Why raising resilient kids has nothing to do with tough love

Kinderling News & Features

Resilience is the buzz word for parents today. 

We’ve been told our children have been pampered, they’re getting away with too much, there are too many “helicopter” parents around and we have ruined their ability to bounce back. 

Depression, anxiety, cyber-bullying. All of these words terrify parents. We’ve been told that our way of parenting will create stunted adults who can’t cope with the world around them. 

And then along comes resilience. The ability for a child to cope with whatever the world throws at them. The ability to soldier on through adversity. 

Resilience is our knight in shining armour. 

But how do you teach resilience? Is it the opposite of the behaviour that has robbed young adults of their ability to cope with 'real life'? That is, do we need to apply tough love and detachment in order to help them develop a thicker skin? 

What is resilience? 

Anthony Semann is an early childhood educator. He says that bouncing back is knowing how to overcome problems in life – either by finding the tools internally, through positive self-talk, challenging your assumptions or asking for help. 

He says, “People who are resilient can still walk in the rain, they just know when to open up their umbrella.”   

With that definition in mind, Anthony is unequivocal. Resilience is not taught through tough love. 

Listen to Anthony on Kinderling Conversation:

You can only teach resilience when you have empathy 

Anthony uses the example of a child having a meltdown in a shopping centre. He says rather than walking away (which is teaching them detachment) or yelling at them, our job as parents is to stay by them and to actually show our children what “bouncing back” looks like. 

"You tell them you love them. You say ‘sometimes life is hard and I understand you wanted another piece of chocolate, but right now we can't afford it. I still love you and I'll stand by you. I'm not going to abandon you."

After the tantrum has died down, your child can regroup, brush themselves off, and see how they got through it with you standing by them. They can see it’s possible to go through awful situations and be okay. 

Anthony says, Loving your child unequivocally helps them become resilient because you are an island of hope for them.” 

Teach your children about their feelings 

Emotion coaching is when we give our children the language to describe their feelings. Anthony says that this helps them process what they’re going through. When you can recognise when you’re feeling angry or sad, and you know how you want to feel (calm or happy) then resilience is working out how you get there. 

When it comes to emotion coaching for resilience, Anthony has some key tips. 

1. Don’t tell them it’s okay when it’s not 

If a child is upset because their dog died, don’t tell them that they will be okay. Right at that moment they’re feeling terrible and trying to make them feel better isn’t going to work. 

Acknowledge that they are feeling bad, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean those feelings will last, but accepting that uncomfortable feelings are just part of life is key to resilience. 

Anthony says “If we say it's going to be okay and it's not for them they're going to think something's wrong with them and everyone else is moving on in the world and what's wrong with me. That's counter to being resilient.” 

2. Explain that worrying is normal 

Worrying is another emotion that we all experience. If your child is worrying, don’t deny it. Ask yourself, has that ever worked for you? If you have an overdue bill, a doctor’s appointment, a family member is in trouble. If a friend just said, “it will be fine, don’t worry!” How effective is that? 

Instead Anthony says it’s important to acknowledge that worrying is a normal part of life, and then unpack it. 

“Just because we're worried about something doesn't mean it's going to happen. Some of us are worried to get in a plane, it doesn't mean it's going to fall out of the sky. Worrying is just a feeling and feelings are real but they're not a reality.” 

After that, ask them what they’re worried about. Be specific. Then workshop some ways to help them deal with the problem. 

3. Teach your child to be a thought detective 

Negative thinking can start young. Teaching your child to be aware of how they’re thinking and to challenge that can help them get through some trying times. 

Try to show them how a negative thought, for example “no one is going to invite me to their party”, is not necessarily true. Name the friends they do have and the parties they’ve been to. Point out how thoughts are not facts. Show them how to notice when they’re having unhelpful thoughts and teach them how to turn them around. 

4. Create a strong connection with them, and lower your expectations 

Ultimately Anthony says teaching resilience can be as simple as enjoying being with your child. Develop a good relationship with them where they know they can trust you and that your advice is sound. 

Show them that the things they find hard are difficult for you too. That you find it difficult to share, and that you can feel disappointed or sad sometimes. But also explain how you helped yourself through that. 

Sometimes as adults we forget that resilience is not a short-term experience. 

I would argue that most parents are resilient, even when sometimes we feel we’re not. We pick ourselves up every day, when we’re sick, tired or just feeling flat. We pick ourselves up and keep going because we have to. That’s a form of resilience, but it takes time and effort.

 We don’t always get it right, sometimes we snap at the kids or have a little cry in the car. Anthony says that often our expectations of children are too high. 

“We expect children to be perfect. We think, I'm going to tell them once, they're going to take my advice and all will be good. It ain't going to happen. You have to chill as a parent and understand that some of these things take a long time to learn.”