We’ve sure heard the word “resilient” a lot this year. Find out what it means and how to help your kids generate or build on this crucial trait. Spoiler: Taking care of yourself plays a big part.
2020 and the beginning of 2021 have left marks on us and our country. With schools, businesses and child care centers shut down or operating remotely for much of the year; the loss of loved ones to a highly communicable new disease; continued explosive evidence of our country’s oppression of people who are not white; a late summer in which it felt like our whole state was on fire; and a polarized election followed by disputes that culminated in the storming of our nation’s Capitol, the past year has put a lot of strain on our ability to cope with adversity and get up again when we are knocked down. And kids are no more immune to that strain than they are to COVID-19.
And this strain tests all of our resilience. Dean Moshofsky, M.D., of Metropolitan Pediatrics, defines resilience as “the ability to face a challenge, meet that challenge, and become stronger and not defeated by the process.” Erika Meyer, M.D., also of Metropolitan Pediatrics, talks about coming out on the other end of a challenge “still yourself.” My mom calls it “not getting all bent out of shape.”
Meyer gave an example scenario. “Say you walk into school — in the days when we still did that — walk up the steps, trip and fall in a puddle: You just get up, and some kid might laugh, and you look at them like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ and wipe yourself off and get back in the classroom. But if you’re not feeling resilient, that kid might really affect you. You might cry or run away or need to call your mom or go home — or go punch that kid.”
When we’re resilient, we respond to challenges in a way that helps make our situation better. When we’re not resilient, we tend to react to challenges in a way that makes things worse. Read on for advice from experts on things you can do as a parent to help your kids develop the ability to respond to adversity with resilience.
If you feel like you haven’t helped your kids build resilience, or your own resilience is weak, take heart. Every single expert I talked to told me it’s never too late. Neuroplasticity persists even into adulthood; we can all change our habitual responses starting right now.
Put Your Mask on First
In the child-encyclopedia.com entry on resilience, which Masten edited, the introductory article ends with this simple, categorical statement: “The most effective way to build resilience in children is to support their caregivers.”
Supporting children’s caregivers can take many forms. Meyer says she finds a model called “baseball parenting” helpful. “First base is self-care. Second is relationship or partner care. Third are the things you do for your children. Scoring runs is a happy home. If you want to make it to a home run, you have to start at first base.”
If you are tempted to prioritize your child’s needs over your own or those of your core relationships, remember that this will short-circuit the systems that make you able to give. Your self-care helps your kids get what they need.
Your Stress and Your Kids
Helping your kids build resilience is in part about what author Dan Siegel, M.D., calls “mindsight,” which is the ability to imagine what the world looks and feels like from inside someone else. I asked Meyer whether there are things stressing out the kids she works with that their parents tend not to be aware of. “The emotional temperature of the house really affects kids,” she says. Even if we’re behaving well toward our kids, they pick up on our sadness, anger, joy or tension.
You are not failing as a parent because your house is not a model of continuous harmony. (I go there. Don’t. It’s a bad place.) This knowledge is a tool. First, whenever possible, get your needs met before engaging your kids. (Stop for that bathroom break or overdue glass of water.) Second, be truthful with your kids. You don’t need to tell them what is upsetting you, but never tell them you’re not upset when you are. A mismatch between your words and the emotions kids are picking up will leave them feeling like their world is unsafe.
Resilience and Failure
Human resilience grows when we struggle with a challenge that is a little beyond our current ability to handle it. Masten compares unmediated experiences of struggle to inoculations; Kaleigh Boysen-Quinata, LMFT, of Family Roots Therapy, talks about building the muscle of resilience: “My tip for parents is to allow your child opportunities to fail and experience disappointment and not ‘rescue’ them too much from situations that are challenging for them.”
The trick is finding the “just-right challenge.” Boysen-Quinata points out that there are lots of situations in which kids need support, either because they’re still developing their social and emotional skills, because of delays in their development, or because of trauma or mental health diagnoses. “It’s our job as adults to meet kids’ needs and build resilience,” she says, “not to put them in unsupportive circumstances and then blame a lack of resilience when they can’t meet the demands placed on them.”
Sports, she says, are an excellent way of finding appropriate challenges, so keep your eyes peeled for athletic opportunities that are still running during the pandemic, or that may reopen this summer. Also, talk to your kids about times you failed, because this will help them to understand that failure and recovery are a normal and healthy part of being human.
Resilience and Affirmation
“Resilience-building is a strength-building exercise,” Moshofsky says. He urges parents to ask others what their strengths are, and to consider them and build on them. “It is also important that our kids know their strengths,” he says, encouraging parents to be intentional at catching your kids doing great things. He encourages us to name our kids’ strengths and look for opportunities to build on those strengths by letting kids practice what they are good at. Even misbehavior reveals strengths, like determination or ingenuity, that you can affirm while aiming to redirect their use.
When you affirm your child’s strengths, be specific. “You were such a good girl today” is positive but vague. “Thanks for being patient on our grocery trip when we had to wait in line a long time. That made the trip a lot easier for me” highlights a particular action that was helpful, and what the action accomplished. Second, whenever possible, Boysen-Quinata encourages parents to praise effort (“I saw you study really hard for that test”) rather than result (“What a great grade!”).
Praising effort is also more effective than praising ability. In one study, children who were given a math test and then told “you did really well; you must have worked hard” were more resilient in responding to a subsequent failure than children who were told “you did really well; you must be smart.” The children who were praised for ability tended not to choose to take the more challenging second set of problems home to study them, whereas the children who were praised for effort tended to take them home, and to do better than their ability-praised peers on the next test.
Managing our own emotions is at the core of resilience. Children learn this through practice and instruction, and especially from watching you do it. Masten points out that the pandemic and everything else this past year has sent our way means that there is a lot more emotion in need of regulation than at calmer times — for us and for our kids.
This is a stressful time even for families where parents work from home and no one lost a job. It is a potentially life-threatening time for families where parents can’t work from home, struggle with job insecurity, or are dealing with ongoing trauma from systemic racism. We’ve tried, in the resource section, to include options for families who have compounding stressors.
Masten suggests parents pay attention to the things we do that help us feel calmer and more grounded. These may be classics like yoga or meditation, but they may also be things like cleaning, calling a friend, distracting ourselves from anxieties with a good show, or doing the not-fun paperwork to follow up on the unemployment check that hasn’t come. “Let’s face it — right now, a lot of our fears and anxieties are realistic,” Masten says, “but we can’t think about them all the time. We have to give ourselves breaks.”
Your Kids Want to Be With You … Even in Bad Circumstances
Moshofsky recounts a study done after World War II in Britain. “Some kids were moved to safety in the country away from the bombing … Other children stayed in the city with their families despite the heavy bombing.” After the war, researchers compared trauma, stress and PTSD symptoms across the two groups. They found that children who stayed with their parents and were exposed to more bombing suffered less PTSD than children who were away from the bombing, but separated from their parents.
Note that the key to lower trauma was not whether the parents did an excellent job parenting. The key was just that they were there. The pandemic has made my “loop tapes” louder — those voices that provide running commentary on how I’m failing, especially as a parent. But this study encourages me. My kids just want me here. And your kids just want you.
Want to dive deeper?
Resources for Caregivers
For one to three pro bono tele-sessions of Jungian therapy, and referrals for first and secondary responders and essential workers, contact Dr. Robert Stuckey at 503-317-4985.
Find crisis services in your county on the Oregon Health Authority’s website, oregon.gov/oha.
Lines for Life (an all-hours, all-days suicide prevention hotline): 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This number also serves veterans in crisis.
Veterans and their families have access to mental health resources through the VA.
The Returning Veterans Project provides free health care services to post-9/11 veterans in Oregon and SW Washington.
Oregon Recovery Network has pandemic addiction recovery resources.
Call Oregon 211 to be connected with a wide variety of health and human services. (Note: You may face a long wait time.)
Mental Health America has COVID-19-specific resources.
Reach the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990.
The Nap Ministry offers an app aimed toward BIPOC activists that focuses on the power and necessity of rest for building a more just world.
Stephanie Gehring spends her days trying to guess how her 4-year-old will next attempt to smuggle water out of the bathroom, being astonished by the range of tongue-clicking noises her 1-year-old can imitate, and arguing with her husband over what to plant in their tiny, full-shade vegetable garden. You can see her visual art, old samples of her writing, and an infrequently updated blog at stephaniegehring.com.