Nurturing Our Children's Resilience
by Pam Leo

"Until we can give our children a better world
we'll have to give our world more resilient children."

- Pam Leo

How well children cope with change, stress, loss and uncertainty depends greatly on how securely bonded they are, what we teach them to believe about themselves, how connected they feel, and how much safety they are given to release and heal their emotional hurts. We nurture our children's resilience when we focus on their strengths, spend enough time with them to stay connected to them, and create safe spaces for them to work through their fears and feelings.

Following the events of September 11th I was flooded with calls from parents seeking information on how to respond to their children's fears and feelings about what was happening in the world. I was also asked to give workshops for parents on this topic. This spring I was asked to give a workshop on this same topic for child care providers. I proposed that I do a workshop on raising resilient children instead.

When I went to the Internet to research the topic of raising resilient children, I found that there is a new book called Raising Resilient Children by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein. They also have a website: www.raisingresilientkids.com I found excellent information on their website so I immediately read their book. One of the joys of writing this column for Parent & Family is that I get to share new information and resources with so many parents. Raising Resilient Children is one of the best new books I've read this year.

Brooks and Goldstein define resilience as the capacity to deal with stress and pressure and the ability to cope with everyday challenges, disappointments, adversity and trauma. While some children seem to just naturally be more resilient than others are, we can and must nurture resilience in all children. In today's world all children face stress, disappointment, challenge, loss and uncertainty. The way we treat children will either nurture their resilience or undermine it.

Brooks' and Goldstein's book offers these ten guideposts to help children develop the strength and skills to cope successfully with the stresses and challenges they face.

  1. Be empathetic. See the world through your kid's eyes.
  2. Communicate with respect. Don't interrupt, or put them down. Answer their questions.
  3. Be flexible. If we want kids to be flexible we must model that behavior.
  4. Give undivided attention. Kids feel loved when we spend one on one time with them.
  5. Accept your kids for who they are. When kids feel appreciated for who they are, they'll feel more secure reaching out to others and learning how to solve problems.
  6. Give kids a chance to contribute. When we enlist children in helping others, we communicate our faith in their ability to handle a variety of tasks and give them a sense of responsibility.
  7. Treat mistakes as learning experiences. Kids whose parents over-react to mistakes tend to avoid taking risks and end up blaming others for their problems.
  8. Stress your children's strengths. Their sense of accomplishment and pride gives them the confidence to persevere the next time they face a challenge.
  9. Let your kids solve problems and make decisions. Instead of always telling children what to do encourage them to come up with solutions to problems.
  10. Discipline to teach. Do not discipline in a way that intimidates or humiliates your child.

Brooks' and Goldstein's book richly expands these ten guideposts and offers abundant examples of what can happen when parents do and don't treat their children in these ways.

Of the ten points they cover the one that was most meaningful to me was focus on children's strengths. This concept was reinforced by another book I was reading that spoke of building on our successes. The concept of focus on their strengths/build on their successes is the reverse of the old saying "You do something right and no one remembers it. You do something wrong and no one ever let's you forget it." Just because children have less information and experience than we do doesn't mean they have less intelligence than we do.

One of the greatest joys of being with children is that the whole world is brand new to them and being with them rekindles the wonder with which we see the world. Because everything is new to them they have much to learn and learning means making mistakes. When adults focus on what children do wrong it undermines their confidence. When we notice, appreciate and remind children of their successes we nurture their resilience.

The value of building on their successes was clearly demonstrated to me when I did this for my 5 and _ year old granddaughter. Recently when we arrived at our homeschool group we discovered a brand new tree fort. As soon as she saw it my granddaughter was excited, determined, and scared to climb up there. After her first unsuccessful try to get up she asked me to put her up there. I said, "It can feel scary to climb up so high, I won't put you up there, but I will stay right beside you and teach you how to get yourself up there." With some coaching she made it to the top on her third try. She was thrilled to have done it herself.

A few days later she got frustrated with something she was trying to do and said, "I can't do this!" I said, "Any girl who can learn to climb a tree fort can learn to do this." A big smile came over her face. She was clearly remembering her feeling of sweet success when she made it to the top of the tree fort. After a few minutes she went determinedly back to her task. Children who are appreciated for the things they do well, develop confidence that spills over into the areas that challenge them. I had always tried to encourage children and let them know that I believe in them, but now I have learned to do something that is even better by helping children believe in themselves.

We strengthen our bond with children when we stay connected to them. Spending time with children is the primary way we stay connected to them. A study by the Council of Economic Advisors concluded that teens who eat dinner with their parents at least five times a week have half the risk for drinking, marijuana use and suicide attempts. I recently read that people need 15 minutes of one-on-one, human connection, each day to feel safe. This of course does not mean that children only need to spend 15 minutes a day with their parents. It means that, in order to maintain their connection, they need at least 15 minutes of the time they spend with their parents to be one-on-one undivided attention. Ideally that one-on-one time will include play, being listened to, and nurturing touch. When we spend special time with children they feel loved and loveable. Children who feel loved and loveable are more resilient than children who feel isolated and disconnected are.

No matter how much time we spend with children or how successful we are at teaching them to believe in themselves all children experience disappointment, frustration, anger, fear, and grief. Children need adults who will validate their feelings and listen to them. To heal those emotional hurts, children need to release those feelings through talking about the hurt, laughing, crying, and temper tantrums. When adults invalidate children, shame them, threaten them, isolate them or ignore them when they try to release their hurts they learn to stuff their hurts instead of healing them. Emotion hurts that are not released and healed weaken a child's resilience.

While we can't protect our children from every hurt, we can foster their belief in themselves, maintain a strong connection with them and become a safe place for them to release and heal their hurts.

When we treat children in ways that:

  • teach them to feel good about the things they can do
  • show them that they are loved and valued
  • allow them to release and heal their emotional hurts

we foster their capacity to deal with stress and pressure and their ability to cope with everyday challenges, disappointments, adversity and trauma. We can't change the world overnight but we can nurture our children's resilience everyday.

Recommended reading:

"Raising Resilient Children" by Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.


"Nurturing Our Children's Resilience"  © 1989-2007 by Pam Leo and Connection Parenting (™)
For more information, articles and reprint permissions,
contact Pam at her website: www.connectionparenting.com

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