How to Foster Resilience in Children: A Guide for Parents

From setbacks to bullying to trauma, children can experience a host of difficulties. As much as parents want to prevent bad things from happening to their children, this is not always possible.

At Weill Cornell Medicine, our pediatricians and child and adolescent psychiatrists are leaders in their fields and often discuss resiliency with their patients and families. They emphasize the important role that parents play in creating a safe environment for their children (be sure to read our summer safety and water safety tips for parents). Parents have another important job: fostering resiliency for the inevitable difficulties and losses that all children experience.

What is resiliency?

Resiliency (often also called “hardiness”) is the ability to rebound from difficult circumstances. It involves three major components: 

  1. Commitment: The willingness to stay engaged, rather than become isolated during difficult times.
  2. Control: The willingness to try and influence the outcome of challenging circumstances.
  3. Challenge: The ability to view situations as opportunities for growth and learning. 

Resilient children and adolescents tend to have a positive view of themselves, feel cared for and respected, as well as protected from dangers. They also generally confident and believe that they are competent.

How can parents promote resiliency before a challenge?

Parents can help their children become more resilient well before a challenge or hardship. Most important, parents should develop strong, loving relationships with their children so that they feel that they are cared about. Parents should also talk about resiliency, as well as the fact that challenges and difficulties are inevitable, but the way that we respond to them

In addition, parents can proactively promote resiliency with several other strategies:

Establish a structured routine: At any age, a daily structure helps children feel safer because they know, generally, what to expect from the day. Since a routine requires more supervision, it eliminates many problems associated with poor supervision. It also helps parents identify an issue more quickly; for example, a child who is being bullied often experiences changes in sleep habits. These changes may be more difficult to spot without a structured routine. 

Encourage skill building and personal responsibility: Parents should promote involvement in age-appropriate activities, including independent and group learning. Children should also be expected to perform basic tasks (and chores) to build self-confidence and a sense of responsibility. 

Acknowledge successes: Parents should be sure to recognize when children achieve, build a new skill, conquer a fear, or overcome a challenge. The most effective recognition is meaningful and proportional to the achievement.

Promote self-understanding and self-awareness: Parents should discuss the importance of emotions and relationships, as well as help children understand the emotions that they experience.

How can parents help children after a traumatic event?

After any type of challenge or trauma, parents can help their child recover more quickly and healthily by providing a level of support that is proportional to the level of difficulty.

It is important to bear in mind that most children recover well, given time and support. This is especially true for children who were doing well before the traumatic event. They may react strongly but will find a way to understand the situation and cope in some way.

Parents can help their children respond resiliently (and foster greater resiliency for future challenges) when they:

Model resilient behavior: Children look to their parents for leadership in challenging times, so parents should be sure to prioritize self-care and relationships. Often, children will pay more attention to how their parents behave than what they say. 

Maintain a similar structure: Parents should also try to maintain the same (or similar) routine for the child and family. Predictability and routine are antidotes to insecurity and fear.

Provide a proportional level of support: Parents should offer support and care by being close enough to observe, listen, and understand. Be sure to maintain some distance so as not to smother, intrude, or overprotect.

Observe and listen to the child: After a traumatic event, children show their concerns in different ways. It may be difficult to know what to say right away, but this should not cause worry. Words are often inadequate during the early stages; a parent’s presence and affection are the most meaningful and helpful. Eventually, most parents are able to discuss the event.

Seek help when needed: Parents and children should seek help from a psychiatrist to help overcome a challenging situation or trauma. Family psychiatry services are available at Weill Cornell Medicine.

The bottom line? Parents can help their children by fostering resiliency and self-esteem before experiencing a challenge or trauma. After a difficult event, rebuilding a routine and talking openly may take some time, but with commitment, consistency, and loving attention, children rebound quickly. 

Be sure to learn more about the comprehensive pediatric and psychiatry services at Weill Cornell Medicine. Our pediatricians and adolescent and pediatric psychiatrists not only provide excellent patient care, but also help families to become healthier and safer.

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