Try as you might, you can’t shield your child from life’s challenges. Parental separation, the death of a grandparent or beloved pet, moving to another city, illness, the birth of a sibling, community violence, and financial stress—these are common issues that cause our little ones stress. In addition, today’s kids are also dealing with daily stressors, such as school, social media, peer relationships, overscheduling and even world news.
While you can’t (and don’t want to) raise your child in a bubble, you can teach him from a young age how to handle the challenges that will come his way. You can teach him to be resilient. Resilience (the ability to handle life’s ups and downs) is something we all need.
It may not always seem like it, but kids crave structure. “Following routines and setting limits gives your child a sense of safety and security when other parts of life are throwing curveballs,” says Kathleen Hill, licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life.
Here are some healthy ways to provide structure to your child’s day:
- Follow consistent wake-up and bedtime routines.
- Serve snacks and meals at around the same time each day.
- Set limits for screen time.
- Be consistent with rules and how you manage difficult behavior.
Young kids may scream and cry, while older kids may keep their feelings bottled up. But teaching healthy ways to express emotions and to communicate is a huge part of teaching resilience.
When a toddler is expressing herself by, say, throwing a fit at the grocery store, give her the words she doesn’t have and set limits: “I can tell you’re angry because I wouldn’t buy the candy. It’s OK to be upset, but it is not OK to throw the candy on the floor.” On the flip side, when your middle schooler is upset, focus on listening. Ask how she feels and repeat back exactly what she said, without judgment. For example: “I understand you’re angry you can’t go to your friend’s house, but it’s not OK to yell at me.”
Communicating doesn’t have to mean talking. Watch for changes in your child’s behavior such as acting out (aggression, irritability) or acting in (hiding out in the bedroom). It’s OK if your child doesn't want a heart-to-heart. Dancing, painting, journaling and going for a walk are just a few nonverbal ways to express emotion. Give your child a list of ideas, and make a habit of sharing your own feelings and how you cope: “I had a tough day at work. I’m going to go outside to get some fresh air. Want to join me?”
As hard as it is, let your child struggle, take risks and make mistakes. If your little one picked up the wrong puzzle piece, let her try to fit it in. If 2 kids are arguing, give them a chance to work it out. Only by making their own (sometimes poor) choices do kids learn that actions have consequences.
When your child does need help, ask her how she thinks the problem should be solved—and how it might make the other people involved feel. “The more independent they become with problem solving, the better they are at communication and relationships,” says Jody Baumstein, a licensed therapist with Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life. You know your child best. If you notice your child getting overly angry or frustrated, ask her if she would like your help.
At the end of the day, if your child knows you are there for her, she will have the confidence to take risks and make mistakes—and the resilience to get up and try again.
We can’t protect our children from all of life’s challenges, and, in all honesty, it’s not helpful to. Instead, it’s better to help prepare our children to face the unavoidable struggles and to learn from them. We can do that by taking care of both their bodies and their minds.
Here are some healthy habits you and your child can practice daily to help build resilience and to manage daily stress:
- Get enough sleep. When you are well-rested, you are better able to think clearly, focus and manage your emotions.
- Be active. Physical activity is a great way to improve your mood and to clear your mind. The activity can be as simple as taking a walk, putting on your favorite song and dancing, or hula-hooping—anything that gets you moving.
- Eat well and hydrate to fuel your body with good nutrition. Drinking sweet drinks and eating sugary or greasy foods can slow your child down. Eating balanced snacks and meals gives her the energy she needs to get through the day.
- Practice coping skills. For example: Slow down and practice deep breathing, write in a journal, sing, or draw.
- Share your feelings with someone you trust. Talking about your feelings not only helps you feel better but it also helps you feel connected.
The options are limitless. Find what works best for your child and help her practice the skills daily so that she is better able to manage stress.
Stress and struggles come in different forms throughout a person’s life (hopefully mixed with plenty of joy and success). Being resilient doesn’t mean avoiding your feelings, and how we choose to cope with stress will change from day to day. But by providing a basic sense of security, helping your child manage her feelings, encouraging her independence, and helping her problem-solve, you’re giving her a roadmap to resilience that she can follow for life.