Navigating the stresses of childhood and adolescence is a lot easier when a child is emotionally resilient, but to get there parents need to follow these basic rules.
Make time to listen to your children
When parents take the time to listen to their kids and learn to accept and value their feelings, they help make them more resilient. Start by making sure you have these nine essential listening skills. “Kids are more open to listening to us when we listen to them,” says Kenneth Barish, PhD, clinical professor of Psychology in Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. He suggests putting aside 10 minutes at the end of every day, just to talk. “Ask them about their concerns, about any problems they have had with friends, and repair any anger and misunderstandings they may have.” Listening puts any setbacks into perspective and when we repair anger and misunderstanding, the feelings don’t build up, explains Barish.
Engage them in the process of solving problems
When parents indulge in helicopter parenting, they go as far as to do their child’s homework and complete their projects that they need for class. “Engaging your child is the alternative to helicopter parenting,” says Barish. When your child is having a problem, ask them what they can do to solve it. “Parents don’t offer this often because they are distracted by what they can do to solve the problem. Engaging them changes the channel and encourages the child to solve the problem and in turn, strengthens their problem-solving skills.
Encourage a growth mindset
Research shows there are two types of mindsets—fixed and growth. With a fixed mindset—”I’m smart” or “I’m not smart”—every failure means you are not smart. In a growth mindset, every failure is an opportunity, explains Barish. With a fixed mindset, a child that doesn’t get a good grade in math believes that he shouldn’t do the math. A fixed mindset leads to anxiety and pressure, while a growth mindset leads to a passion for learning. “A growth mindset is a powerful tool,” says Barish. With a growth mindset, you have to think that intelligence and talent are muscles that get better and stronger with use. When a child doesn’t do well, they don’t get discouraged, they say “if I work harder, I’ll get smarter.” Make sure you stay away from the compliments that can actually hurt your kids.
Increase their emotional vocabulary
We all want our kids to be emotionally smart, so it’s important for kids at an early age to be able to express themselves and talk about what they are feeling, says Lynn Lyons, LICSW, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist based in Concord, New Hampshire. Increasing a child’s emotional vocabulary gives them more words to express themselves. “To create emotional resilience in kids we want them to have the gradations,” says Lyons. The more words they have to choose from—happy, mad, content, angry—the abler they are to discriminate between feelings and better describe how they feel and express themselves.
Don’t overdo the praise
Praise is like oxygen, you can’t go without it, says Barish, and if we praise effort, rather than intelligence, we don’t have to be afraid of praise. Studies have shown that too much praise from parents can have negative effects, and even make kids narcissistic. “Don’t praise a kid for getting an A, praise them for how hard they worked,” says Barish. He also suggests that parents make the praise specific. In sports, you can praise a child for the effort they made going after the ball, he explains. “Maybe you didn’t get there, but you went after it.”
From toys to attention to endless activities, giving too much of anything to your child can have damaging effects. Research shows that when overindulged children become adults, their basic skills, self-esteem, confidence, morals and emotions, can be affected. Some researchers believe that an overindulgence is a form of child neglect because it can prevent a child from learning necessary life skills. “Kids should learn the principle of earning,” says Barish. “I see kids who are not working hard in school, yet they get extravagantly expensive things.” The alternative to overindulgence, explains Barish, is to teach children that they don’t get what they want all they time. “When they want something they have to earn it.”
Have them help others
From shoveling snow off an elderly neighbor’s walkway to donating food to a local food bank, teaching children to care for and help others is an important part of growing up. Research shows that kids benefit when they receive tutoring from their peers. “Third graders can take the time to read to kindergartners,” says Barish. It teaches them that they have something to offer and gives them a sense of realistic self-esteem. He says that community service is also important. “They should do community service not just so it looks good on a college application, but because a real form of helping others is good for self-esteem and emotional maturity.”
Be wary of criticism
While parents may think criticism can be helpful, criticism makes children angry and defiant and it sets up a vicious cycle, says Barish. “They become rude and disrespectful and we criticize them for being rude and disrespectful.” When they are not feeling angry and discouraged, children want to do well and earn the praise of their parents. The best way to remedy the cycle of anger and resentment is to engage in patient and respectful listening.
Focus on “how” rather than “why”
Managing emotions is an important element in raising resilient kids but you need to know how to negotiate through emotional reactions. When a child is upset or sad, we want to promote action toward a situation, says Lyon. Instead of asking your child “why are you so upset?” ask them “how can we resolve this situation?” If your sibling breaks your favorite toy, you tell your child that it’s OK to be mad, but what do we do next to deal with the mad? They also have to learn to recognize normal emotions, says Lyon. “If you suffer a loss, you will feel sad, or if you take your driver’s test, you will feel anxious.” Emotional management is being able to practice different reactions. “But sometimes there is no action,” explains Lyon. “If your kitty dies, you have to tolerate feeling sad, and discuss that maybe we will get another kitty.”
Don’t be too quick to reassure
When a child is worried or feeling distressed it’s important not to be too quick to reassure—sometimes it’s OK to worry. “Culturally we are in to not letting our kids feel any distress,” says Lyons. For example, when kids tell their parents they are worried they about failing a test, a reaction of many parents is to tell them they “won’t fail” the test. “Rather than stepping away or having the parent step in and say ‘it’s all OK’ we have to let them feel uncomfortable so they can manage the situation,” says Lyon. “If they still struggle, we need to love them and support them rather than remove the struggle completely.”
Teach them to take reasonable risk
I see a lot of parents who try to eliminate all risk from their child’s lives, and that’s natural, explains Lyon, but studies indicate that children of anxious parents have an increased risk of developing anxiety. “If you want to create emotional resilience, you have to be counterintuitive to what your ‘loving parent’ instincts are telling you to do,” says Lyon. The best way to do this is to allow kids to step into experiences that make them uncomfortable, and then teach them what to do with their feelings. For example, when your son drops the ball in left field and the team loses the game, there is nothing you can do to fix that, says Lyons. “You have to teach them that feelings dissipate over time. They also need to understand that when you are playing a game where there is a winner and a loser when you step into the arena, you have to be able to handle both consequences.”