When you describe a child as “resilient,” what it means depends on who is using the term. In the most accurate sense, it means that a child has good adaptive capacities to metabolize various experiences, even difficult ones, and continue to thrive. It is an important quality for later success in all areas of life, and in my opinion, one of the best things to build into a child.
In the not-so-good use of the term, it means, “My child will be fine no matter what I choose to drag him through.” It is used as an excuse to not have to make sacrifices for the child’s well-being. So, let’s assume that the goal is to help a child be as resilient as possible, and also strive to not put children through harmful or depriving experiences where superhuman resilience is required.
So, how do you build resilience? There are a number of factors, but in this limited space, let’s focus on a few:
First and foremost is the child’s attachment quotient. I define that as her degree of secure attachment to her primary caretakers, plus her ability to form new attachments. When a child feels loved and secure in her primary bonds, she develops a strong foundation to her personality. This will enable her to go through many trials and still feel strong inside. The “good mother” lives inside of her, and she takes Mom with her no matter what is happening, or where she is. It is built through meeting the child’s needs early in life, and having continuity and consistency in her primary attachments that are available to meet needs, are nurturing, and do not disappear. In short, consistency. This in turn builds the ability to trust others which will be needed to weather whatever changes and storms that life may bring when resilience is needed. It literally builds brains.
Second is the ability to be independent, assertive and strong. Children who are encouraged to go into new situations, cope with them, be away from Mom at times, have play dates, sleepovers, classes, and the like learn to negotiate new environments and adapt. They get a sense of self-confidence that will take them through figuring out what new environments require from them. Training them early to solve their own problems, make choices, seek what they need, and work out their squabbles with other kids is key. This assumes also that you are getting them lots of experiences with other kids, which is important.
Third is their ability to create structure and order for themselves. This comes from providing a lot of structure, boundaries, etc. for them early in life, and also requiring them to do the same for themselves. An ordered day, schedule, consistency along with the requirement to order their own world for themselves builds internal order and security. To clean their rooms, pick up and organize their things, help with chores, etc. gives them a feeling that they can create structure in a chaotic situation when needed later. Adults who have difficulty with change often are lacking the internal structure that they need to feel secure when everything around them is changing and morphing. This includes the ability for delay of gratification, and to hear “no” without going crazy.
Fourth would be how they look at failures, mistakes, messes and the like. Resiliency requires the ability to not over-react to mistakes, mistakes by oneself or others, and to solve problems instead of getting angry, critical and over-reactive. To build into your child the ability to not get over-worked at problems, but solve them, is essential. And it begins with the way that you respond to mistakes, failures, disobedience and problems. If you do not over-react or use anger, but respond with calm problem-solving techniques, your child is likely to do the same. The last thing you want in a child is an overabundance of stress hormones getting released in problem situations, as those limit judgment and clear thinking. Model a calm head and require the same, using time-outs to think, calm-down time and expectations for the child to figure it out and fix it in a calm way. Comfort them, talk them down, and require level-headedness. I used to say to my daughters, “that’s not a crying thing. No one is hurt. Calm down and let’s solve the problem.”
Remember, life is difficult. As parents, we need to always keep in mind that a big part of parenting is to equip our children to live in a difficult world.