How do we raise resilient children? As a developmental and behavioral pediatrician, I’m often asked this question. Fortunately, scientists have studied all about teaching resilience in early childhood, so we have a lot of experience and research evidence to guide us.
If you’ve been worried about how to raise your child to be resilient, you’re in the right place. Here’s what we’ll talk about:
- What is resilience?
- Why is resilience important?
- Is resilience inborn, or can it be taught?
- Why is early childhood the best time to start teaching resilience?
- What can we do as parents to help kids build resilience?
- What should we avoid if we want our kids to develop resilience?
Life has ups and downs, happy moments and sad ones. But there’s one thing we can do to help our kids through tough times: teach them resilience. Kids who are resilient are better able to handle setbacks and adversity.
Now, more than ever, we need to help our kids build resilience.
We don’t know when the pandemic will end. Babies who were born last year are now toddlers, and have never known a world where there is no pandemic. Our two- and three-year-olds may not even remember what life was like when we could all go out without a mask.
So if you’re a parent, read this guide on teaching resilience in early childhood. We’ll show how to give our kids the tools they need, so they can grow into emotionally strong people who are ready to face challenges.
What is resilience?
Resilience is the ability to adapt to stress, challenges, and trauma. It is the ability to bounce back from difficult situations.
Resilient people understand that they can solve problems even though things don’t always work out as planned. They look at stressful situations as opportunities to grow, instead of being unable to overcome them.
Pediatrician Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, author of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings, identifies the 7C’s of resilience:
- competence: knowing they can handle a situation effectively
- confidence: belief in their own abilities
- connection: close ties to family and community
- character: values that help them decide right and wrong, and caring for others
- contribution: having purpose and motivation, knowing that they have a role in making the world a better place
- coping: ability to deal with stress and challenges
- control: understanding that their decisions and what they do can make a difference
Why is resilience important?
Resilience helps kids bounce back from life’s disappointments and challenges, and keeps them moving forward despite obstacles. Children who have good coping skills tend to be more confident, happier, healthier and more successful.
Resilience also teaches us to problem-solve to overcome our obstacles proactively. On the other hand, a lack of resilience can lead to learned helplessness, which is the overwhelming sense of the inability to do things because you think you’ll always fail.
Are people born naturally resilient? Or can it be taught?
Resilience is not a fixed trait at birth. While it may seem that people are naturally more resilient than others, it can be taught. It’s not something that some people are just born with it and some aren’t. Rather, it can be developed over time.
Like a muscle, resilience can be strengthened through practice, and with support. As parents, we are the perfect teachers! We’re in the perfect position to support our kids so they learn to be resilient.
Why is early childhood the best time to start building resilience?
Resilience is a trait that we start building from birth. As early as during infancy, patterns and ways of responding are already being built in your child’s brain.
During early childhood, our kids’ brains are being formed. Teaching them about resilience now sets up pathways in their brain that can have a positive impact on how they respond to the world later in life.
According to a quote frequently attributed to Frederick Douglass, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Whether or not he actually said it, we do see this in our practice! Traditional therapy, which helps after an experience has occurred, is much more difficult compared with giving preventive support that builds resilience for young kids.
Teaching resilience in early childhood: 5 things parents can do
There are many ways we can help our kids build resilience, starting in early childhood.
Build a strong connection with your child.
What’s the biggest difference between kids who grow up to be resilient, and kids who don’t?
According to researchers at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, the single most common factor for developing resilience in children is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.
The best way to build a strong connection and relationship with your child, starting from the baby and toddler years, is by doing what scientists call “serve and return interactions”.
Just like a game of tennis where the players hit a ball back and forth, during serve and return, you and your child keep the interaction going back and forth.
- Notice the serve and share the child’s focus of attention. A “serve” can happen when your child looks or smiles at you, looks at something, points to something, or says something.
- Return the serve by supporting and encouraging. Look at where your child is pointing. Smile back.
- Give it a name. Comment on what your child is looking or pointing at.
- Take turns…and wait. Keep the interaction going back and forth. Take turns talking, smiling, or laughing. It’s never too early to have a conversation with your child – even if their words aren’t that clear yet.
- Practice endings & beginnings. Notice when your child’s attention has moved to something else – such as when your child looks away or moves toward something else.
Imagine, just following this simple five-step process of back-and-forth interactions with your child is already building their brains to be more resilient in the future!
For more ways to help you build connections with your child, get our free guide to toddler activities. This guide will help you spend more time actually connecting with your child, in ways that are easy and don’t require any stress or preparation on your part.
Model how to respond to negative emotions.
Kids learn best by example! Teaching resilience starts with modeling this behavior for kids, so they can learn by example and become more self-confident as they grow older.
How do we react when things don’t go our way? We’re not perfect, and we shouldn’t try to be. We can show our kids that we feel upset too. Let’s show them positive ways of dealing with these feelings.
One of the ways to do this is showing our toddler how we respond to their tantrums. Find out more in this FREE checklist on handling toddler tantrums.
Allow age-appropriate, child-directed play.
Developmentally appropriate play with parents and with other kids is vital to learning the emotional and self-regulation skills that are needed for resilience.
But how do we do this? Today, play can seem so hard. There’s just too much stuff out in the world telling us what to do when playing with kids! There are activity guides, sensory bins, letter a day activities, math games, complicated arts and crafts, and a thousand other ideas.
But none of these things will work as well as simple old fashioned fun time. We don’t need anything fancy. The important thing is to connect with your child and have fun. Let them surprise you with the ideas they come up with on their own!
Recommended reading: Learning Through Play for Toddlers
If you want to know what are age-appropriate activities for the toddler years, that’s where our free guide comes in. You’ll get ideas on different types of play and learning activities for toddlers. These activities are simpler than most of the activities you’ll find on the internet, but they are effective in building resilience and other skills that young kids need to learn.
Set reasonable limits, and let your child make age-appropriate decisions.
One one hand, we should set reasonable limits. We don’t help our kids if we allow them to do anything they want, whenever and wherever they want. This does not prepare them for life or for the future.
At the same time, we should allow our kids to make decisions that are appropriate for their age and level of development. Doing this builds resilience, and leads to better behavior too.
For example, even a child as young as one year old can choose which of two toys to play with. A two-year-old can choose between a toy and something else that they want. (Give them a small amount of time to consider.)
Here are other examples of decisions we can let our toddlers make:
- During meals, offer healthy choices, and allow them to choose which to eat and how much.
- When getting dressed, let them choose between 2-3 pre-selected outfits.
- When brushing teeth, let your child choose which toothbrush or which cup to use.
Sometimes, our kids make decisions we don’t agree with. Maybe they want to put ketchup in soup that will definitely taste horrible with it. It’s your decision as a parent how important it is to you. If you feel it’s not that big a deal, go ahead and let them find out the consequences for themselves!
As long as we don’t compromise safety, it’s better for kids to learn from small mistakes now. If we make every decision for them, they won’t learn the skills they need to later avoid mistakes that have bigger consequences.
Ask “how” questions instead of automatically offering solutions.
As parents, it’s hard to see our kids struggle. We want to fix things.
It’s tempting, but don’t give your child all the answers. When we immediately come to their rescue with answers, our kids don’t learn problem-solving skills.
Instead of automatically solving problems for your child, ask, “How?” Ask open-ended questions that encourage your child to problem-solve.
For example, your child has scattered toys all over the floor. It may seem easier to just clean up for your child. But try saying, “I see you left your toys out here. Someone might step on them and get hurt! How can you put them away?”
Teaching resilience in early childhood: Five things to avoid
Avoid eliminating all risk.
When our babies are just learning to walk, should we catch them and stop them from falling? No! In fact, before babies can learn to walk, they need to learn to fall.
This does not mean we should ignore safety precautions. Rather, this means we let them practice in a safe space where they will not be injured even if they fall.
The same thing goes with other skills – whether it’s building a tower with blocks, learning how to draw, or learning to feed themselves.
The key is here is to support your child in taking appropriate risks in learning essential skills. Risk-taking provides your child with age-appropriate freedom, guides them to understand their limits, and gives them a little dose of the thrilling unknown.
For example, what will happen (in your child’s mind) if they were to jump in that puddle? Run up the slide? What happens when they touch a perched butterfly? What about if they pour some milk into a cup?
Almost surely, milk will spill and they may not make it up the slide the first time. But now, your child has this experience filed away in their brains. Oh, so that’s what happens when I pour too much milk! Mommy showed me I can grab paper towels to clean it up!
Don’t dictate all your child’s activities.
The internet is full of step-by-step activity guides. As moms, we can feel pressured to follow what everyone else seems to be doing! It can be tempting to schedule every minute of our kids’ days with activities that we direct.
But a research study showed that when moms dictate too much how toddlers play, it actually affects how they learn to manage emotions later in life! When we spend too much of play time telling our kids exactly what to do, we might actually destroy their resilience.
Don’t feel pressured to entertain your child all the time.
Our society today often sees boredom as an enemy. So when our kids start acting bored, we start handing over toys, suggesting multiple activities, or handing over a gadget.
When we do this, we deprive our kids of the chance to find creative solutions and manage their own emotions.
It’s not our responsibility to make our kids happy and entertained all the time. It’s not our job to make sure that there is always something occupying our kids. They need to learn to deal with boredom. This allows them to learn, build creativity and resilience – and gives us downtime too as parents!
Don’t fix all your child’s mistakes.
Allow negative emotions. Don’t always rush to fix things. As parents, we want our kids to be happy. So it can be tempting to want to make things right for them.
With the best of intentions, we also say things like, “Don’t cry.” or “There’s nothing to be sad about.” when something upsets our kids. When we teach them to deny negative feelings, we’re actually making them less likely to learn coping skills.
For example, your toddler got paint all over their favorite toy, and now they’re upset. As a mom, I understand how tempting it is to do one (or more) of these.
- Say, “It’s just a toy. There’s nothing to be sad about.”
- Offer all their other toys, one after the other – or even a gadget. “See, playing with these is just as much fun!”
- Rush out and buy another one of the same toy.
- Or, on the opposite end, scold the child for being “careless”.
But if we want to build resilience, here’s what we can do instead.
- Describe what happened objectively. “There’s paint on your teddy bear.”
- Acknowledge how they feel. “I can see that you’re sad and upset.”
- Allow them to safely and respectfully express their emotions. For example, it’s okay to cry, but not okay to hurt others.
- When they have calmed down, invite them to find solutions. “What do you think we can do about it?”
Failure is a stepping stone to success. It’s certainly not the end of the world. So let your toddler make mistakes, and let them know it’s okay to mess up and then learn from the mess and rise again.
We’d rather our kids make small mistakes now. This helps them develop age-appropriate decision-making skills. If they don’t, we risk having them grow up to be indecisive adults who also constantly need rescuing.
Slip-ups act as a springboard for what to do next and better inform us of what not to do the next time. So, let your child fail with grace.
When children independently take on challenges and face their failures themselves, they not only develop a sense of resilience but become more resilient than those who never have to try.
By allowing kids to face some consequences on their own, we teach them how to cope with and recover from setbacks.
Avoid shaming or blaming.
Some think that shaming or blaming makes kids more resilient and “toughens” them. “They’ll experience bullying in the future. They should get used to it!”
However, this isn’t true. In fact, it’s the opposite. The resulting feelings of guilt and shame can harm children, building vulnerabilities in them that may lead to future bullying or victimization.
Shaming a child makes them less likely to make decisions and be proactive in the future. Your child doesn’t learn what is the right thing to do.
To recap, in this article, we talked about what resilience is, and why it is important to start teaching resilience in early childhood.
Teaching resilience in early childhood starts with creating a strong connection with your child. Model how to respond to negative emotions. Allow age-appropriate, child-directed play. Set reasonable limits, but let your child make age-appropriate decisions. Ask “how” questions instead of automatically offering solutions.
There are also things we should avoid. Don’t dictate all your child’s activities. Don’t feel pressured to entertain your child all the time, or to fix all their mistakes. Avoid shaming or blaming.
If you look at these tips, you’ll notice that we actually help kids build resilience when we do less, not more! This is good news for us. As toddler moms, we already have a hundred things to do at any one time. If we take it easy every now and then, not only will it make us happier (we deserve that), but it also help teach our kids resilience!
How does your child show resilience? Which strategy will you try this week? Share with me in the comments!