Parents are often told that frustration is good for kids because when they grow up, the world will be full of frustrations. That’s a bit like saying that it’s a cold, cruel world so your child should learn to sleep without a blanket. What we really want is to raise kids who have the resilience to find or make blankets—and to create a warmer world where everyone can find blankets! Read on for 12 ways to raise a resilient kid that hits the sweet spot between giving appropriate support and enough independence to foster their confidence and competence.
Why failure does not build resilience in kids
It has become a commonplace idea that failure builds resilience. But when children fail over and over and don’t have the support to keep trying, all they learn is that they’re failures. Experiencing disappointment or failure is only half the picture. Resilience comes not from failing, but from the experience of learning that even when everything goes wrong, you can pick yourself up, try again, and succeed. That requires at least some experience of success, and lots of emotional support.
So it’s true that we all learn from overcoming challenges, but we also learn best when we experience success, which motivates us to tackle more difficult challenges. Failure without support sets up a cycle of lack of confidence, giving up and more failure. Mastery, on the other hand, begets mastery.
Here are 12 ways to build your child’s resilience
1. Stop controlling and start coaching.
Coaches help kids develop skills, but kids play the game. Your job as a parent is to support your child so they can flourish and develop. Doing things for them robs a child of the opportunity to become competent. Doing things with them teaches how and builds confidence. This means we have to manage our own anxiety and let go of our need to control.
2. Remember that perfection is not the goal.
Resist the temptation to “improve” on your child’s task, unless the outcome is vitally important. Intervention undermines a child’s confidence.
3. Let them try to do it themself from the earliest age.
Rein in your own anxiety. That doesn’t mean abandoning them to it. Stand by, smiling, ready to be helpful in whatever way actually helps your child—but stay back a bit and keep your hands to yourself, except to give appropriate encouragement and unless you really need to help.
Clucking anxiously about how worried you are as they climbs that play structure may make you feel better, and it may impress the other parents on the playground with your attentiveness, but it won’t help your child. In fact, it limits them.
Just ask if they are keeping safe, then stand by and spot them. Smile proudly. Say, “Look at you! I knew you could do it!”(And if they fall, you’re there to catch them. Which is, after all, what allowed them to try it.)
4. Help them build confidence by tackling manageable challenges.
Emotional development researchers call this “scaffolding,” which could be defined as the framework you give your child on which they build. You demonstrate how to do something, or you use words to suggest a strategy, or you simply spot them.
This assistance helps them succeed when they try something new, and small successes achieved with your help give them the confidence to try new things herself. Scaffolding also teaches children that nonjudgmental help is always available if they need it. You want your kids to trust that deep in their bones before they hit adolescence.
5. Don’t set them up for failure.
Offer structure to help them succeed. Should you step in when you see failure ahead, or “let them learn a lesson”? Always a hard call. Rescuing children can prevent them from learning important lessons. But when children see their parents stand by and let them fail, they can experience that as not being loved.
Instead of learning the lesson that they should have practiced that clarinet, or read the directions on that science kit, they feel like they are failures, that they cannot manage themselves, and that their parents did not care enough to help them not be failures or teach them to manage themselves.
But isn’t stepping in “rescuing” them?
That all depends on how it’s done. If you take over the science fair project and do half of it the night before it’s due, that’s not rescuing: not only does your child learn that you will bail them out if he goofs off, they learn that they can’t do it themselves.
But if you help through each step of the way to organize their ideas and work and resist the impulse to improve on the project yourself, they completes the job, hugely proud, and having learned something about how to plan and execute a complex project.
6. Encourage, encourage, encourage and teach self-encouragement
All humans need encouragement. Encouraging your child not only keeps them feeling more positive and motivated, it also gives them an inner voice that will help to encourage themselves for the rest of their life.
Research shows that kids who talk themselves through difficult situations find it easier to master difficult tasks. Give your child maxims to repeat as mantras when the going gets tough. “Practice makes progress!” and “If you don’t succeed, try, try again!” and “I think I can, I think I can!” are designed to help us manage our frustration.
When your child goofs a piece on the piano and has to start over, or strikes out with the bases loaded, they need an automatic internal comforting voice to encourage and motivate them. Otherwise the harsh criticizing voice steps in, triggered by the disappointment.
7. Instead of evaluating, describe and empathize.
Praise evaluates the outcome of your child’s action : “Good job!” It doesn’t give the child much information about what was good about what they did, or why you think it was good. It teaches them to rely on external sources to evaluate their work.
You can refine your praise to make it serve your child better by giving them he power to evaluate for themself. Just describe what they did and empathize with how they must feel: “You just kept practicing and didn’t give up… You must feel so good that you finished that!”
8. Focus on effort, not results.
Give positive feedback about specific things that they have control over, like hard work or perseverance, rather than things they feel they have no control over, like being smart. The point is never the product—you don’t want them resting on their laurels at the age of 6, or 16. Your goal is for them to keep trying, practicing, improving and to learn that when they work hard, they can accomplish goals.
9. Model positive self-talk.
Whatever you model, your child will learn and will emulate . Positive self-talk improves our mood, unlike the self-disparaging comments many of us so automatically make. If something negative about your child—or, equally important, about yourself—starts to come out of your mouth, bite your tongue.
Most parents know better than to say “What an idiot!” to their child (and most of them are able to stop themselves), but a surprising number see nothing wrong with berating themselves that way in front of their kids. Just train yourself not to do it. (It certainly isn’t good for you, either. Would you let anyone else talk to you that way?)
10. Don’t be afraid of your child’s feelings.
When your child encounters frustration, remember that your empathy will be a critical factor in his overcoming it. Instead of automatically jumping in to remove the source of the frustration, give it a larger context by communicating your compassion that they have to encounter this circumstance:
“I’m sorry this is so hard…”
“It’s really disappointing when…”
“This isn’t how you hoped it would turn out…”
It’s okay for children to get frustrated and to be disappointed. Your child may cry and sulk all day, but your unconditional understanding will help them grieve. Once they’re done grieving, they’ll be ready to pull themselves together to try again the next day, especially when you express your confidence in them. That’s how children develop resilience.
11. Don’t set your child up for extra frustration.
Your child will naturally develop the ability to handle increasing amounts of frustration and anxiety as they attempt more difficult challenges. But those frustrations are inherent in growing up and are guaranteed aplenty in life.
There is no benefit whatsoever to setting your child up for extra frustration or negative experience. In fact, they will see your doing so as evidence of your lack of caring, which is always translated in their mind as his lack of value, undermining resilience.
12. Affirm your child’s ability to impact the world.
Competence and feelings of mastery are about power and derive from a child’s experience as having an effect on the world.
All children will experience reasonable limits to their power ( “I can’t make the rain stop, and neither can Mommy” ), but the more your child has opportunities to make a difference in the world, the more they will see themselves as capable.
In the end, our job as parents is to work ourselves out of a job, and it starts when our children are very young. All kids eventually grow up and live their lives without us. How they live will depend partly on whether we’ve been able to rise above our own anxiety and our impulse to control our child.
You know the old adage about giving our children roots and wings? Unconditional love is the roots. Confidence is the wings. Young people who have both live bigger lives.
Originally posted on Aha! Parenting.