This article was first published on July 18, 2018.
While we can't possibly protect our children from all of the hardships and challenges life brings, we can help them cope with these difficulties. We can help build their resilience starting at a very young age.
In its simplest form, resilience is the ability to bounce back. It is something we hope and strive to instill in our children—but at the same time, it can seem like an elusive and vague term.
According to educational research, resilience impacts social skills, a child's desire to try academically, autonomy, problem-solving skills, awareness of and reactions to injustice, and a person's sense of purpose. That's a pretty big impact.
The same research found that resilience is fostered by loving relationships, high expectations, and the chance to participate and contribute in a meaningful way. The good news is that these are all things you can work on at home—but how exactly?
Here are nine phrases Montessori teachers frequently use to help children develop this valuable quality.
1. “That was hard, but you did it!”
Directly acknowledging a child's efforts helps bring their awareness to the fact that they can do things, even when they're hard.
Whether it's swimming across the whole swimming pool, reading a book for the first time, or putting their shirt on all by themself, help your child pause and reflect on how they overcame the struggle and accomplished the goal, even if it wasn't easy.
Each time you do this, it solidifies their view as someone who can overcome obstacles and do hard things.
2. “I want you to try, but I’m right here if you get stuck.”
Your reaction to your child's struggles helps establish their identity and the way they see themselves. If you rush in too quickly to rescue them, it sends the message that you think they're not capable.
On the flip side, if they become too overwhelmed by a challenge and feel alone in the struggle, they may not want to try again in the future.
Make it clear that you expect them to try, and you think they can do it, but that if they're really stuck, you're right there to help. With this reassurance, they will be more able to focus on the task at hand and do their best work. If your little does wind up needing help, offer the least assistance possible to help them be successful.
For example, if they're trying to write their name and getting upset because it's too hard, help them remember which letter comes next instead of taking over and writing it for them.
3. “Who could you ask for help?”
Ask open-ended questions to help your child develop problem-solving skills. Each time they find a solution to a seemingly insurmountable problem on their own, they will gain greater confidence in their ability to overcome challenges.
If your child loses their teddy bear, ask where they could look before you find it for them. If their pencil breaks, ask what they could do to solve the problem instead of handing over a new one right away.
The more confidence they have in their own ability to solve problems, the more likely they are to keep their cool and recover quickly when something distressing happens.
4. “Do you remember when tying your shoes was so hard?”
Children learn new skills literally every day, but it's so easy for them to forget how far they've come. Help your child feel a sense of mastery by reminding them of all of the skills they have already figured out.
For instance, if you see them swinging happily on the swing set, remind them that just last year they were so frustrated because they didn't know how to pump their legs by themselves. Bringing attention to the progress your child has made emphasizes that their own efforts play a huge role in overcoming obstacles.
5. “I need your help.”
No matter how young your little is, find ways for them to help you, to contribute in a meaningful way. Whether it's folding laundry, cooking dinner, or putting together a new bookshelf, telling your child that you need their help sends the message that they are a valuable, capable member of the family.
This type of view of one's self goes a long way when real challenges emerge.
Showing your child that you have confidence in their ability to contribute builds confidence. Telling them you need their help is also an excellent way to model that it's okay to ask for help when you need it.
6. “Which part can I help with?”
If you see your child really struggling, ask how you can help. This gives the child such a different feeling than when an adult rushes in and rescues them, solving the problem for them.
Offering to help, and specifically letting the child decide how you can help, is a collaborative process. It lets them know that they are not in it alone, that it's okay to need help, and that even really big problems have solutions.
Showing your child that help is available when they need it will help them not freak out when problems arise.
7. “You look really upset, would you like help talking to your friend?”
Social situations offer many opportunities to practice resilience. Whether their best friend said something mean or they feel left out of a game, you can help your child process their feelings and see that there are options other than wallowing in sadness.
You don't need to solve the question of "who had it first," or elicit any apologies, just help your child tell their friend how they feel. Help to ask for what they need, whether it's a hug, a chance to play together later, or simply to express their emotions.
This type of help gives your child the tools they need to face and recover from tough social situations.
8. “That was hard for me, but I did it. I feel proud of myself.”
To children, it can seem like everything is so easy for us since so many of our struggles are silent, or happen when our children are sleeping or at school.
Try to share some of the (non-scary) challenges you face with your child and let them know what you did to adapt to the tough situation or cope with disappointment.
Try something like, "My friend had to cancel lunch today and I was so disappointed. It made me kind of sad but I'm going to see if she can have dinner with us instead."
Show that everyone, even mom and dad, faces setbacks and that there are things you can do about it to make the situation better.
9. “Do you need to take a break?”
If you watch your child carefully, you can often see when they're about to pass the limit of what they can handle. Step in and ask if they need a break.
Help fill their toolbox with things they can do when they feel overwhelmed. You might ask if they would like a drink of water, suggest they do 10 jumping jacks with you, take five deep breaths, or even go for a short walk outside.
Show your child that there are tools they can use to reset, apart from giving up or having a complete meltdown.
Resilience takes time, and so much patience, to build, but it is a quality that will serve your child well for their entire life.