

Child exploring the outdoors
Whether it’s failure to achieve a certain goal, being let down or simply failure to receive something we had our hearts set on, we all suffer knock-backs from time to time and that’s why teaching a child to be resilient is crucial.
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How well does your child cope when things aren’t going so well for them? Are they able to pick themselves up and move on, or do they dwell on what went wrong and let it dent their confidence?

The difference between the two groups is resilience: the ability to recover from setbacks or failures.

Research has found that resilient children share four common attributes:

  • Independence
  • Problem-solving abilities
  • Optimism
  • Social connection.

Some children are resilient by nature: their temperament helps them to be mentally and psychologically strong. They get straight back up after a disappointment, keep working hard at school even if they don’t succeed at first, and are flexible enough to cope with changes, such as moving to a new school.

Many others, however, find it harder to ride the storms of life.

‘Children – and parents – can often find failure very difficult and see it as something they might struggle to recover from,’ says Matthew Syed, author of Dare to be You (£9.99, Hachette).

‘But the ability to reframe failure as an opportunity to learn, and to reflect on how they could do something better or differently next time, helps children understand that there is always another chance, and this builds resilience.’

Why resilience matters

Modern life can be tough for kids. They’re very aware of how they compare with other children, whether academically, socially or in sport, music or art. They have many hurdles to overcome, ranging from exam stress to friendship issues, and this can feed into mental health problems.

Children who are resilient – whether that comes naturally or is something they have learned – are more able to deal with ups and downs, including change, stress, mistakes and failure.

‘A lack of resilience can sometimes lead children to shy away from trying new things or giving something a go,’ explains Matthew. ‘A fear of failure can hold them back from trying in the first place, which may mean they miss out on opportunities or experiences that they might love.’

Resilience doesn’t just have a positive effect on children’s mental health, confidence and self-esteem; it also helps them become better learners who are more likely to succeed academically.

It can help them develop a ‘growth mindset’ – the belief that they can learn and grow through having a go, persevering when things are difficult, and treating mistakes as an opportunity to learn, rather than giving up easily and making negative judgements about themselves, like ‘I’m rubbish at maths’ or ‘I always get things wrong.’

It’s important to note that resilience is not the same as being unfeeling. Children will naturally be discouraged or upset at times, even over small things, and it’s unrealistic to expect them to bounce back from major crises like bereavement, serious bullying or their parents separating.

But resilient children are better at riding the natural waves of life, and tend to be more positive, adaptable and willing to try new things even if they’re challenging.

Are children born resilient?

There’s evidence that some children have an innate ability to overcome adversity and build strong relationships with others, but resilience is something that can also be learned, nurtured and developed.

Children need to face challenges to develop resilience. A child who finds learning easy and sails through life may seem confident and resilient, but when they do inevitably find something difficult, they may lack the coping skills to get through it.

‘Parents and teachers need to provide opportunities for children to come out of their comfort zone in a supportive environment,’ Matthew says. ‘Normalising failure and encouraging children to try new things builds confidence in situations that are a little unfamiliar.’

Children’s life experiences also contribute to their resilience. The seemingly small disappointments that kids encounter, such as not being invited to a party or picked for a sports team, help them learn to cope with hardships and frustrations.

Coping with minor development issues such as change, sibling conflict and even failure builds up a psychological hardiness that helps them when they face some of life’s bigger challenges in adolescence and beyond.

13 ways to help your child become more resilient

1. Be an optimistic parent

Your regular, positive interactions with your child will help them pick up basic social skills that enable them to interact with their peers, as well as more subtle resilience skills such as humour, goal-setting and persistence.

2. Give them opportunities to try, fail and try again

Encourage them to try something completely new that’ll provide them with a learning curve, such as taking up an instrument, trying out a new sport or experimenting with a hobby like knitting or skateboarding. You could give it a go with them, so your child sees you rallying from your mistakes.

3. Give the right sort of praise

‘Praise their efforts rather than the outcome,’ Matthew advises. ‘Focus on celebrating your child’s hard work rather than whether they win or lose, or pass or fail.’

4. Encourage contributions to family life

Help your child build resilience by giving them chances to be an vital member of the family, for example by helping in the kitchen, feeding pets or being involved with planning outings and holidays. By developing your child’s self-help skills, you can promote independence and resourcefulness.

5. Embrace their curiosity

‘Encourage them to ask questions and see the world as changeable,’ Matthew says. This will broaden their horizons, develop their sense of curiosity, and help them towards a flexible, rather than fixed, mindset.

6. Help them set goals…

We all benefit from having realistic goals that stretch us but are also achievable, so help your child to set their own goals: for example, getting 10/10 on their spelling test, passing a music exam or making it onto a sports team. Having a target to work towards will help them become more motivated to persevere.

7. …And use them as learning experiences

Make sure, though, that you respond positively to your child if they don’t meet their goal. Rather than saying, ‘Oh well, it doesn’t matter,’ help them to evaluate what went wrong and what they could try instead: ‘What did you find difficult about this? How could you do it differently next time?’

8. Let them resolve friendship issues

Try to resist sorting out your child’s social problems and allow them to solve their own friendship challenges. Sometimes, parents can create more problems by interfering in children’s disputes. However, do intervene if your child is being bullied: this is too big a problem for them to handle alone, so it’s essential to speak to their school.

9. Reflect on challenges

If something is going badly for your child and they’re becoming despondent or thinking of giving up, help them to think back to how they’ve handled challenges in the past, and encourage them to use those skills to tackle the new problem in hand.

10. Let them see your resilience

You are your child’s greatest role model, so if they see you overcoming obstacles and picking yourself up when things go wrong, they’ll learn from your example. You might need to engineer situations in which you can make mistakes (such as losing spectacularly at a board game), or you could even try something new alongside your child, like roller skating, learning a language or crochet, so you have opportunities to make mistakes together.

11. Take them out of their comfort zone

Children need to be put in situations where they have to draw on their resourcefulness. Camps and adventure activities are great ways for kids to stretch themselves and test their problem-solving and coping skills.

12. Let them express their emotions

Being resilient doesn’t mean being emotionally numb or always in total control. Your child will go through adversity, and although your instinct might be to make it all better for them, try to see their difficulties and hardships as valuable learning opportunities rather than catastrophic events that will scar them psychologically. It’s okay for them to be upset or angry, as long as they can then regroup and move on.

13. Take your time

‘View your child’s goals as a journey,’ Matthew says. ‘Success doesn’t happen overnight and there will be setbacks along the way. Getting children comfortable with this will help when things don’t go their way.’

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