This year marks the 90th anniversary of the beloved childhood story about resilience, The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. Read Aloud Available Here. This cherished tale of a determined, resilient little train, chugging up a seemingly insurmountable mountain to deliver gifts to deserving children has resonated across generations. How many of us still use this story with our kids, or grandkids, to encourage perseverance: “I think I can; I think I can…” During this pandemic, there is a tremendous need to help children and teens to build resiliency; to not only survive, but to thrive.
What is Resiliency?
Though several definitions of resiliency exist, I feel that Katie Hurley, LCSW explains it well when she says, “Resilience is the ability to bounce back from stress, adversity, failure, challenges, or even trauma. It’s not something that kids either have or don’t have; it’s a skill that kids develop as they grow.”
Building Resilience in Children
There are many ways adults can model and foster resiliency. Mainly, by teaching coping skills and providing opportunities for children and teens to practice using these skills; allowing them to manage stress, problem-solve, and make good choices for themselves.
Managing “Big Feelings”
For everyone, life has its share of bumps along the way. The first step in managing emotions is learning to name the feeling; we call this emotional literacy. Then, we assess the feeling’s intensity, asking ourselves, “is this a big deal, or little deal?”
If It is a big deal, we can take inventory of the emotional tools we have for managing big emotions. What are the go-to calming tools or strategies for this particular situation? Or, how can I self-advocate and who can I turn to if help is needed? On the other hand, if it’s a little deal, how can I channel my inner Elsa and “let it go” and move on.
So, what are some helpful coping strategies, or acts of self-care that you can help kids practice? Mindfulness, or learning how to relax your brain to focus on being present, is quite helpful. As is expressive art (writing, drama, dance) or physical movement via exercise or outdoor activities. Taking an “instant vacation” via reading a book is another way to mentally recharge.
Allowing Children to Fail and Make Mistakes
Allowing children to fail, or make mistakes, is a large part of fostering resiliency. If we never take risks, and things always go as planned, we never learn how to handle disappointment. If we never lose at a game, or always win at sports, we never learn how to handle defeat. We lack grit and struggle to rise up and try again.
As a parent, its often difficult to see our child sad or frustrated. However, it is important to permit them to experience these setbacks in life, so they can learn how to tolerate disappointment and move on. Help them develop a Growth Mindset, in which mistakes are accepted (and celebrated!) as part of the learning process. From early on, we can help nurture resilience by allowing our children to lose at Jenga, encourage them to stick out the softball season, even if their team has not won a game. Growth mindset encourages us to build flexible brains and learn from our mistakes.
Here are some examples of Growth Mindset “scripts” that foster resiliency:
- I may not be the best soccer player on the team, but I do have the most spirit.
- I did not get the lead in the school play, but I can do a wonderful job in the chorus.
- Even though I lost the election to be student body president, I can serve on committees and get involved in causes that interest me.
- Acknowledge when you see your child persevering and bouncing back. You can even take a cue from The Little Engine That Could and positively reinforce by saying, “I thought you could! I thought you could!”
Be a Supportive Listener
Immediately telling our kids how to fix their problems is such an easy trap to fall into. After all, we have age and wisdom in our corner, and we “know” what to do. But remember, everyone benefits when we allow our kids to figure out how to handle life’s bumps on their own, though it may not be easy.
Show you are an empathetic, supportive listener by including phrases like “that does sound like an upsetting situation”, or “ I can understand why you feel disappointed.” Then, assist them with the problem-solving process, not but try not to Support your child by showing that you believe that they can handle the situation. Ask them, “what have you tried already?” or “what do you think can work?”
Use Books as Conversation Starters
Like The Little Engine that Could, the children’s story The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld, reminds us of the quiet beauty in sitting back and observing our children embark on their own problem-solving journey. Read Aloud Available Here
Reading books with themes of resiliency is a great way to launch conversation about handling life’s adversities. Brightly.com has curated this list of books for readers of all ages.
For more helpful parenting tips, check out our blog post on using Pre-Teaching as a tool for tackling new situations.
Written by Carol Miller, LSCW
Edited by Danielle Bentz, MA