Most parents naturally want to raise resilient kids. After all, life is filled with pitfalls, setbacks, and disappointments. Uncertainty is our new normal. We are constantly bombarded by news of economic distress, mass shootings, and political upheaval, and all of this causes stress (and sometimes even grief) to build in our kids.
As parents, we desperately want our kids to be able to bounce back from all of this. Resilience is what allows them to withstand such difficult life events and go on to thrive. It is a protective buffer that helps kids realize they can endure despite adversity. Unfortunately, says Dr. Michele Borba, too many of us focus our parenting on goals that don’t build this vital strength.
“Many parents push kids to be overachievers with super high GPAs,” says Dr. Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. “Meanwhile, resilience is falling by the wayside and kids are really struggling. Straight A report cards or even high IQs don’t mean that much when kids are stressed, anxious, depressed, and otherwise fragile.”
Help Kids Build Resilience
It’s not that we shouldn’t want our kids to succeed academically, says Dr. Borba, it’s that this should not be our singular focus. We also need to help our kids build other strengths outside of academic success. They would be better off long term if we focused our parenting on the strengths that help kids build resilience, and ultimately, thrive throughout life.
So, if studying hard and excelling at extracurriculars doesn’t build resilience, what does? To answer that question Dr. Borba cites the work of psychologist Emmy Werner, who over 50 years ago began a four-decade investigation of hundreds of children living on the Hawaiian island of Kauai.
Werner hoped to examine the impact of stressful life events on children’s development from birth to age forty. Nearly a third of them were born into poverty or faced problems like family discord, family mental illness, or family histories of substance abuse.
Two thirds of this group developed serious problems like behavior issues, substance abuse, and mental health problems. Yet Werner found that one out of three of the children in this high-risk group defied the odds and grew into “competent, confident, and caring” adults and thrived in school and life despite adversity.
Werner discovered that despite enormously different types of trauma many resilient kids shared two unmistakable strengths: Strong bonds with at least one supportive adult and a set of learned strengths that served as protective factors in their childhoods to help them meet the world on their own terms.
The fact that a third of the group overcame tough circumstances and went on to thrive tells us creating perfect conditions for kids to succeed is not the answer, asserts Dr. Borba. Working to help them develop the right character strengths is more important. The good news is that ordinary interactions, like conversations and activities that unfold organically, can foster these strengths and have an extraordinary impact on a child’s ability to rebound.
Common Myths About Resilience
In her book Dr. Borba builds on Werner’s research as well as other longitudinal studies on resilience. She explains how to instill in kids the character strengths that build resilience and make it more likely they’ll become Thrivers. But before you can set about building resilient kids you first need to understand some of the common myths about resilience.
Resilience is NOT…
…A gene. It’s not locked into our DNA and something we are either born with or without. It is teachable!
…Something you can learn in a single program or course. It’s an ongoing process that children should carry into adulthood.
…Taught in a worksheet or lecture. Resilience comes from experience that is learned and practiced in real life.
…Something that you miss out on and then lose forever. There’s no time limit on when a child (or an adult for that matter) can start learning resilience. It’s never too late to start practicing resilience-building skills.
…A single strength. It’s a series of skills and strengths. And when parents focus on more than one of these strengths, it creates a Multiplier Effect and boosts achievement odds. Combined these skills become superpowers.
…something that only “at-risk” kids need to develop. ALL children—residing in all zip codes—need resilience in our increasingly uncertain world.
…“soft and fluffy.” Resilience is a crucial ingredient for mental health, well-being, and performance in and out of the classroom. It’s what employers look for and businesses demand.
…something that can only be taught by a pricey tutor, a flashy new app, or a Ph.D. holder. Anyone can help kids become thrivers. It just requires caring, committed adults who have an updated, science-backed parenting playbook.
…based on some silver bullet or magical secret. Instead, resilience is built through developing certain character strengths in your kids.
…time-consuming to develop. The best way for parents to help children develop resilience is to choose one of the character strengths Borba identifies and to emphasize it, talk about it, model it, and practice it every day for 21 days until your child lives it.
Borba says there are seven essential character strengths that both increase resilience and empower kids to go on to become Thrivers. And each is teachable.
Seven Essential Character Strengths
- Self Confidence: Establishing a healthy identity and using personal strengths to find purpose and meaning.
- Empathy: Understanding and sharing another’s feelings and acting compassionately.
- Self-Control: Managing stress, delaying gratification, and strengthening focus.
- Integrity: Valuing and adhering to a strong moral code and ethical thinking.
- Curiosity: Having open-mindedness and a willingness to try new ideas, take risks, and innovate.
- Perseverance: Exhibiting fortitude, tenacity, and resolve to endure so as to bounce back.
- Optimism: Learning self-advocacy and keeping unrealistic pessimism in check to reduce despondence and encourage hope.
“Each of the seven character strengths is like a superpower that helps safeguard kids against the depression and anxiety that threatens to derail them,” notes Borba. “Even better, when these superpowers are combined, they create a Multiplier Effect that makes kids more adept at overcoming obstacles and successfully navigating life in general.”
Michele Borba, EdD
Top image by Anastasia Shuraeva on Pexels
Second image by Alicia Mary Smith on Unsplash
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