Many kids are somewhat undone by the transition back to school. It’s understandable for sure. New teachers, new classmates, new routines and new levels of work can throw the most sturdy of children into a brief (or longer) tailspin. Many of these adjustment stressors will simply get better with time—as the school year moves along. However, this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing we can do during these more challenging periods. How well our kids adjust to challenges has a lot to do with how much resilience they can access.
Resilience is a concept that is gaining momentum in parenting and educational circles—and for good reason. The amount of resilience our kids start out with can make all the difference for how well they respond to their life stressors. What exactly is resilience? According to Donald Meichenbaum, pioneering research psychologist and founder of CBT therapy, resilience is the child’s ability to bounce back from adversity and stress, and adapt well to difficult life experiences. It’s the ability to bend to life’s pressures and challenges—but not break. It’s also the ability to recover. Adversity is a given; recovery depends on resilience.
The amount of resilience a child starts out with varies, and is impacted by things like temperament (especially sensitivity) and early experiences. The more adversity a child faces, the more resilience is tested. This can be a good thing—if the child has a lot of personal support—because the child can use these experiences to strengthen his or her resilience. But it can go the other way too. Like confidence, resilience can be worn down by difficult experiences and repeated stressors.
Research shows that repeated difficult experiences actually change patterns of how neurons fire, which then ultimately create changes in underlying brain structures. Once brain structures change, personality does too and kids can then get stuck in anxious, depressed, and powerless mind-sets, which make coping with adversity challenging.
According to Meichenbaum, resilience isn’t across the board. It’s more like confidence. Kids can be quite resilient in certain areas of their lives and not very resilient in others. It’s also fluid over time and developmental stages. So we might very well see our kids showing a lot of resilience in certain situations and much less in others.
If resilience is so important, the obvious question is how do we help our kids build it in themselves? As is true with self-confidence and self-esteem, there are many pathways to the same destination. Below are some tips for helping your child build resilience:
- Sit with your child and talk about his or her stressors. Having at least one person to connect to about stressors (big or little) decreases isolation and increases resilience.
- Practice joint problem solving. Don’t solve your child’s problems for them. Instead work with them to brainstorm solutions to family, school and social dilemmas.
- Encourage flexibility. Teach your child to bend their brain instead of trying to change the world. Flexibility is an essential skill.
- Help your child develop empathy toward others. Empathy is the cornerstone of good relationships. Show empathy for your child’s struggles. It will teach them how to give empathy to others.
- Encourage a sense of humor–especially about oneself. Learning to laugh at our mistakes keeps them in perspective.
- Help your child set and achieve personal goals. This builds confidence, improves self-esteem, and develops strategizing skills.
- Encourage optimism and positive thinking (mostly by modeling it). Dr. Wayne Dyer said, “If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” An optimistic viewpoint changes everything.
- Help your child find meaning in challenges. Finding a purpose in difficult experiences helps us turn them into valuable lessons.
- Move away from victim thinking. Help your child find something—anything—they can do in the face of a challenge. This will help them feel more personal power.
- Decrease blame. Help your child move from blaming (themselves or others) for their challenges and instead get started figuring out what to do.
- Don’t avoid challenges. Help your child face adversity with a plan and a focus on asserting their needs—especially with friends.
- Let go and move on. Help your child not get stuck thinking about specific challenges longer than necessary. Being able to let go and move on is an important skill—especially if you’ve done all you can to fix a problem.
My very best to your family,
See melissainstitute.org for articles by Dr. Meichenbaum
For more information on today’s topic, including suggestions and examples, see my new book
If you know someone who might like to receive these parenting articles, please forward this article and they can sign up for the email list here.