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How to Raise a Resilient Kid But Not a Stubborn Loner

It's about standing back and letting them fail, yes. But there's far more to it than that.

Babies don’t accomplish much. Until they develop motor skills, tiny humans drop, smash, cry, and get fed. That’s about it. But as babies grow, the tasks they assign themselves and the directives they receive from their parents become more complicated. They fail. They protest. They overreact. It is up to parents to teach their kids how to bounce back from setbacks. Teaching kids resilience is critical to the long-term wellbeing of children — but it must be done with emotional support and responsive parenting, otherwise, their kids might be wracked with debilitating anxiety or struggle to succeed.

“You want children to be able to handle setbacks, and hardship, and failure. So that someday, when they move out of the house, they can handle a problem at work, issues with a roommate at college, failing a test,” says social worker Amy Morin, author of the book 10 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do. “You want them to be able to take those struggles, and those experiences, and learn and grow from them and bounce back and become better.”

Why Resilience Matters
Resilience, learned through explicit lessons and examples, helps kids how to handle stress, cope with rejection, and compartmentalize setbacks as mere bumps in the road. Resilient people tie their sense of self to their hard work, not their success or failure. These are tools that kids need to take with them in life to be the type of adult who can survive and thrive. Fortunately, children come with some resilience baked in.

“Little kids know how to do this inherently,” says Morin. “They fall down and get back up.”

How to Teach Resilience
“Parents can start modeling behavior during the toddler and preschool years,” says Morin. They can do that by reinforcing that by allowing their kid to struggle, creating challenges, and refusing to resolve every problem. The key to managing failure isn’t avoiding it, but talking through it. With honesty and openness parents can abolish the victim mentality.

Supporting struggling children is important, but the best way parents can teach resilience is by modeling it. Acting cool-headed in the face of stress and acknowledging mistakes provides children with a rubric for failure. Failing, they learn, is not the end of the world. It’s just part of being alive. Here are the specific suggestions that Morin gives parents looking to teach by doing….

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  • Don’t Intervene All The Time
    “When your child is struggling — if, say, his blocks keep tipping over and he’s getting angry, don’t swoop in and do it for them,” says Morin. In other words, practice restraint. It’s easy to step in and help soothe your kid. But letting them struggle helps them learn that they can solve their own problems.
  • Own Up To Your Mistakes
    Parents, per Morin, should actively apologize to their children when they make mistakes, like if they snap at them, or are late to pick them up. “Pointing out what you did wrong — if you didn’t handle your anger very well, or said something that wasn’t very nice — explain what happened, without making an excuse. And then you explain how you will learn from the problem and fix it,” suggests Morin. This, she says, teaches kids that making a mistake is fine, as long as you apologize and learn from them.
  • Examine Their Feelings
    You want to acknowledge a child’s feelings and tell them that their feelings matter,” says Morin. “That makes a big difference in whether they perceive if their feelings are okay, that it’s okay to be scared and still do something anyway.” Letting your kid know that their feelings are legitimate — but that they don’t have to inform their behavior at all times, like, say, when a playground scuffle breaks out — is essential.
  • Audit Your Behavior
    Kids are always watching. Per Morin, it’s essential for parents to think about how they act in moments of daily stress and try to do better. “When you’re dealing with an annoying situation, like the long line at the grocery store, and you’re tired, and you’re hungry, how do you handle it? Are you complaining? Are you staring at your phone? Your kids are watching how you cope with your emotions,” says Morin. In other words: by being a resilient adult, you teach your kids how to react to moments of stress. Leading by example and interrogating your actions are effective tools.

What Does Teaching Resilience Look Like in Practice?
Imagine your kid hit another kid on the playground. If you’re there to witness it, rather than resulting to anger and frustration, talk to your child, sternly, about empathy. Focus on that. Say: How do you think that felt for your friend? Would you like it if someone hit you? How about you apologize — and make up a plan so you don’t make that mistake again?

Morin stresses that turning difficult moments into teachable ones, rather than swooping in and smoothing over the issue with the other parent teaches kids that they have to be accountable for their actions, and the way their actions make other people feel.

When Teaching Resiliency Becomes Teaching Loneliness
There are a lot of misconceptions about what it means to be a resilient kid,” says Morin. “On the far end of the spectrum of parenting resilient kids are uninvolved parents. Those parents say their kids will learn through their experiences, but then they don’t give them enough guidance.”

Kids with uninvolved parents tend to struggle with emotional attachment issues, lash out during their adolescent years, experience anxiety, and can even later develop substance abuse issues. Teaching resiliency is about acknowledging that kids need emotional support as they grow, Morin says. Parents can’t just back off and hope their kids figure out how to get dressed and ready for school all by themselves by the first grade. It takes a lot of guidance. “Parenting isn’t an exact science,” says Morin. “It’s more of an art.”