We all have cloudy days when challenges roll in, but some people seem to move through them more easily than others. People who adapt well to stress, recover quickly from challenges, and are even strengthened by difficult circumstances are called resilient.

Although some people seem to be more naturally resilient than others, the ability to bounce back—and even forward—can be learned, just like any other skill. Here are some strategies to get you started.

Listen to thoughts

Our thoughts, and how we look at things, can have a huge impact on how we feel and behave, and some thoughts are more helpful than others. It’s not a matter of “bad” versus “good” thoughts. It’s a matter of thoughts that get us stuck “feeling down” versus thoughts that keep us “looking up” and feeling hopeful. “Looking up” thinking is still realistic, but it tends to be more balanced than “feeling down” thinking. Here are some examples:

  • I’m stupid.
  • No one gets things right every time.
  • No one likes me.
  • Maybe Jack doesn’t want to play with me right now, but Charlotte played with me yesterday.
  • I can’t do it.
  • I won’t know unless I try.
  • It’s too hard.
  • I’ve done hard things before.
  • It will get easier if I keep trying.
  • I’m no good at…
  • If I practice, I’ll get better.
  • Maybe I’m not the fastest runner, but I’m good at drawing.

It can be tricky to think about our thinking, especially for children. Some thoughts happen so quickly and automatically, they slip right past us. So try to slow down and catch them.

Say helpful thoughts out loud.

With your help, your child can begin to develop a good “looking up” vocabulary. Explain that there are different ways to see things in life. When something challenging or disappointing happens, ask your child, “How can we look at this?” See if you can come up with a “looking up” thought together. Here are a few that tend to cover a wide range of situations:

  • Nobody is perfect, and I don’t need to be, either.
  • Even the best athletes/scientists/artists make mistakes sometimes.
  • I won’t know unless I try.
  • Last time it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
  • Even if it doesn’t turn out, I’ll know I tried my best.
  • I can get through this.
  • It will get easier if I keep trying/practicing/working.

Practice and repeat phrases like these until your child starts saying them independently. It will happen! And eventually your chid will start believing them, too.

Be realistic in your optimism.

Help your child develop a sense of hope about the future—a belief that many problems can and do get better with time. We aren’t saying you should try to convince your child that everything in life is sunshine and rainbows. Most children have already figured out that isn’t the case! But it’s important to keep a balanced perspective. Yes, sometimes bad things happen. But sometimes good things happen, too. When you hear your child expecting the worst, try to replace “it might go wrong” with “it might go right,” or “it might get worse” with “it might get better.”

Keep disappointments in perspective.

When disappointments happen, help your child keep them in perspective by listening for all-or-none thinking. Certain clues will tell you when this type of thinking is happening, like the words always, never, everybody, or nobody. If you hear, “I never get what I want!” remind your child of times when he or she got something wonderful. If you hear, “I always go last!” try to think of times when that wasn’t the case. If you hear, “Nobody likes me,” stop and question it. Can your child think of anyone who is a friend? You can also listen for the kind of all-or-none thinking that comes with perfectionism—thinking everything is no good enough unless it’s absolutely perfect. Life is rarely all-or-none. Taking a few minutes to examine these kinds of statements can help put your child’s thoughts and feelings into perspective.

Practice noticing the positives.

It’s easy to notice the negatives in life, especially when we’re feeling down. It’s a trick our brain plays on us; it searches for evidence that confirms what we’re thinking and ignores things that don’t. For example, when we feel gloomy we focus on what isn’t working, instead of what is. It takes practice to notice the positives. Try being a positive “detective” with your child, or try on special glasses that let you “see the good things.” At mealtimes, try naming one thing you are thankful for. At bedtime, write down the three best things that happened that day. Help your child appreciate simple joys, like a favourite dessert, playing outside, or a good book. Positives don’t have to be big to make a big impact.

Check your own reaction to challenges.

One of the best ways to help your child become more resilient is to model resilience yourself. When you manage your frustrations and disappointments, you are teaching your child how to manage his or hers, too. Try to demonstrate optimism and positive thinking. Be calm, flexible, and hopeful. Talk out loud when challenges happen—like being stuck in traffic or late for an appointment. Show acceptance of your skills and limits, and voice “looking up” versus “feeling down” thoughts. Watch your reaction to your child’s failures, too. How you react will guide how your child reacts.

Seek additional support.

If, despite your support, your child continues to struggle with sadness, frustration, and “feeling down” thoughts, consult a licensed psychologist or other mental health professional. Seeking help when you need it is a sign of resilience, too!

by Susan Sweet, PhD

This Article's Author

Susan D. Sweet, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist and mother of two. She has worked in hospital, school, and community-based settings and is passionate about children’s mental health and well-being. Susan hopes worries never overshadow anyone’s dreams.

Dr. Sweet co-authored with Brenda Miles, PhD Jacqueline and the Beanstalk: A Tale of Facing Giant Fears, Princess Penelopea Hates Peas: A Tale of Picky Eating and Avoiding Catastropeas, King Calm: Mindful Gorilla in the City, Cinderstella: A Tale of Planets Not Princes, and Chicken or Egg: Who Comes First?
Brenda Milesby Brenda Miles, PhD

This Article's Author

Brenda S. Miles, PhD, is a pediatric neuropsychologist who has worked in hospital, rehabilitation, and school settings.

She is an author and co-author of several books for children, including The Moment You Were Born: A Story for You and Your Premature Baby, Stickley Sticks to It!: A Frog’s Guide to Getting Things Done, Chicken or Egg: Who Comes First? and Princess Penelopea Hates Peas: A Tale of Picky Eating and Avoiding Catastropeas, all published by Magination Press.

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