5 Tips for Raising Resilient Kids
It sounded more like a reality show than a science experiment. In 1991, long before reality television took over the airwaves, eight people locked themselves away for two years to live together in a $200 million dollar, 3-acre self-sustaining eco-system in Arizona to study the viability of sustaining life in outer space. Many lessons were learned during the 1991-93 Biosphere 2 experiment. One of the most surprising involved tree growth, which is now also being applied to child-rearing.
Scientists found that trees growing in Biosphere 2 grew faster than they would in the wild. But they also found the trees often died before maturation. They would simply collapse before reaching full height. Later, it was determined the culprit was a lack of wind. Because wind in the natural world keeps the tree moving, the tree must react by growing a different kind of wood called “stress wood” or “reaction wood,” which helps the tree position itself to get the best light and utilize resources more effectively.
Scientists figured out that a presence of wind actually makes trees stronger. Stress is what makes a tree strong enough to sustain whatever life throws at them.
“You might see where we’re going with this,” says Sara Stallman, a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Director of the Abound Counseling Training Program at Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota.
In her more than decade-long career as a child therapist, Stallman says she’s worked with families at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum—the wealthiest to the most downtrodden and she has found a similar trait leading to strong children across the economic spectrum.
“I’ve found one of the most important factors we can control in our kids’ successes is teaching and promoting resiliency,” she says.
In other words, children—like trees—will grow stronger with a little resistance.
But how do you make sure your child lives in a supportive, nurturing household while still facing enough “wind” to enable them to grow into an adult who can face life’s hardships?
Foster Independence vs. Dependence
It’s natural to want to help your children—to make things easier for them. But Stallman says that’s not always what’s best for them.
She suggests giving your children tasks they can manage based upon their age. Make sure your preschoolers are politely ordering for themselves at restaurants or checking themselves in for appointments.
Tell your elementary-aged child that they need to pack their own suitcase before an overnight trip and have them develop budgeting skills for wants versus needs.
Middle-schoolers should be filling out their own paperwork for class schedules. Parents can also ask them to find ways to give back to those in need.
By high school, your children can make their own orthodontist or dentist appointments and find dedicated ways to donate time or resources to help others.
As child education expert Maria Montessori once said, “Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
It might rip your heart out to watch your child get frustrated and fail at something. Your instinct might be to go in and rescue them or put them in the position where they won’t face the possibility of failure in the first place. But that’s not real life.
“It’s hard, but I think every kid should fail a test, get their heart broken and not make a team,” Stallman says. “Life is hard and filled with challenges and failures, but we must nurture problem solvers and survivors if we want mentally fierce and healthy kids.”
Allow Kids to Hurt Just Enough
Most school-aged children today will be taught lessons about bullying and some will actually experience it firsthand. As we all know, even as adults we can experience this professionally or personally. Although we never want children to feel alone in their pain, we also want to give them advocacy skills to manage this for their lifetime.
It not only becomes our obligation to intervene but, more importantly, it becomes our responsibility to give our kids languages and tools to respond to those who mistreat us. The goal shouldn’t be to prevent our kids from feeling emotionally hurt but rather give them tools to stand up for themselves and survive hurt. Bullies exist in the real world and we all need the strength to manage them.
“Bullying is hard, but I try to ask parents to look at ways we can teach assertiveness skills to help their child manage this first, with adults as ‘backups’. It is often amazing the successes kids can have in these difficult situations,” Stallman says.
Let Kids Face Natural Consequences
As we know, consequences in schools have changed drastically over the last few decades.
“As the parent who has dropped off forgotten gym shoes or run the cold lunch left on the counter, we need to remember that running to the rescue isn’t really helping in their big picture,” Stallman says.
We all make mistakes—from accidentally hurting a friend's feelings to forgetting needed paperwork. We need to learn how to manage when we make mistakes and how to make amends. It is okay for our kids to have to take responsibility to the orchestra teacher for forgetting their instrument or problem solve with a teacher on how to get that needed assignment in.
“Resilient kids get to learn they have the power to correct a situation and solve problems. They have ability to make it right,” Stallman says.
Teach Kids They are Part of the Universe, Not the Center
We have such a tricky balance as caregivers: to be proud parents while teaching our kids to have personal perspective. Maybe it started with the “Baby on Board” signs in cars or with the videotaping of everything from their first spoonful of rice cereal to performing in the class play.
But somewhere along the line, children can get the message that they are the center of the universe, rather than a member of a global society. It becomes our responsibility to ensure that our kids know their needs don’t always come first, nor should they. Modeling the joy of sharing resources and being knowledgeable of world events, starts at home.
Our community has so many great examples of kids giving back: whether it’s a princess-themed lemonade stand for the Sunshine Foundation or warm sock drives for Churches United for the Homeless, we can teach our children there is more than personal successes and failures.
Stallman says after three years of presenting to local high school students about the needs in our community, we can do more. “High schoolers are often shocked to hear how many of their peers are in foster care due to trauma and loss,” Stallman says. “After hearing their stories and numbers of those in need, they often rise to the challenge of working to make a positive difference in our community.”
It comes down to raising children who think outside themselves.
“I think children need to be encouraged to see the world around them—while recognizing they have the influence to make it better,” Stallman says. “We each need to be aware of our privileges and be willing to share with the world around us. True joy and pride often comes from knowing we made a positive impact on the world around us.”