Children, even at early ages, can benefit from developing resiliency as a means of addressing anxious thoughts and behaviors. Resiliency means learning to bounce back when we face challenging times. It means that a child can eventually realize that he or she can survive, and even thrive, despite encountering difficult situations.
Imagine how stressful life would be if we felt defeated, frustrated, or demoralized by every small obstacle that we face. As adults, most of us have learned to accept the fact that we aren’t always going to win every game, do exactly what we want to do at work, or convince others around us to agree to only follow our plans for social outings. While it may be hard to handle larger obstacles, such as a family member being ill, we hopefully have some coping strategies to help deal with these bigger stressors as well.
Resilience isn’t something we’re born with, though. It’s a skill that we all have to learn. There are many ways that parents can help their children learn to become resilient, such as:
Point out small potential obstacles and brainstorm solutions together (e.g., “Oh no! I wanted to wear my green shirt today but it’s dirty. What can I do?”). When the problem is something small that does not directly impact your child, it may be easier for your child to come up with alternative ways to deal with the situation. Practicing this is also helping to develop problem-solving skills: if I can’t do what I want, what else can I do?
Next, try discussing larger, more immediate obstacles and brainstorm what could be done to deal with the stress (e.g., “What would you do if you don’t get the lead in the school play? Would you quit? Would you just stay angry forever? Or could you be resilient and decide to enjoy the role that you did get and try to do your best in that role?”). Children in elementary school through high school may benefit from this discussion. Try making it into a dinnertime game, so every family member can learn from each other on how they would bounce back.
Teach the power of positive self-talk.
Sometimes, children and teenagers say that they can’t do something, and they give up. Help them to substitute the word can’t with the phrase I can try, as that opens the door to possibilities. Rather than insulting themselves (e.g., “I stink at ice skating”) they can be more complimentary to themselves by using positive self-talk (e.g., “I’m so glad I tried, and I actually stood on my skates without falling a lot. That’s good for my first try at ice skating!”).
Don’t emphasize perfection.
Point out that perfection isn’t the goal. Trying hard is a good goal! When children can feel pride in putting in effort, or improving their skills, rather than needing to be perfect, they may feel less stress and be more willing to try new experiences in which they probably won’t be perfect but might have fun!
Keep it in perspective.
Help your child avoid catastrophizing, or making a mountain out of a molehill. For instance, if your child usually gets good grades in science but declares, “I stink at science because I don’t understand the homework,” you may want to first acknowledge the feelings. Feelings are never wrong. Tell your child you understand why they feel discouraged. Then offer alternative conclusions and positive self-talk. For instance, you can say, “I hear that you feel upset about not understanding the science homework tonight. Do you sometimes understand the science homework?” This can help your child to avoid catastrophizing and focus more on the particular homework assignment rather than science in general.
Finally, focus on solutions (e.g., “What can we do now?”). For some children, you may need to offer choices and let your child select one. Other children, when calm, may be able to find the solution independently.
Model strong responses.
Model dealing with frustration and disappointments, so your child sees that it’s possible to bounce back. Pick situations that were challenging for you, and discuss how you coped with the problem.
Teach calming strategies.
Some children have meltdowns or tantrums when faced with obstacles. Even some teenagers have them. It’s important to pick times when your child is calm to teach ways to self-soothe. You can create an enjoyable bedtime routine with your elementary school-aged child where calming is the focus. Try slow breathing: have your child breathe in as if smelling some great cooking smells and out as if trying to move a light feather slowly. Another strategy you can try is muscle relaxation. Have your child relax his or her muscles, moving from one muscle group to another, starting with the forehead and moving all the way to the toes.
You can also use visualization. Ask your child to picture scenes that he or she finds relaxing, such as being at a beach flying a kite. These calming bedtime strategies can be helpful when coping with stress as well. Ask your child to make a list of some of these calming strategies and remind him or her to use them when facing minor stresses. If your child gets good at using these strategies when facing small obstacles, move on to using them with larger ones.
Emphasize that it’s okay to ask for help.
When facing stressful times, children may feel they need to handle them independently. Remind your children that everyone sometimes needs help. You may need a plumber to fix a pipe in your home or a pilot to fly a plane and you don’t get upset with yourself if you don’t have these skills. Having the skills to know when to get help is important!
By teaching resiliency skills, you are teaching your child some important coping skills for life. Think about how you deal with adversity and share these strategies with your children. And most of all, when facing a serious life event such as divorce, illness, or death, remind your child that he or she, and you, probably won’t bounce back immediately and that’s okay. Facing such difficulties together, though, can let your children know that they can get through these tough times and can lean on you along the way.
Of course, if your child continues to struggle with anxiety that is impacting daily life, reaching out to a child psychologist may be an important next step. The above tools can serve as a foundation, but a psychologist can help you and your child get to the root of negative self-talk and help them develop more resilience. There are a number of resources for finding a licensed psychologist, including the APA’s Psychologist Locator.
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