Every single person deals with failure, whether they are young or old, we’ve all been through it. Even if we try our very hardest there are still moments that we will not succeed. In order to be successful at anything it needs practice and a lot of effort. We will not always be successful on our first try. But what is it that pushes us to keep trying and not give up? Resilience!
Resilience is a skill that can be taught at any stage of life. However, resilient children will have more successes during their school and working life if the skill is learned when they are young.
Resilience is not a skill that is learned only one way. It will be different for all children. But, there are many things we can do during their early years that can help create resilient children.
What is Resilience?
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of being resilient is to be “able to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.”
So, a resilient child is one who is able to “bounce back” after they fail at something. It is a child who is a gracious loser, a child who does not throw a tantrum because they are frustrated. It’s a child who is able to keep trying and working at something until they figure it out, a child who can say “that way didn’t work; I will try it this way and see what happens.”
Why is Being Resilient Important?
Resilience is important because it gives people the strength they need to deal with their own challenges and hardship. When someone is lacking resilience they can be easily overwhelmed and may turn to unhealthy mechanisms. In adults it could be getting frustrated and breaking something, turning to drugs or alcohol, or simply never trying anything new.
For a child it could look like them breaking down and crying, along with phrases like “I can’t do it” and not willing to try again. It could look like a child who is verbally corrected, by an adult or another child, and they cannot handle the “failure” so they break down and burst into tears. They become “stuck” and cannot get themselves through those emotions without external help.
Being resilient will not stop your children from dealing with depression, anxiety, trauma, or feelings of uncertainty. However, it will give them the tools to be able to deal with and overcome those issues.
Through developing resilience children will become:
- Stays calm during stressful situations
- Be able to problem solve on their own
Ways to Build Resiliency
Teach Delayed Gratification
According to Vivienne Cheng & Jonathan Catling of The British Psychological Society, delayed gratification “is an essential element for social-cognitive development, which affects individual’s future achievement.” They noted the connection between then length of time a child can delay gratification and the higher chance of success in the future.
Cheng and Catling also refer to a study done by Mischel, Shoda and Peake (1988) that found “4- and 5-year olds who were able to wait longer became more socially and academically competent adolescents, as rated by their parents.”
One way to teach children delayed gratification is to play board games. Dr Rangan Chatterjee of The Guardian speaks of how Board games “require impulse control, turn-taking, and mental flexibility. They exercise the prefrontal cortex, the rational part of the brain involved in decision-making, emotional regulation and, yes, resilience.” Board games are also a great way to model resilience by being a good loser.
Some other things you can do to help children learn delayed gratification are to model self-control. This can be something simple like saying out loud “I really really want that birthday cake now, but I’m going to wait until after I eat my dinner.” or “Waiting for the cookies to be ready is taking a long time, but they will be so delicious once they are fully cooked and cooled down.”
You can also teach children about how distractions can be used when it is hard to wait. “We have to wait until the paint is dry before we can give it grandma, why don’t we go do a puzzle or play a game while we wait?”
And a big factor that has become quite common in an age of instant gratification is to not give or buy your child everything they ask for. For example If they are asking for new toys in October remind them that Christmas is coming up and they can add it to their Christmas list.
Children thrive when they have secure attachments with their caregivers (parents, grandparents, teachers). They are more willing to try new things and to make mistakes when they know that they have a network of people to support them through those times.
Nina Garcia from Sleeping Should Be Easy states: “The consistency and reliability of a strong relationship helps kids weather challenges they face. They might have had a fight with a friend, but if their family life at home is stable, it’s easier to see the fight as something they can get through. Unconditional love also reassures kids that any setbacks they face aren’t necessarily a reflection of who they are.”
Expose Children to New Environments and Experiences
Although routine is good for children, it is beneficial to experience new places and things. When they have the support of a parent or caregiver they feel more comfortable to take on the new environment.
If your child has expressed they are scared of a new place, instead of not going there anymore make it a place that you go often. Allow them to go at their own pace and get used to it slowly.
If your child is scared of the pool, start going more often. Try going to a pool with a shallow area, bring some toys and make it that much better.
After enough exposure, and some gentle encouragement, they will learn that the pool can actually be a positive thing.
As they conquer their fears of new places they will be more willing to try new places in their future. They can look back on their past experiences and think “I was scared of those places and now I love them. I’m scared of this new place but if I keep going I won’t be scared anymore.”
Encourage Hard Work, Effort, and Finding New Strategies
When children are trying to complete something they can sometimes want to give up. But we all know how proud they feel when they finally accomplish it, whether it is a block tower, a puzzle, or learning how to write their name.
Praise and encouragement can go a long way when done properly. A simple “good job” does not cut it. You need to acknowledge their hard work and effort.
Tell them you noticed how they figured out a new strategy to make something work. Saying things like “Wow, look at how tall that tower is now. It kept falling down but you kept trying and now it’s even taller than before.” Or “Oh my goodness! You cleaned up so fast. I like how you used your dump truck to carry all your blocks back to the bin!”
Embrace the Struggles and Mistakes
It can be really hard watching our children struggle. But working through those struggles and mistakes are the only way for your child to build resilience. They need to experience what it’s like to bounce back (and feel successful) after feeling frustrated, scared, or anxious.
There are many times when we want to step in and “help” or do it for them simply because we don’t want to watch our children struggle, or we don’t have the time to wait. But if they never struggle, how will they ever learn something new. If something is really too hard for them to accomplish they will leave it and come back to it another day when they are feeling more capable.
Daily Self-Help Skills
A very common struggle that many parents may not see is a baby/ toddler learning to feed themselves using a spoon or fork. Many parents will step in and feed the child because it is creating a mess, even though the child is not upset about the struggle. But as they keep using the fork and spoon they get better and better. If a parent were to always step in, it will take the child that much longer to learn. This is because they are not being given the opportunities to keep working at it.
Dressing themselves is another common struggle. They start screaming for help as soon as they get a little stuck. Instead of going over and doing it for them you can walk them through it with your words and some encouragement. “Take a breath. You can do this. Your elbow is stuck in the arm hole. Pull your arm back out and put your hand through the arm hole first.” When they have successfully done it reflect/ praise them for it. “See you can do it. Sometimes we just need to take a breath and try again.”
If the child is older you can ask them to stop for a moment and try to figure out what part is not working. Without giving the direct answer you can ask questions so they can figure it out themselves. This not only helps to build resilience but it also helps them go through the steps of problem solving.
“What is stopping your arm from going in?”
“What part of your arm needs to go through the hole first?”
“Why do you think you are not able to put your arm through?”
Struggles During Play
Play is where children learn the most. It is where they explore what they are capable of and push their limits to continuously advance their skills and become resilient children.
Something simple like building with blocks can help to inspire resilience. A young toddler may work for days, or weeks, to get just a couple blocks stacked up before it falls down. Or a preschooler that is trying to build a big tall castle but it keeps falling down as it gets bigger. Adding some encouragement can help them to keep trying and not give up. “I know it can be frustrating when your castle falls down but you can do it. Look how much you built before it fell down.”
If they need some guidance you can give them some suggestions without touching any of the blocks. “Maybe if you used those bigger blocks on the bottom and the smaller ones on top I wonder if it would be a bit sturdier.” Try to word your suggestion without sounding bossy.
For example saying “It won’t work if you have the big ones on top. You have to put them on the bottom” just tells them that their way was wrong. Whereas when you add in phrases like “I wonder” and “What if” it helps children learn to develop their problem solving skills. Using these types of phrases also allows you to give them suggestions yet still allowing the child to make all the decisions on what they want to try.
Completing a multi-piece puzzle is another activity that children can get really frustrated with. Again you want to try and only use words and not step in and do it for them.
The following phrases can be very helpful:
“I wonder if you turned that piece around, maybe it would fit.”
“Can you find the other piece with the giraffe’s head?”
“I can see you are getting frustrated with that piece. What if you tried a different piece first”
Whether it be getting dressed, playing blocks, doing a puzzle, or anything else, with every piece they successfully add, the determination to keep trying becomes stronger until they succeed.
It may take them several attempts before they complete it but with some encouragement they will keep going. Nothing can beat the feeling of completing something all by themselves. That sense of pride is what will keep them working hard and continuously trying when they struggle with something.
It is also beneficial to let children know that it is okay to stop and try again another time. Sometimes they can get themselves so worked up that their brain will not be able to work through it or problem solve on their own. They need some time to calm down and come back to it another time.
“I can see you are getting really frustrated with that puzzle. Would you like to put it away and try it again next time.”
Learning to take a break and come back to try later is just as important as pushing through. Even adults sometimes need to take a break and wait until our body is calm before we try again.
Reflect, Talk, Share
Reflecting on things that have happened are beneficial for children and adults. It can help us see what we did right, what we did wrong, and how we can improve next time. It can help children to process something after the fact.
During high stress moments young children are not always able to realize what they could have done differently. However, once they are calm they are more likely to be able to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They can then reflect to see how what they were doing would not work. Through talking about it they can then figure out how they can make it better next time.
It is also good to reflect on the positive experiences as well. When children can look back and see how they were really frustrated and ready to give up on riding a bike but they kept trying and now they can ride a two wheeler with no help at all. It gives them the confidence that if they keep trying then they can succeed.
It can also help to share stories of how you, or other adults, overcame obstacles. Showing children that nobody is perfect and even as adults we fail, but we get up and try again.
Reading to children has so many benefits. One of the benefits is it allows children to see the characters dealing with and solving a problem. When the problems relate to the child’s life they make the connection and learn from it.
They see Franklin the turtle going on a school trip to the dinosaur museum. He is scared because he thinks there are real dinosaurs there. But he still goes. By the end of the book he realizes they are just dinosaur bones and that there was nothing to be afraid of. But, if he had gone home when he was first scared he would have missed out on all the fun that he ended up having.
The next time the child goes to a place they are unsure about. It can be helpful for you to refer back to the story they read. They realize that even if they are scared it could still be a lot of fun.
Sharing about how someone else got through their challenges is also very beneficial. Its not always easy for children to see how they could do something differently. However, if they are reading a story similar to their situation it can help them to see the actions the characters can make to succeed. How even though they may not have been able to see it when they, themselves, were in that same situation.
Share examples from nature. When plants are growing out of concrete they had to work so hard to push their way through. When trees are cut down but one little sprout starts growing from the trunk and eventually turns into a big beautiful tree again.
Get Children Outside and Active
During outdoor play children are able to take more risks. They are naturally more active when outdoors thus getting the exercise that their bodies desperately need. When outside children feel a sense of freedom and are more willing to try and do things on their own.
By allowing and encouraging unstructured outdoor play children will naturally explore trial-and-error within their play. Because it is during their play the “errors” do not feel like failures and instead more like a speed bump. It slows them down but they quickly problem solve and figure out a different way to succeed.
It has been recognized that exercise is on the same level with medication when it comes to treating mild to moderate anxiety and depression. Making sure your child gets enough exercise is just as important for their mental health as it is for their bodies.
When we exercise we temporarily release the same hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) that we do when we are stressed. By continuously raising those hormones the stress response system is able to recover more efficiently. This is true for adults and children.
Stop Being a Helicopter Parent
When an adult is constantly hovering over and around their children and picking them up after every fall, it is showing the child that its not good to fall, or fail. Instead of encouraging them to get back up they are being taught to just cry, and someone else will fix their problem.
It’s showing them that they need help anytime something goes wrong, even if they are not hurt. It tells children that they are not capable. But, when we step back and let children fall, let them slip, let them experience moments of fear, we are actually helping them to be more resilient. They learn that they can get back up and try again.
Here is a scenario to put this into perspective:
A child about 18 months old is running around the playground with a ground covered in woodchips. The child trips and lands on their hands and knees. This is a learning moment and the adult can do one of two things. One will benefit the child and the other will not.
- The adult runs over “Are you ok?! Here let me help you up, do you need a hug?” and immediately picks up the child and tries to comfort the child.
- The adult counts to 10 before doing or saying anything. If the child did not get back up then says to the child “you fell down, up you get.”
- If the child were to start crying without running over and picking the child up you can offer a hug. “Would you like a hug? Stand up and I can give you a hug.” And while you are giving them a hug talk them through it. “It’s ok to fall down, we just get back up and keep going”
The first scenario is showing the child that even a small mistake, like tripping, requires external help. That they cannot deal with it themselves, even though they were not hurt. That even feeing a little scared, or startled that they fell, is not okay and requires external help.
The second scenario teaches the child that they are capable of working through it, that it’s okay to feel scared. They learn that when they fail at something that they can get up and keep going. Children tend to look to the adults they trust for how they should respond to a situation. If we start panicking and freaking out it tells the child that they should be doing the same. If we are calm and don’t give it much attention then they will learn to do the same.
Born to be Resilient
Children were born to be resilient, however, how the people around them act can change their natural resilience. Think of a baby learning to walk. They are determined to get onto their feet and take those steps. Naturally most parents will be encouraging and even when they fall to their bums they are encouraged to get back up and try again, this is the beginning to raising resilient children.
If you were to panic the first time they take a couple steps and fall, the baby will cry and will learn that those “failures” while trying something new is not okay and its better to not try. Instead they learn to just cry and someone will come and fix it for them.
Whether you encourage or panic it is laying the foundation to how your child should deal with problems, stress, failure, or any other negative feeling as they get older.
Let Children have Unstructured Play and Hands on Learning
According to a survey, conducted globally by The Harris Poll, of 5,002 students, 5,001 parents and 1,152 teachers, they found that teachers are in agreeance that a lack of confidence hinders learning. In order to build up the students confidence and improve their educational outcomes to better prepare children for the future they need hands-on learning.
51% of students said “Trying new things at school makes me nervous” and 47% “I avoid subjects where I have failed before.”
During play is when children are able to try new things. Through trial and error they can see why something did or did not work. They figure out how to do things differently so they can succeed and build up their confidence.
Allow Children to Take Risks
When children are able to take risks it allows them to temporarily feel various states of fear and stress. Being exposed to these feelings during play helps them to be able to deal with those feelings when they are in real life situations.
Something simple like running down a hill, they may get to a point where they feel like they may lose control. There are moments of fear, stress, and their adrenaline is pumping. But when they are able to slow themselves down a little, or even just make it to the bottom of the hill without falling it gives them a sense of pride and builds their confidence.
It allows them to overcome the moment of fear and stress. It shows them that stressful moments are part of life and that we just push through it. Even if they did end up falling, as long as they are not hurt badly they will most likely try it again, but not going quite so fast, therefore they are ending on a positive note.
Learning From Their Injuries
If the child were to be badly hurt, maybe they broke their arm, they still learn from it. They learn to either not run down big hills, or to run a little slower next time. A resilient child will not be afraid to try running down a hill again, a non-resilient child will avoid all big hills, even if their friends are doing it and it looks like fun. Because they cannot deal with the state of feeling scared or the chance of failure.
For most children, while engaging in risky play they will have some times when they fall and get scratches, bumps, or bruises, but they get up and keep going, otherwise the fun ends.
Part of allowing children to take risks and becoming resilient involves the adults taking a step back and not racing in and panicking every time the child slips or falls. Adults need to show the children that we trust them to choose what they feel comfortable doing.
They are able to overcome doubt when trying new things.
Diet and Sleep
Although it may not seem like it relates to raising resilient children, but when children are tired or not getting the proper nutrients it can be hard for them to cope. Even as adults when we are running on little sleep it can be hard to learn a new skill or deal with our anxieties. Our brain and our bodies work as a single unit. When one part is not working properly the rest of the body suffers.
Dr Rangan Chatterjee states “Good-quality food changes the composition of our gut bugs, which helps send calm signals to the brain. Poor-quality, highly processed food sends stress signals instead.” When our diets are rich in nutritious foods our gut and brain will benefit thus reducing the likeliness of depression and anxiety.
The same goes for sleep. Dr. Chatterjee speaks about “A lack of good-quality sleep is a huge driver for stress” that it negatively effects “memory, concentration, cognitive function, and decision-making.”
So if our children are not getting enough sleep or adequate nutrition, how can we expect them to become resilient and be able to handle the challenges and struggles that come with everyday life.
Raising resilient children can take a lot of work and time. It requires the adults to take a step back and allow the child to struggle and then succeed. Allowing these little struggles when they are young will benefit them for the rest of their lives.
It will help them accept and bounce back from school struggles whether they are academic or social. It will help them in the working world if they were to get constructive criticism, or were fired. They will have the skills to cope as they go through different kinds of relationships through their entire lives.