We all want the best for our children. We hope they will make the most of their unique potential and find happiness and success in life. We also know from our own experience that those aren’t easy goals to achieve. Life is full of obstacles and unhappy surprises.
“Our children will experience bumps and bruises along the way,” says Kenneth Ginsburg, MD, an attending physician and Co-Director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). “And that can be a good thing. It’s where they get the practice they will need in order to bounce back from really tough setbacks and pains as they get older.”
“Instead of sheltering our children from all unhappiness,” says Dr. Ginsburg, “our goal as parents should be to help them build resilience. Resilience is the capacity to move forward in the face of setbacks with hope and confidence in your ability to thrive in both good and challenging times.”
Here are three key ways to help your child build resilience.
Give your children unconditional love
It takes confidence to deal with challenges, and the root of that confidence in children and teens comes from the knowledge that they are loved, and that someone values them for who they are. “Unconditional love gives children the deeply felt security that allows them to take chances when faced with new situations,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “It gives them strength to know that you, their parent, are not going anywhere, that you love them no matter what. That security is the base from which they will launch into adulthood.”
Unconditional love doesn’t mean unconditional approval, explains Dr. Ginsburg. We may dislike or disapprove of a child’s behavior at times, but we can still love the child completely. We need to show that love and express it regularly, even as our children grow older and begin to push away from us, and even if we are disappointed by a particular behavior. The behavior does not change who the child is, and our knowing who our children really are is deeply protective.
The wider the circle of unconditional love a child receives — from parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other adults in a child’s life — the deeper the child’s sense of security and confidence will be, and the stronger the child’s foundation for resilience.
Expect resilience in your children
Children live up to the expectations adults set for them. When parents and teachers expect children to do well, they do better than when expectations are low. That’s important for building resilience, and it’s also true of expectations to be a good human being. Expect your children to be considerate, respectful, honest, fair, generous and responsible, and you’ll help them hold to and strengthen those qualities.
The same goes for expectations of resilience. It’s a fine and loving thing to empathize with a child or teenager who has been hurt or disappointed, but we should also maintain confidence that they have within them the ability to get through this. We give them strength with that expectation. If, on the other hand, we expect them to be fragile, we set a harmful expectation that they are unable to find strength within themselves. “It’s crucially important for children to know that we all fail sometimes,” says Dr. Ginsburg. “That we can recover. That the people who are successful are the ones who try again.”
Keep in mind that parents aren’t the only people setting expectations in your child’s life. Children pick up cues from outside the family — from teachers, coaches and other family members. Sometimes these messages support the positive self-image you are working to foster in your child. Sometimes people expect our children, especially our teens, to be problems. We must confront these low expectations that undermine our children and celebrate within each of them their unique potential and essential goodness.
Set an example of resilience
Children pay more attention to what we do than to what we say. As your children are growing up, you will face challenges and disappointments yourself. By your actions, you will model how to deal with stress, failure and unhappy surprises. If you get angry at frustrations, give up in the face of obstacles, or deal with stress in unhealthy ways, your children will absorb those lessons. If you keep your cool in the face of adversity, bounce back, try again, use your creativity to find alternatives, and cope with stress in healthy ways, your children will learn a lesson from your example that they will remember for the rest of their lives.
About Dr. Ginsburg
Dr. Ginsburg has worked extensively with children and adolescents from a wide range of backgrounds. He shares his insights in talks throughout the country and in his books, Building Resilience in Children and Teens (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014) and Raising Kids to Thrive (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2015).