6 Tips for Building Resilience in Kids

1. Be present in your kid’s life. How?

  • Show your love. When your kid gets home from school or you get home from work, put down your phone or whatever you’re doing and let them see the joy their presence brings. We need to know we matter to each other.
  • Take an interest in them. Take an interest in their interests, ideas, experiences, and concerns. I’ve learned more about hockey from my sons because they are bigger fans than me of the game. I’ve learned more about marine biology from my son than any book can teach me. My daughter’s passion for justice is contagious. I’m just glad I took the time to listen to them.
  • Show them you care. Hardships are a great time to demonstrate your unconditional love. Sit with them. Say that you can see that it hurts. Help them think through ways they can achieve a different outcome next time. Tell them a story about when you had a setback. Don’t try to take matters into your own hands but reassure them that you love them.

2. Also, back off. If we’re right there with them as they do everything, we’re undermining their confidence by indirectly sending the message, “I don’t think you can do this without me.”

  • Let them make choices and decide how to do things such as what to wear (as long as it’s appropriate!). Don’t micromanage them. It’s only through actual experience that kids develop skills and learn to trust their judgments.
  • Let them take risks and make mistakes. Unless your kid’s health or safety is truly at stake, risks taken and mistakes made when they’ve done something that was initially scary or hard will provide a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

3. Help them grow from experience. You’re not meant to do nothing for them; you’re just not meant to do everything.

  • After the experience, decision, or choice has been made, engage in a questioning dialogue to unpack what your kid learned from the experience. You can offer advice but you must not do it for them.
  • Continue to set the bar higher. As your child demonstrates trustworthiness and good judgment, you can give her more responsibility, opportunity, challenge, and freedom. This builds competence, which builds confidence, both of which build resilience.
  • Combat perfectionism. I’m not always good at this with my children who display perfectionist tendencies. Saying, “Just do your best,” isn’t helpful because to them that means doing excellent because that’s their best. What I’m now saying is something more like “do the best you can in that moment” or “try to give your best effort.” These phrases acknowledge that in any moment a number of factors could weight against our ability to do our actual best and it’s the effort that matters.

4. Build their character. Too often parents focus on academic and athletic outcomes instead of on who they are as human beings. We subconsciously teach that a human’s worth is based on on their GPA or ACT scores when it’s really more about our character, our degree of kindness, generosity, and willingness to work hard, among other things.

  • Notice them being good. I’m not talking about “Wow! You’re amazing!” but more like “It was very kind of you to help that woman.” All you need to convey is: I saw you. I noticed. When you do things like that it makes me proud.
  • Help them develop perspective. Getting them to serve others gives them awareness that there are others who are worse off than they are. That allows your kids to recognize what they’re grateful for.

5. Give specific, authentic feedback. Don’t overpraise or fail to critique or discipline.

  • How to praise. Offer praise that is specific to the task. “I like how you used all kinds of colors in that picture.” “Your essay made such detailed references. You clearly understood the topic.” Specific praise builds confidence because it shows we’ve paused for a moment to pay attention to the details.
  • How to criticize. We want our kids to learn and grow, to better themselves, and to develop. The only way they can do that is by having a realistic assessment of their current performance. As with praise, make sure to target the actions or efforts, not the person. “You left your toys outside and now they may be ruined because their wet. Please bring them in and dry them off now before it gets worse,” is much more effective at correcting behavior than saying, “Why don’t you listen to me? I told you not to do that. Now your toys are ruined.” And if we sweep in to bring the toys in and dry them off, we’ve taught them nothing. We want to criticize the action (which can be corrected) as opposed to saying or implying that our kid is a bad person (which can’t be changed).

6. Model it. One of the best ways to normalize struggle and build resilience is to let our kids know when we have, or have had, a setback and that it got us down for a bit. Let them hear you say that you did some things wrong, or could have done differently, and you’ve learned for the next time. Let them hear you reflect, and see you smile and move on.

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