4 Ways to Build Your Kid's Resilience

You need to model resilience to foster it in your children. When you practice building up your own resilience, your children get to see what it looks like when a grown-up handles obstacles with grace.
11/05/2013 05:50 pm ET

By Becky Karush

Resilience is the key to bearing up under stress -- not just for you, but for your kids, too. Their worries may seem innocuous enough, but you only have to think back to your own memories as a kid to know that childhood stresses are not just traumatic at the time, but can also affect you in the long run. Building resilience is the backbone of the meQuilibrium system -- and resilience is not just a skill you can strengthen for yourself, but something you can teach your kids as well.

Take my friend Darcy, for example. She grew up in poverty in Boston. Her family wasn't just going to the food pantry for a bag of groceries now and then. Theirs was a "we own one bed and no one's making it to college" kind of struggle. The odds were stacked against her, but Darcy had two amazing things going for her.

First, she found a strong, supportive, and inspiring connection with a caring teacher. Second, no matter what downright awful situation hit her, she kept moving in the direction of her dreams, whether it was going to the library, getting into a private high school, or working in China as a financial analyst.

Darcy achieved all those things. During vacations at the private boarding school she attended on scholarship, she cleaned faculty members' houses for extra cash, and one day she flipped through book on a psychology teacher's shelf. She called up her roommate and best friend. "I found the word that describes my life!" she said. "It's 'rez-a-LEE-ance!'"

So she couldn't pronounce it, perhaps -- but she knew it because she had it. And so can you.

Teaching Kids Resilience
Given that stress is inevitable for all of us, a parent's job is helping a child learn how to meet it. meQ's Chief Science Officer Andrew Shatte says, resilience is the key to keeping ourselves strong in the face of stress. It's a hands-on skill that affects how you and your kids deal with stress now -- and later. (Read more about connection builds resilience.)

For younger children, Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of Parenting Without Fear, offers simple tips to help give kids a foundation for resilience. Below are a few of our favorites.

1. Establish healthy sleep patterns. Nothing will throw a kid off like going to bed and getting up at irregular times. Setting a regular bedtime for every night of the week, not just weekdays, ensures that your child has a solid foundation of rest -- without which resilience is going to be next to impossible.

2. De-structure playtime. When a kid's days are scheduled to the minute, he loses the chance to learn to think for himself. Free play, which might include that uncomfortable feeling of having "nothing to do," promotes independence, creativity and confidence in children in ways that structured activities can't.

3. Spend time outside. Being outdoors is literally used as therapy for kids who have suffered loss or trauma. Activities like climbing a tree or simply cloud-watching have a natural restorative effect that loosens the grip of stress on the body and helps kids return to the problem at hand refreshed.

4. Read more books together. Not only does reading together strengthen your bond with your child, it also begins to build her understanding of how the world works and how to move in it. Picture book characters can become role models and companions of a sort to guide a child through a hard moment.

(Read the complete list of Dr. Donahue's tips.)

Showing Kids Resilience
Bottom line: You need to model resilience to foster it in your children. When you practice building up your own resilience, your children get to see what it looks like when a grown-up handles obstacles with grace and even uses that stress energy as a catalyst for action. (Read how to reframe stress as a useful thing.)

Darcy's first baby is due early in 2014. What a lucky kid that will be, to have a mom whose life got bigger, better and more resilient with every hard time she faced.

Becky Karush is a writer and editor in New Hampshire specializing in healthy child development and child health care reform.

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