Tips to build emotional resilience in kids
What is resilience?
Being resilient encapsulates different qualities. The definition of resilience is the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, adversities and setbacks.
For a long time, resilience has been seen as an outcome of difficult times; you face a challenge, you become more resilient. However, it is really much more of a process. Resilience is about how you actually react to and cope with emotional and mental stress.
To be resilient is to be determined, to have grit and to be able to persevere. These sound like rather grown-up characteristics, but they’re also exactly what you’d expect from children too.
A resilient child won’t get overwhelmed or show signs of emotional distress quickly. Instead, they’ll have coping mechanisms to deal with challenges. Emotional resilience doesn’t mean that a child isn’t allowed to cry or show emotions. Emotional resilience in children means that they can express their emotions constructively without pain, fear, or anger.
Why is emotional resilience important for children?
Childhood isn’t all adventures in the forest or TikTok and Fortnite all evening. There are real challenges and difficulties that children can face.
What you as an adult find stressful, is likely to be just as tough for a young child to experience. Situations such as:
- Moving schools / homes
- Sharing two homes
- New siblings arriving
- Death in the family
- Death of a pet
- Friendship rivalry
- Peer pressure
- Medical stresses
- World news – example floods, wars, looting, etc.
All these situations can be difficult for a child to process.
There is a lot of evidence that stress can lead to mental health issues for children, such as anxiety or depression. In an NHS survey, it was found that 18 per cent of girls and 12 per cent of boys were showing signs of depression and anxiety.
Teaching your child how to become emotionally resilient, can help to combat these issues. When a child is emotionally resilient, they will be able to work through their challenges rather than focus on the problems they encounter. We all know that schoolwork can be a stressful time. Giving your child tools to be able to seek help or the confidence to say “I don’t understand” will help them not take the stress to heart.
Like with many of our life skills, we can learn them as adults, but it’s easier when we’re young. Teaching emotional resilience means that you’re setting your child up to better cope with difficult finances, rocky relationships or losing their loved ones when they reach adulthood.
Children have different levels of resilience and different ways of responding to and recovering from stressful times. All behaviour is communication and, our children’s behaviour gives us clues as to whether they are regulated and in their learning brain, or if the demands of stress are greater than their capacity to cope.
When children are dysregulated, they may become emotional, withdraw or, become defiant, angry or resentful. When we become curious about behaviour, we are able to meet children where they are, to help them regulate and learn new skills.
All children are capable of extraordinary things, and resilience can be nurtured in all children.
8 ways to build emotionally resilient children
- Teach kids about their emotions
During stressful moments and in the face of unpleasant emotions, children may not be able to quiet their amygdala to activate their prefrontal cortex. Because the prefrontal cortex is early in development, they can easily fall into a fight, flight or freeze state. By helping children notice and label their emotions, it brings them into their bodies. As they understand that all emotions are acceptable and useful, they can honour what they are feeling and choose effective calming strategies to help them regulate and move forward.
- Embrace mistakes
When children fear failing, they develop a fixed mindset – we either win or lose, pass or fail. This type of thinking can enhance stress and lead to risk avoidance. When we teach children that all mistakes are normal – ours and theirs – it becomes safe for them to step out of their comfort zone to try new things. Embracing a growth mindset encourages that our traits are not fixed, but rather grow with practice, and mistakes then become the building blocks to learn and grow.
- Ask children for their opinion
When we ask our children for their opinion or ask for their help, they feel powerful and valuable. In these ways, they can also practice communicating their wants, needs and thoughts. As children discover who they are, they learn what they are made of.
- Encourage healthy risk-taking
Healthy risks are situations that encourage children to step outside of their comfort zone but result in little harm if they are unsuccessful. This may include trying a new sport that they show an interest in, participating in a play, or striking up a conversation with someone. When children embrace risk-taking, they learn to challenge themselves, knowing they are powerful and capable just as they are and especially when they mess up.
- Teach problem-solving
Rather than telling children what to think, we can teach them how to think. Reflecting on what you hear and asking questions, is a great way to encourage problem-solving. By bouncing problems back to the child, it gives them an opportunity to practice thinking through the problem to come up with solutions. Here are some questions you could try:
- What did you learn?
- What did you do today that made you think hard?
- What are some other ways you can solve this problem?
- How can we look at this from a new perspective?
Resilience and grit don’t prevent stress from occurring but they do equip us with tools to cope and transform something challenging into something beautiful or new. At the very least, resilience can help us to know ourselves, set boundaries and practice self-love. When we love ourselves through all emotions and situations – pleasant and unpleasant – then we step into who we are meant to be – and that person is exactly who the world needs.
- Do not accommodate every need
Lynn Lyons is a licensed social worker and psychotherapist who co-authored the book “Anxious Kids, Anxious Parents: 7 Ways to Stop the Worry Cycle and Raise Courageous and Independent Children”. She states that whenever we try to provide certainty and comfort, we get in the way of children being able to develop their own problem-solving and mastery. (Overprotecting kids only fuels their anxiety.)A dramatic but not uncommon example she provides is, “Suppose a child gets out of school at 3:15. But they worry about their parent picking them up on time. So the parent arrives an hour earlier and parks by their child’s classroom so they can see the parent is there.” In another example, parents let their 7-year-old sleep on a mattress on the floor in their bedroom because they’re too uncomfortable to sleep in their room.
- Help them manage their emotions
Emotional Intelligence (EQ) and self-regulation are key to resilience. You can teach your kids that all emotions are OK. It’s OK to feel angry that you lost the game or someone else finished your ice-cream. It’s important to teach children that after feeling their feelings, they need to think through what they’re going to do next. You might tell your child, “I understand that you feel that way. I’d feel the same way if I were in your shoes, but now you have to figure out what the appropriate next step is.” If your child throws a tantrum, be clear about what behaviour is appropriate (and inappropriate).
- Model adaptability
Of course, kids also learn from observing their parents’ behaviour. Try to be calm and consistent. You cannot say to a child that you want them to control their emotions while you yourself are falling apart or flipping out. When you do make a mistake, admit it. You could say, “I’m sorry I handled that poorly. Let’s talk about a different way to handle that in the future”. Resiliency helps kids navigate the inevitable trials, triumphs and tribulations of childhood and adolescence. Resilient kids also become resilient adults, able to survive and thrive in the face of life’s unavoidable stressors.
The 7 Cs of resilience
Dr Ken Ginsburg developed a theory which lays out the 7 Cs of resilience. His research has been centred around helping children learn how to solve problems. His work encourages children to think up, explain and set priorities for their own ideas. Dr Ginsburg’s work around resilience has been influential in how we understand what it looks like in children and how to develop the skills needed. They are:
To be competent is to be able to do something. For a child this might mean they know that they can do their maths work if they focus, or that they will be able to ride their bike without training wheels.To work on competence with your child, be sure that you focus on their strengths so that they know what they’re good at. It’s also important to empower them so that they can make their own decisions wherever possible; this could be choosing their own lunch or picking the book they’ll read before bedtime.When a child is overprotected, they can feel like they should always defer decisions to adults. Take steps to show your child that they can do many things by themselves, successfully.
Confidence is very much linked to competence. When your child believes in their own abilities, they cultivate a stronger sense of self confidence. This can be anything from coming first place in a competition, reading aloud to an audience, or taking the lead role in a play or dance.To instil confidence in your child, you need to focus on their best assets and qualities rather than dwell on where they’re struggling. You need to be crystal clear about their qualities rather than too vague, “you managed to stay within the lines of your colouring sheet” is specific praise instead of “that’s a great picture”.Finding ways to offer recognition to your child will also give them confidence. In a home setting, having a “house points” system or weekly awards for chores or tasks they’ve completed well can build up each their confidence too.
A child needs to feel that they have a place in the world and are cared for by others. As simple as this may sound, this may not be the case for many children; for various reasons such as, frequently moving homes, divorce, difficult family situations, etc. Feeling “connected” allows a child to be able to talk about how they’re feeling.You can build connections for your child by creating a safe space for them. You can also have a “quiet room” (perhaps even their bedroom) where they can have some downtime if needed.By working through conflict, you also show your child that they have a connection with you. Noticing arguments and dealing with them in a fair way will model good behaviour and show them that you can still be friends after having a fall-out.
Having character means to have morals and values and know right from wrong. When a child shares their sandwich with someone less fortunate or, chooses to play a game fairly, even when they’ve been given an advantage, you know that they have good character.You can work on character with your child by showing that actions have consequences. It’s important that you follow through with what you tell your child, such as cutting short their TV time or taking away their iPad when they’ve failed to keep to an agreement of sorts. Correcting negative attitudes is another key element – if you hear any racist language, or any words that stereotype people, you need to explain clearly, why it is wrong and how it can be hurtful to the people around them.Building character in a child will help them in their relationships with their friends in the present and in the future. It’s important to ensure that they know that they are naturally good and that they always have the opportunity to make the right choices.
Show your child how they can make their world better. Knowing where they fit into the world and that they’re valued and important, will help keep anxiety from creeping in. When a child understands that they are capable of good, you might see them share their snacks at a party or playdate, or volunteer to help a struggling friend.Ensure that your child understands where they fit in in the world and that there are people both better and worse off than them. You can also model what generosity looks like by creating chances for them to offer help.Showing them how they can contribute to others around them in their immediate environment, should lead to them being able to contribute to wider society. Generosity as a child should translate into becoming a kind and considerate adult.
To cope is to be able to deal with stress. Not letting stressful situations get the better of them will help your child to be calm in whatever crisis may befall them. A child who can cope with stress will show perseverance before approaching you for help.Just telling a child “no” rarely works. It is necessary to explain to them why their actions are risky and what they can do differently – this will teach them to evaluate a situation. Don’t ever shame a child for their behaviour, otherwise they will try to hide it next time, which will not be helpful.When a child is not stressed about making a mistake or being scolded, they are more willing to try, even if they struggle. With less stress, the chances of depression and anxiety forming later will diminish.
Children need to understand that they have a direct effect on the world around them. Understanding that they can control events, is an empowering feeling and allows them understand that they can make changes. An example of a child showing control could be them choosing a healthy snack at lunch after learning about nutrition.You can model the choices a child has and the actions that they can take to help them take control, by setting challenges around achieving more in their schoolwork based on the work they put in. For example, you can challenge your child to complete 20 addition problems followed by a quiz to demonstrate that they’ve improved.A child who understands how they control their world, will know that their actions and choices will affect their life. They should be less reckless and take fewer risks when they grasp that they are making decisions that will affect them and their future.
What are the characteristics of an emotionally resilient child?
Emotional resilience or even just resilience in children, is not an absolute. It’s a continuous process of building and developing. You need to provide children with all the tools to cope with challenges in their young lives, so that they will be more resilient as adults.
You’ll be able to recognise a resilient child when they are:
- Interested in school, showing enthusiasm and engagement with their work.
- Able to solve problems that they get presented with, whether it’s a challenging task or needing to help a friend deal with a problem.
- Assertive in being able to ask for what they need, whether it be asking for more time to do something or additional assistance with their work.
- Empathetic with their friends and with you as their parent, offering to help friends who struggle or talking to someone who’s alone can show empathy.
- Responsible or seek responsibility, such as asking to assist you with certain tasks around the house.
- Able to set and achieve goals, meaning they understand that their action will bring about results such as reading a book within a week.
- Positive in their outlook and can see the good in a situation rather than fixate on the difficulties; seeing a test as a chance to improve their results would be an example.
What are the characteristics of a non-resilient child?
Not being emotionally resilient will lead a child to feel stressed. Understanding when a child is stressed will be a signal that you need to focus on acquiring some skills to build resilience. Use the 7 Cs as a framework to see where they might need help.
A stressed child will:
- wet the bed.
- suffer headaches.
- have an upset stomach.
- have sleeping problems.
- refuse to do any schoolwork.
Emotionally resilient children will become resilient adults. We all know the challenges that being a grown-up presents and how they can affect our mental health. Developing tools to cope during childhood will make your children less likely to struggle with their mental health as they grow.
Mind Power courses
At Think Digital we’ve developed two short courses, Mind Power for Kids (ages 6 – 12) and Mind Power for Teens (ages 13 – 18), that is fun to take and teaches them how to navigate through life and remain positive and focused.